Stats & Info: Next Level

4-Point Play: Bulls at Suns

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30

Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsNikola Mirotic and the Bulls will look to rebound tonight against the Suns (10:30 ET, ESPN).

The 4-Point Play looks at the four analytics-based storylines that will make you smarter when watching Friday’s game between the Chicago Bulls (12th in BPI) and the Phoenix Suns (14th in BPI). Our BPI gives the Suns a 63 percent chance of winning.

1. Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic is in the running for Rookie of the Year. He is scoring at the same rate as Andrew Wiggins (16 pts per 36 minutes) but is doing so more efficiently (57 percent True Shooting Percentage vs 50 percent for Wiggins), and is also passing and rebounding at higher rates.

2. The Bulls have the 12th ranked defense in the league, largely because their defensive rebounding has fallen off from 11th in the league last year (75.4 DREB%) to 20th (74 DREB%) in the league this year. When they are rebounding at last year's rate or better, they give up only 100 points per 100 possessions, but when they are below that, they allow 103 points per 100 possessions.

3. The Suns are the second fastest team in the league, averaging 99 possessions per 48 minutes (Warriors are the fastest at 101), but they can get overheated. In games where the Suns average over 100 possessions per 48 minutes, they score 104 points per 100 possessions, but in games where they are more controlled and play slower than that, they are a more efficient offense, scoring 110 points per 100 possessions.

4. Gerald Green leads all Suns’ players with more than 500 minutes by taking almost 10 threes per 36 minutes. When he is shooting at least that frequently from beyond the arc, the Suns score 109 points per 100 possessions, compared to only 104 points per 100 possessions when Green shoots below that rate.

BPI viewer’s guide to weekend action

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30

Getty ImagesVirginia tries to remain perfect against Duke in this weekend's top matchup.
This weekend’s slate is highlighted by two double-ranked ACC matchups and a Missouri Valley Conference game with conference title implications.

Using ESPN's Basketball Power Index below are the five “can’t miss” games of the weekend.

Duke Blue Devils (8th in BPI) at Virginia Cavaliers (2nd in BPI)
Saturday, 7 PM ET on ESPN
BPI Projection: Virginia, 86 percent likely to win
Matchup Quality: 90.3

Can Duke knock off Virginia? BPI sees this game as a larger mismatch than most, which is more a statement about Virginia's strength than an indictment of Duke.

Playing at the second-slowest pace in the country, Virginia may not be considered the most exciting team in Division I, but it is one of the most efficient. The Cavaliers rank second in net efficiency behind Kentucky and are holding opponents to a stifling 83.5 points per 100 possessions, which is on pace for the third-best rate in the last four seasons. They also rank 13th in offensive efficiency, making them one of two teams to rank in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Utah is the other).

Virginia has the highest BPI in the country in conference games, but we will learn a lot about the Cavaliers in their next three ACC tilts (vs Duke, at UNC, vs Louisville). According to BPI’s projections, Virginia has a 45 percent chance to come out of that stretch unscathed and a 20 percent chance to finish the regular season undefeated.

North Carolina Tar Heels (6th in BPI) at Louisville Cardinals (10th in BPI)
Saturday, 4 PM ET on ESPN
BPI Projection: Louisville, 60 percent likely to win
Matchup Quality: 87.2

As the only team in the BPI top 10 with four or more losses, North Carolina has been BPI’s outlier this season. BPI accounts for the fact that the Tar Heels have played the eighth-hardest schedule and have five wins against top-50 opponents. Louisville, in comparison, has lost its last three games against top-50 foes, including a 72-71 loss at UNC in early January.

One thing to watch Saturday is if Louisville can contain North Carolina’s big men on the offensive end. UNC averages the most points in the paint per game (38.8) among major conference teams and outscored the Cardinals 40-26 in the paint in their first meeting.

Wichita State Shockers (13th in BPI) at Northern Iowa Panthers (17th in BPI)
Saturday, 4 PM ET on ESPN2
BPI Projection: Northern Iowa, 57 percent likely to win
Matchup Quality: 84.4

Wichita State and Northern Iowa each enter this game 19-2 and in the top 20 of BPI. No other team from the Missouri Valley Conference ranks in the top 60 of BPI. Both teams have been consistent throughout the season, and if not for two close losses, either could be undefeated.

BPI currently projects that Wichita State should be a 4-seed and Northern Iowa a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament at this point in the season. The Missouri Valley Conference has not had two top-7 seeds in the same year since the tournament expanded in 1985.

Alabama Crimson Tide (56th in BPI) at Kentucky Wildcats (1st in BPI)
Saturday, 7 PM ET on SEC Network
BPI Projection: Kentucky, 98 percent likely to win
Matchup Quality: 82.7

Kentucky leads the nation with a 94.9 BPI rating. Since the first year of BPI (2011-2012), no team has had a BPI rating that high at this point in the season. The Wildcats are allowing 77.6 points per 100 possessions, on pace for the best defensive efficiency in the last 15 seasons. They also lead the nation in net efficiency by a wide margin.

