Nick Marshall makes the right read

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
3:53
PM ET

AP Photo/Butch DillQB Nick Marshall is the key to Auburn's potent running game.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Auburn ranks in the top three in the FBS in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per rush.

The Tigers have had an FBS-high four players with at least 800 rushing yards during that time, including three players currently on their roster (Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant).

Quarterback Nick Marshall has been the key to Auburn’s rushing success. With him under center, the Tigers are averaging 6.2 yards per rush and scoring a rushing touchdown once every 15 carries. The FBS averages are 4.5 yards per rush and a touchdown every 20 carries.

It took head coach Gus Malzahn a few games to adjust to Marshall’s strengths.

The Tigers passed on at least 40 percent of their plays in two of their first four games last season, including their 14-point loss at LSU on Sept. 21.

Since that game, Auburn has passed on 28 percent of its plays and has not had a game above 36 percent. During that time, Marshall has had the highest Total QBR in the FBS.

Marshall and the zone read
What sets Marshall apart is his ability to implement Auburn’s zone read. The Tigers have run zone read on 41 percent of their rushing plays since the start of last season. On such plays, they are averaging 7.1 yards per rush and have a Power Five-high 28 rushing touchdowns.

When Marshall keeps the ball on the zone read, he is averaging 8.0 yards per rush and leads all active Power Five players since the start of last season with 948 rushing yards.

His ability to make the right read has also translated to success for his teammates. Running backs Cameron Artis-Payne (7.8) Corey Grant (8.5) and Tre Mason (5.4) all have averaged more than five yards per carry on zone-read plays with Marshall at quarterback.

Why K-State might be able to slow Auburn’s run game
Auburn’s run game is predicated on its ability to find space, both when running the zone read and in standard run plays.

The Tigers are averaging 210.5 rushing yards per game before first contact this season, which is on par with their numbers from last season.

To put that into perspective, since the start of last season 99 FBS teams do not average 212 total rushing yards per game.

However, in a small sample size, Kansas State has been among the nation’s best at limiting opponents’ yards before contact.

On designed runs, only Alabama (20.3) is allowing fewer yards before contact per game than the Wildcats (22.5) this season.

Kansas State has also been able to stop the zone read the past two seasons, allowing 3.7 yards per rush on such plays, which ranks second among Big 12 defenses behind TCU.

The number to watch on Thursday night is 200. Kansas State is 21-2 when it allows fewer than 200 rushing yards in the last three seasons and 0-5 when it does not.

Alabama offense more efficient with Sims

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
3:42
PM ET

Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims (left) and Jake Coker (right) are still competing to be named Alabama's starting QB.
Alabama is off to a 3-0 start for the eighth time in eight seasons under Nick Saban. The offense is a big reason. The Tide are averaging 42 points per game and rank seventh in offensive efficiency.

Blake Sims has started all three games for the Tide and has the sixth-best Total QBR (86.6) in the FBS, ahead of players such as Jameis Winston and