Meanwhile, Alabama (13-7) may be stronger than its record suggests. Four of Alabama’s seven losses have been by two points or fewer; only Cal State Bakersfield has more one- or two-point losses than the Tide.

If Kentucky can get past Alabama, it will be one step closer to an undefeated regular season – one that BPI projects they have a 48 percent chance to accomplish.

Wisconsin Badgers (5th in BPI) at Iowa Hawkeyes (47th in BPI)
Saturday, 12 PM ET on ESPN
BPI Projection: Wisconsin, 74 percent likely to win
Matchup Quality: 81.6

After Wisconsin’s 32-point rout of Iowa on January 20, the Hawkeyes are looking for revenge. First they must shore up their defense; the Badgers averaged 1.5 points per possession against Iowa, their most efficient game in the last four seasons, and turned the ball over once in 54 possessions.

The Badgers received a 99.5 Game BPI score against Iowa, making it the “best win” of the season for a Big Ten team. The path to repeating that performance will be difficult in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes are 10-2 this season.

Note: The games are ranked by Matchup Quality, a metric that ranks games on a 0-to-100 scale based on how good each team is and how close the game is expected to be.

4-Point Play: Mavericks at Heat

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Chandler Parsons and the Mavericks visit Chris Bosh and the Heat tonight (8 ET, ESPN).
The 4-Point Play looks at the four analytics-based storylines that will make you smarter when watching Friday’s game between the Dallas Mavericks (4th in BPI) and the Miami Heat (18th in BPI). Our BPI gives the Mavericks a 61 percent chance of winning.

1. The Mavericks have the top offense in the league, but a below average defense. The defense plays its best when actively creating turnovers. When Mavericks opponents are turning it over on more than 12 percent of their possessions, the Mavs give up 101 points per 100 possessions. Yet when opponents turn it over less than that, the Mavs give up 106 point per 100 possessions.

2. Chandler Parsons' average assist rate has dropped this season from 17 percent to 10 percent, but when he is above that 10 percent mark, the Mavericks average 113 points per 100 possessions. When Parsons falls below 10 percent, they average 109 points per 100 possessions.

3. Chris Bosh's game has changed and evolved over time, but while he teamed with LeBron, his skilled passing was not needed. In his last four seasons with the Raptors, Bosh had an average assist percentage of 12 percent. While playing with LeBron, his AST% fell to eight percent, but this season it has jumped right back up to 12 percent.

4. Miami has to keep Dallas off the foul line. When Miami allows opponents a Free Throw Attempt Rate above 0.29, then they give up 108 points per 100 possessions, but when they keep their opponents' FTAr below 0.29 then they give up 100 points per 100 possessions.

Irving dominates, but Cavs lack continuity

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
ESPN Stats & InformationKyrie Irving was one point shy of tying the Cavaliers' franchise scoring record.
Kyrie Irving scored a career-high 55 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 99-94.

Irving's 55 points are the most in Cavaliers franchise history by a player not named LeBron James, and just one point shy of matching James for the most by a Cavalier.

If you're a Cavaliers fan, it's been a while since you've seen a performance like that in Cleveland. In fact, it's the most points scored by a Cavalier at home in franchise history.

LeBron has eight 50-point games with the Cavaliers, but all of them have come on the road. The only previous 50-point game by a Cavalier at home was by Walt Wesley in 1971. The only visiting player to score more than Irving's 55 at Cleveland was Michael Jordan, who scored 69 points in 1990.

Irving made a franchise-record 11 3-pointers, breaking the record of 10 previously set by C.J. Miles last season. Irving joins Joe Dumars as the only players in NBA history with at least 10 3-pointers and 10 free throws in a game.

It was just the Cavaliers' second win in 10 games this season without James. Irving has stepped up in such games with 27.3 points per game, compared to 20.7 when James is in the lineup. Irving has eight more field goal attempts per game without James, but he has also been less efficient (lower field goal percentage and more turnovers per game).

Lack of continuity for Cavaliers
Another missed game by James continues a theme of inconsistency for the Cavaliers in terms of their lineup. Throughout the season, the Cavs have dealt with injured stars and trades.

Their 25-12 record with James (.676 win percentage) would be second in the East behind the Atlanta Hawks.

But even that doesn't represent the current Cavs team at full strength. Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert recently joined the team. In the eight games with Mozgov and Smith after James returned from injury, the Cavs were 7-1. Their offensive efficiency in those eight games (115.9 points per 100 possessions) would rank first in the league for the season.

In their past five games together, it's even better. Not only would their offensive efficiency in that span rank first in the league (116.0), but their defensive efficiency (97.4) would rank second.

It's just a matter of continuity -- whether or not the Cavaliers can stay healthy and continue the rhythm they developed in those eight games.

The Cavaliers most used lineup includes Anderson Varejao, who is out for the season. Their next-most used lineup -- Irving, LeBron, Kevin Love, Shawn Marion and Tristan Thompson -- has played just 110 minutes together this season. The New York Knicks are the only team whose most used lineup has played fewer minutes together.

Lakers might be better without Kobe

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant has a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Kobe Bryant might be done for the season after MRI results showed a tear of the rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Is it possible that the Lakers could improve as a team without Kobe? The numbers show that the Lakers have been a more efficient team this season when Kobe isn't on the floor, scoring four more points per 100 possessions and allowing 10 fewer points per 100 possessions without him.

The Lakers are 14 points per 100 possessions better with Kobe off the court this season than they are with Kobe on the court. Among all players with at least 1,000 minutes this season, only Kobe's teammate Jordan Hill has had a more negative effect on his team's production than Bryant himself.

Kobe ranks among the worst players in the league this season in a number of categories:
• 124th in field goal percentage (third-worst among qualified players)
• 103rd in 3-point percentage (fifth-worst)
• 74th in player efficiency rating
• 361st in win shares

Kobe's 0.1 win shares are the fewest of the 73 players to play at least 1,200 minutes this season. Win shares are an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes to his team based on his offense and defense.

Among the players with more win shares than Kobe this season are:
• Jonas Jerebko
• Alexis Ajinca
• Joel Freeland
• Jerome Jordan
• Dewayne Dedmon
• Charlie Villanueva
• Austin Rivers
• Damjan Rudez
• Furkan Aldemir

If Kobe misses the rest of the season, he will have the worst field goal percentage (37.3) in the last 50 seasons for a player who averaged at least 20 points per game. The current mark belongs to Allen Iverson, who shot 38.7 percent in 2003-04.

After the injury news dropped on Thursday, the All-Star Game starters were announced, and Kobe is among them. The numbers show that some very good Western Conference guards did not make the cut as starters. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson all rank in the top 25 in PER, while Kobe ranks 74th.

Top 10 bowl comebacks in last 10 seasons

January, 2, 2015
Jan 2
With two improbable comebacks this bowl season by Michigan State Spartans and Houston Cougars, we take a look at the most unlikely bowl comebacks in the last 10 seasons based on a team’s minimum win probability (lowest chance to win) throughout the game. Two of the top five most unlikely wins occurred in the last two days.

10. Oregon State def. Missouri (39-38) in the Sun Bowl
Dec. 29, 2006: min win prob = 2.7%

Oregon State converted a 4th-and-3 with 47 seconds remaining and then scored a 14-yard touchdown to pull within 1-point of Missouri. The Beavers were successful on a two-point conversion to take the lead with 22 seconds remaining and ended up winning the game, their fourth win by three points or fewer on the season.

9. Colorado State def. Washington State (48-45) in the New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 21, 2013: min win prob = 2.4%

In last year’s New Mexico Bowl, Colorado State scored 18 points in the final three minutes of the game, including a game-winning field goal as time expired. Washington State had two fumbles in those final three minutes to complete one of the worst collapses in a bowl game.

8. Louisiana-Lafayette def. San Diego State (32-30) in the New Orleans Bowl
Dec. 17, 2011: min win prob = 2.4%

San Diego State scored a go-ahead touchdown with 35 seconds remaining to take a one-point lead. When the game seemed all but over, the Ragin' Cajuns drove 49 yards and kicked a game-winning 50-yard field goal.

7. North Carolina def. Tennessee (30-27, 2OT) in the Music City Bowl
Dec. 30, 2010: min win prob = 1.8%

Highlighted by a controversial ending in regulation in which it appeared that time had run out, North Carolina was given another chance to kick a game-tying field goal. The Tar Heels went on to win the game in overtime.

6. Arizona def. Nevada (49-48) in the New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 15, 2012: min win prob = 0.8%

Arizona outscored Nevada 21-3 in the fourth quarter and scored twice in the final 46 seconds to win the New Mexico Bowl. It was the first of two straight improbable New Mexico Bowl victories (see No. 9 above).

5. Houston def. Pittsburgh (35-34) in the Armed Forces Bowl
Jan. 2, 2015: min win prob = 0.7%

Houston recovered two onside kicks and overcame the largest fourth-quarter deficit in a bowl game (25 points) to defeat Pittsburgh on Friday. At its lowest point, when trailing by 25 points early in the fourth quarter, Houston had a 0.7 percent chance to win.

4. Texas Tech def. Minnesota (44-41, OT) in the Insight Bowl
Dec. 29, 2006: min win prob = 0.5%

The Red Raiders trailed by 31 points early in the third quarter before scoring 31 unanswered points to send the game to overtime. Texas Tech won it there, marking the largest comeback in bowl history.

3. Michigan State def. Baylor (42-41) in the Cotton Bowl
Jan. 1, 2015: min win prob = 0.4%

Trailing by 20 entering the fourth quarter, Michigan State had a win probability as low as 0.4 percent before blocking a Baylor field goal with 1:05 remaining that would have put the Bears up by nine. The Spartans scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a game-winning touchdown with 17 seconds remaining, to complete their improbable comeback.

2. Boise State def. Oklahoma (43-42, OT) in the Fiesta Bowl
Jan. 1, 2007: min win prob = 0.1%

Trailing by seven points under a minute to play, Boise State completed a 50-yard hook-and-ladder play on 4th-and-18 to tie the game against Oklahoma. The Broncos won the game in overtime on the famed "Statue of Liberty" play.

1. Idaho def. Bowling Green (43-42) in the Humanitarian Bowl
Dec. 30, 2009: min win prob 0.1%

Trailing by seven points with 32 seconds remaining, Idaho drove the length of the field for a touchdown and converted a two-point conversion to take a 43-42 lead and win the game.

Numbers back up Rondo's comments on D

January, 2, 2015
Jan 2

Rajon Rondo
today commented on his lack of defense over the last few years with the Boston Celtics and how playing alongside Avery Bradley has covered up his defensive woes.

"I haven't played defense in a couple of years. I've been able to hide it a lot with Avery Bradley on the ball. He's helped me out, the young guy. But here they expect me to play defense. And in the West, if you don't play defense you'll get embarrassed every night at the point guard position."

The numbers back up Rondo's assertion. In each of the last four seasons, Rondo's defensive rating has been significantly better when Bradley is on the court with him compared to when Bradley is on the bench.

In total over the last four seasons, the Celtics defense is 5.1 points better per 100 possessions when Rondo and Bradley are on the court together than when Rondo is on the court without Bradley. player tracking data also shows that Rondo's individual defense is sub-par. Last season, opponents shot 10.7 percentage points better when Rondo was defending their shot compared to their season average. This season, the difference is 4.7 percentage points.

Rondo also commented on how the Dallas Mavericks defense has actually improved since he arrived.

"Obviously people are going to look at the stats and say, 'Since Rondo's came there, they're down seven or eight points or whatever defensively.' But we still have a lot of room to improve and I believe we'll still get better defensively."

Before Rondo got to Dallas, the Mavs ranked 20th in the league in defensive efficiency (105.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). Over their last six games, the Mavs are eighth in defensive efficiency, allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions -- not quite the "seven or eight points" that Rondo referenced but still 4.5 points better per 100 possessions.

In the six games since Rondo arrived, the Mavericks defense has actually been much better with Rondo on the court. They're allowing 21 fewer points per 100 possessions with Rondo than they are when he's on the bench.

With Rondo they're holding teams to 28 percent 3-point shooting, compared to 53 percent when he's on the bench. The Mavs defensive rebounding is also much better with Rondo on the court.

Based on these numbers, it appears that Rondo has already improved his defensive effort. He's gone from hurting the Celtics defensively to significantly helping the Mavericks defense.

Bengals-Colts AFC wild-card preview

January, 1, 2015
Jan 1

AP PhotoAndy Dalton and Andrew Luck square off in the AFC wild-card round on Sunday.
The Cincinnati Bengals will need to exorcise a lot of playoff demons to defeat the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s wild-card matchup.

The Bengals have lost their past six playoff games dating back to 1990, but that’s only the start of it.

Top stats to know
The Bengals’ six-game playoff losing streak is the third-longest active streak behind the Chiefs' (eight games) and Lions' (seven).

The Bengals are 0-6 all time in road playoff games. The Texans (0-2) are the only other team without a road playoff win.

Head coach Marvin Lewis is 0-5 in his playoff career. Only Jim Mora (0-6) has more losses without a win in the playoffs in NFL history. Lewis and Mora are also the only two coaches to lose their first five playoff games.

Quarterback Andy Dalton is 0-3 in his playoff career. Y.A. Tittle is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose his first four playoff starts.

The Bengals also have the second-worst record (1-5) in the history of the wild-card round (since 1978). Only the Lions (0-6) have been worse.

As for the Colts, they’ve won their past seven home games against the Bengals dating back to 1997, including a 27-0 shutout victory this season. Boomer Esiason and Jeff Blake played quarterback the last time the Bengals won in Indianapolis (defeating Colts QB Kelly Holcomb).

Matchups to watch
Dalton’s playoff struggles vs. Luck’s playoff struggles
As previously noted, Dalton is 0-3 in his playoff career, but his struggles go beyond wins and losses.

Dalton has a Total QBR of 17.5 in his postseason career, which is the worst by any quarterback since he entered the NFL in 2011. Dalton’s performance has actually gotten worse each postseason, as he posted a 25.1 Total QBR in his playoff debut and has bottomed out at a Total QBR of 14.2 in the 2013 postseason.

Andrew Luck is 1-2 in his playoff career but has trailed by at least 15 points in each game.

Luck has thrown eight interceptions in his first three playoff games. Only one quarterback in NFL history (Frank Filchock, 13 interceptions from 1940-46) threw more interceptions in his first three playoff games.

Bengals vs. third down
The Colts' defense was second-best in the NFL on third down this season, allowing opponents to convert 33.3 percent of the time. (The Bills were best at 33.2 percent.) In Week 7, the Bengals went just 1-of-13 on third down against the Colts.

The Bengals were shut out in that game and limited to 135 yards of offense and 20:17 in time of possession. All of those totals were the worst for the Bengals since they were shut out by the Jets in Week 17 of 2009.

The Bengals didn’t commit a turnover in Week 7 against the Colts but instead punted on 11 of their 14 drives, with 10 of those punts coming after three plays.

As a result, the Bengals didn’t run a play in Colts territory until 10:46 of the fourth quarter. On Sunday, if the Bengals can move the ball and get into the red zone, they could test a defense that allowed a touchdown on an NFL-high 66 percent of red zone drives this season.

Did you know?
The Bengals and Colts have met in the postseason once before, and it was the first game played between the two teams.

The Baltimore Colts, led by Johnny Unitas, defeated the Bengals 17-0 in the 1970 divisional round en route to winning Super Bowl V.

Cardinals-Panthers NFC wild-card preview

January, 1, 2015
Jan 1

AP Images/Ross D. FranklinCam Newton and the Panthers host the Cardinals in the NFC wild-card round Saturday on ESPN.
The Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals in the opening game of wild-card weekend, which airs Saturday at 4:20 ET on ESPN.

This is the second postseason meeting between the teams, with the Cardinals winning 33-13 in Carolina in the 2008 NFC divisional playoffs.

Top stats to know
Both the Panthers and Cardinals enter the playoffs under unlikely circumstances.

The Panthers are the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after having a seven-game winless streak during the regular season (0-6-1). However, they were one of four teams to go undefeated in December this season.

The Cardinals may have to start Ryan Lindley, who has one career win, at quarterback if Drew Stanton is unable to play. According to Elias, Lindley would be the seventh quarterback to start a playoff game with one or fewer regular-season wins. The last quarterback to win a playoff game under such circumstances was Gifford Nielsen of the 1979 Oilers.

This will be the sixth wild-card playoff game between teams with a four-game difference in the win column. The team with fewer wins has gone 4-1.

One way the Panthers could continue that trend is by exploiting the Cardinals' defensive strategy.

Matchups to watch
Cam Newton and Greg Olsen vs Cardinals blitz
Under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals have blitzed on the highest percentage of dropbacks (46 percent). The strategy works as the Cardinals have allowed the fifth-fewest points the past two seasons, but it does leave them vulnerable against tight ends.

The Cardinals have allowed 25 touchdowns to tight ends the past two seasons, most in the NFL, and 17 have come when blitzing.

Greg Olsen set career highs with 84 receptions and 1,008 yards this season, ranking third among all tight ends in receptions and second in yards.

Olsen caught all five of his targets from Cam Newton last season against the Cardinals, but Newton finished the game 10-of-20 with zero touchdowns, three interceptions and seven sacks against the blitz.

Cardinals' deep passing vs. Panthers' improved defense
The Cardinals attempted an NFL-high 158 passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield this season, and connecting on them has been key.

The Cardinals have completed 39 percent with eight touchdowns and one interception on such passes in wins, but have completed 32 percent with three touchdowns and four interceptions in losses.

The Panthers made changes to their secondary prior to Week 14, promoting rookies Tre Boston and Bene' Benwikere into key roles. Since then, the Panthers have intercepted a league-high five passes on throws 15 or more yards downfield.

Did you know?
Under the current playoff format (since 1990), every NFL team has played in at least one wild-card game. The Cardinals (3-0) and Panthers (2-0) are two of the three teams (Houston Texans, 2-0) that have not lost a wild-card game in that time.

Lions-Cowboys NFC wild-card preview

December, 31, 2014

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports
Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys face the Detroit Lions in the NFC wild-card round Sunday.
The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys meet in the postseason for the first time in 23 years Sunday. Here are the matchups to watch, top stats to know and a little-known fact that might be bad news for the Lions.

Matchup to watch No. 1
It all starts with the Cowboys’ dominant run game against a stout Lions rush defense, with first down being the key to victory.

The Cowboys did not make their first-down plans a secret this season. They ran the ball on 68 percent of their first-down plays (71 percent with DeMarco Murray on the field). That is 8 percentage points higher than that of the next closest team and 18 percentage points higher than the NFL average.

Dallas ranked first in yards per rush (4.9) and sixth in yards before contact per rush (3.0) on first down this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cowboys’ 1,573 yards rushing on first down is the highest total by a team in a single season since the 1981 Cowboys (1,633). Nine teams, including the Lions, rushed for fewer yards on all downs combined than the Cowboys did on first down alone in 2014.

On the other side of the ball will be a stingy Lions defense that allowed an NFL-low 3.3 yards per rush on first down. Only three teams have allowed fewer yards per rush on first down in a season in the last five years.

The decision by appeals officer Ted Cottrell to overturn Ndamukong Suh's one-game suspension could have a huge impact on first-down rushing in this game. The Lions allowed 2.95 yards per rush on first down with Suh on the field this season. They allowed 4.59 yards per rush on first down without him.

Overall the Lions allow 0.8 fewer yards per rush and pressure opposing quarterbacks significantly more often with Suh on the field (30 percent of dropbacks vs. 20 percent in 2014).

Matchup to watch No. 2
Sunday’s game features two of the best QB-WR duos in the NFL.

Since the beginning of Dez Bryant’s rookie season in 2010, no QB-WR duo has more touchdowns than Tony Romo and Bryant’s 53. The next closest pair is Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson with 47.

Johnson has a history of torching the Cowboys' secondary. In three career games against the Cowboys, Johnson has 26 more targets and 354 more receiving yards than Bryant had in the same games.

Much of that is buoyed by Johnson’s performance in the Lions’ thrilling win over the Cowboys in Week 8 of the 2013 season. Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown in that matchup, including six receptions for 134 yards during a fourth-quarter comeback. The performance was 7 yards shy of the NFL record for receiving yards in a single game (336 by Flipper Anderson in 1989).

Despite the huge difference in targets, Bryant has the edge over Johnson in touchdowns when these teams play. Bryant also led the NFL and set a Cowboys single-season franchise record with 16 receiving touchdowns this season.

Romo, the top quarterback in terms of total QBR in 2014, will need to be at his best targeting Bryant against the NFL’s No. 4 QBR defense.

Top stats to know
1. This is the third meeting between the Lions and Cowboys in the postseason. The home team won each of the previous two meetings. Detroit won in the 1991 divisional playoffs while Dallas won in the 1970 divisional playoffs.

2. The Lions have not won a playoff game since that 1991 divisional game against the Cowboys. They have lost seven straight playoff games, one shy of the longest postseason losing streak in NFL history.

3. Romo is 1-3 as a starter in the postseason. Should the Cowboys lose, Romo’s 1-4 record would be tied for the worst among the 73 quarterbacks to start at least five playoff games since the 1970 merger.

Did you know?
Including the playoffs, Stafford is 0-17 in his career in road games against teams that finished the season over .500. The most recent examples are a 10-point loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 17 and a 25-point loss to the New England Patriots in Week 12.

Ravens-Steelers AFC wild-card preview

December, 31, 2014

Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger and the Steelers face a familiar foe Saturday.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers will meet for the third time this season, after the teams split their first two meetings.

The Ravens and Steelers have split 32 regular-season meetings going back to the 1999 season. They have combined for four of the last five AFC North titles. Each team won on their home field this season by the same 20-point margin.

If it’s close late, both quarterbacks have shown the ability to thrive under the pressure of key moments this season. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco ranked second in the NFL in fourth-quarter total QBR (86.2). Ben Roethlisberger ranked third (83.3).

The Steelers do have one historical advantage. They are 3-0 in the playoffs against the Ravens.

Keys for a Ravens win
On offense the Ravens will want to establish Justin Forsett, who led all running backs with an average of 5.4 yards per attempt this season. He’ll probably look to go between the tackles, where he averaged 5.2 yards per rush, second best in the NFL. The Steelers' defense is reasonably equipped to handle that. It allowed 4.0 yards per carry between the tackles, 10th best in the NFL.

Flacco will look to frequently target the Smiths -- Steve and Torrey. Flacco completed a career-best 61 percent of passes that targeted wide receivers this season.

Flacco excelled with the deep ball during the Ravens' Super Bowl run two seasons ago, completing 48 percent of his passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield with four touchdown passes. But in the last two seasons, he’s completing only 26 percent of such throws.

Perhaps this is a day in which he can recapture some of his past magic. The Steelers allowed opponents to complete 54 percent of passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield, the highest percentage by any team in the last five seasons.

But how far the Ravens go will likely be determined by their defense. The Ravens allowed 88.3 yards rushing per game this season (fourth fewest in NFL) and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in their last 26 games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

The Ravens also had 49 sacks this season, tied for the second most in franchise history.

Red zone defense is typically Baltimore’s forte. The Ravens allowed opponents to convert only 43 percent of their red zone drives this season, the second-best percentage in the NFL, but allowed the Steelers to score touchdowns on each of their three red zone opportunities in their Week 9 loss.

One X factor for Baltimore would be punter Sam Koch, who could have a significant impact on Pittsburgh's scoring chances. Koch led the NFL in net yards above average (a stat that compares a punter's performance to the league average punt from each spot on the field). He ranked third in the NFL in yards and net yards per punt.

Keys for a Steelers win
The Steelers have their most potent offensive team. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that the Steelers are the first team since the 1999 Colts (and only the second team since the 1970 merger) to have the conference leader in passing yards (Roethlisberger), rushing yards (Le’Veon Bell) and receiving yards (Antonio Brown).

Bell’s health is a big question mark, due to a knee injury suffered in Week 17. He accounted for 78 percent of his team’s rushing yardage this season, the second-highest percentage in the NFL.

If Bell can’t play, the Steelers will rely on the newly signed Ben Tate, as well as Dri Archer and Josh Harris to carry the ball. Archer and Harris have combined for 56 rushing yards on 19 rushes this season, and Tate averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per rush.

Bell’s absence would be important for another reason. His presence helps in keeping the Steelers' defense off the field. Pittsburgh’s 32:25 average time of possession was highest in the NFL this season.

Brown had two nice games against the Ravens this season, netting 18 receptions on 28 targets for 234 yards. Roethlisberger will look for Brown on short and intermediate passes (Brown led the NFL in receptions on passes thrown less than 20 yards downfield) and will rely on him on third down (Brown caught an NFL-high 36 passes on 54 third-down targets) frequently.

Did you know?
The Steelers are 33-21 in their postseason history, tied with the Cowboys for the most playoff wins all time.

A look at the season through Total QBR

December, 31, 2014

Below are 10 need-to-know facts about the 2014 regular season from the perspective of ESPN’s Total QBR.

(1) Tony Romo finished the regular season with the highest Total QBR in the NFL. This is the first time since 2006 (the first year of Total QBR) that Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady did not lead the league in Total QBR.

(2) Aaron Rodgers finished 0.1 points behind Tony Romo for the top spot in Total QBR, marking the closest race for No. 1 since 2006.

(3) Experience matters in today’s NFL; Every player ranked in the top 10 in Total QBR has been in the league at least seven years. Conversely, four of the bottom five qualifying QBs in Total QBR are either in their first or second year in the league.

(4) Seven of the top eight players in Total QBR have won at least one Super Bowl. Tony Romo is the only player in the top eight without a Super Bowl ring, and Russell Wilson is the only player ranked outside of the top eight (he ranks 12th) that is a champion.

(5) The top eight players in Total QBR have combined for 60 postseason appearances (includes this season) and 68 playoff wins. The other 22 qualified players have 31 postseason appearances as starters and 20 playoff wins.

(6) Eli Manning had the largest increase in Total QBR (+34.4) from 2013 to 2014 among players with at least 200 action plays each of the last two seasons. Manning ranks seventh in Total QBR this season after ranking 27th last year. He set career highs in Total QBR, completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception differential in 2014.

(7) Josh McCown had the largest decline in Total QBR (-49.4) among that group of players. After throwing 13 touchdowns and one interception last year, McCown was one of two players with at least three more interceptions than touchdowns this season (Blake Bortles was the other).

(8) The average Total QBR this season was 56.0, the highest in a season since QBR was first calculated in 2006.

(9) The team with the higher Total QBR won 85.7% of its regular season games this season. That is higher than the comparable mark for teams with the advantage in total yardage, turnover differential and NFL passer rating.

(10) Looking ahead to the playoffs, defense wins championships. Since 2006, three teams that went on to win the Super Bowl had a quarterback ranked in the top 10 in regular season QBR. All but two of those Super Bowl Champions were ranked in the top 10 in opponent QBR, including five in the top 5. The Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks are the three playoff teams ranked in the top five in opponent QBR this year.

Wilson’s legs, decisions make him elite

December, 12, 2014
AP Photo/Michael PerezRussell Wilson has the Seattle Seahawks looking like Super Bowl contenders.
Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks are back to their dominant selves with three straight impressive wins against the Cardinals, 49ers and Eagles.

Although the defense has played a large part in the Seahawks’ recent run, Wilson’s return to form should not be overlooked. During the last three games, Wilson has played a bigger role in Seattle’s rushing game and has taken more time to find open receivers. Wilson’s ability to make plays with his legs and make the right decisions places him in a class of his own.

Wilson at his best when scrambling
Wilson leads the league again in scrambling this season, which is nothing new. Wilson led the league in scramble yards last season and was second to Robert Griffin III during his rookie season.

Although Wilson’s scrambling success might not be breaking news these days, his increased efficiency should be. Wilson has increased his yards-per-carry average on scrambles each season in the league.

Seahawks’ zone-read success starts with Wilson
Last season, Wilson and the Seahawks found their zone-read somewhat contained. Although Wilson still averaged a notable 4.6 yards per carry on his zone-read attempts, that average was down from 7.8 the year before.

Seattle ran 75 zone reads in the first seven games this season, with Wilson keeping 13 times. The Seahawks' success in Week 10 against the Giants, however, appears to have reignited the scheme. During the last five weeks, Wilson has kept the ball on 17 zone-read plays, averaging 8.7 yards per carry.

Wilson has rushed for five touchdowns on zone-read carries this season, more than in his previous two seasons combined and matching the total of every other quarterback in the league this season.

The king of extending the play
Wilson’s running ability makes him an unusual quarterback for opposing defenses to prepare against each week.

The Seahawks’ quarterback averages 2.9 seconds before his passes, the most in the league this season. Wilson has thrown 71 passes this season with at least four seconds before the throw. After Wilson, the next two quarterbacks on that list are Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck.

Simpler approach = improved passing?
Wilson is on pace for his most passing yards in a season, along with his best touchdown-to-interception ratio.

A change in philosophy could be the reason for Wilson’s improved passing numbers this season. Since his rookie year, Wilson’s average throw distance has declined each season, while the Seahawks’ yards after the catch have increased. The shift in focus has also dropped his interception rate each season.

No offense, no problem for Cardinals

December, 12, 2014
The Arizona Cardinals have won 11 games for the first time since 1975, tying a franchise record for most wins in a season. It’s their most wins since moving to Arizona.

With the win over the St. Louis Rams, the Cardinals all but clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2009. It becomes official as long as the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles don’t end their game in a tie this weekend.

The Cardinals have double-digit wins in consecutive seasons for the second time in franchise history (1974-76). Their 21 wins over the last two seasons ties their most in a two-year span in franchise history (1975-76).

No offense
The Cardinals and Rams both failed to score a touchdown. It’s the first NFL game without a touchdown by either team since Week 15 of the 2012 seasons when the Oakland Raiders won 15-0 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Cardinals are the first team this season to win a game without scoring a touchdown.

It's the first win for the Cardinals without scoring a touchdown since 2004 Week 17 against the Buccaneers.

The Rams are the first team since the 2011 Dolphins to not allow any touchdowns in three straight games. The Rams won their previous two games by a combined score of 76-0.

Lackluster QB play
Shaun Hill struggled to solve Arizona’s standard pass rush Thursday, completing 8-of-18 passes for 123 yards, two sacks taken and an interception.

The Cardinals’ 12 interceptions when sending standard pressure are the fifth-most in the NFL. The Cardinals sent a DB rusher on 14 of Hill’s 43 dropbacks Thursday, resulting in 4-of-14 passing for 14 yards. It is the highest percentage of dropbacks in which the Cardinals sent a DB rusher in a game this season.

Drew Stanton had just 109 passing yards before leaving in the third quarter with a knee injury. If Stanton can’t play next weekend, Ryan Lindley is likely to fill in for the Cardinals. That’s potentially bad news for the Cardinals. Lindley has the worst Total QBR (9.1) in the NFL over the last three seasons (minimum 200 action plays).

How far have the Knicks fallen?

December, 10, 2014
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsCarmelo Anthony and the Knicks have lost 9 straight games.
The New York Knicks lost to the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday, their ninth consecutive loss. Despite entering this season with the league's second-highest payroll at $89.5 Million, the Knicks are 4-19, including 2-18 over their last 20 games.

How bad have things gotten in New York? The Knicks have lost 10 straight road games, their first double-digit road losing streak since losing 12 straight on the road in 2005-06. They finished 23-59 that season.

After a disappointing 2013-14 season, the Knicks appear to have gotten worse. The entire team – including its best player – appears to have regressed in some way thus far.

Carmelo Anthony has struggled this season. Tuesday he scored 17 points, his seventh game with fewer than 20 points this season, matching the total number of sub-20 point games he posted in the entire 2012-13 season, when he won his only career scoring title.

Anthony has not been as effective in isolation this season. After leading the league with 6.6 isolation points per game last season, he’s down to 5.1 per game in isolation.

However, it’s not as if Anthony has had much help offensively. Anthony averages over 22 points per game, but no other Knicks player is averaging more than 13.5 per game this season. Two seasons ago, when the Knicks last made the playoffs, four players averaged more than 13.5 points per game.

Defense has been a problem for this Knicks team as well. New York ranks in the bottom five in defensive efficiency, a far cry from ranking 17th two seasons ago and fifth just three seasons ago.

Although it was not exactly the cause of Tuesday’s loss, the Knicks have been plagued by their inability to execute late in games. The Knicks have an NBA-worst minus-49 point differential in clutch time this season, defined as the last five minutes of the game when the score is within five points.

The Elias Sports Bureau confirms that the Knicks are 2-9 in games decided by five points or less. Of teams to play at least five such games, only the Thunder have a worse record (1-6).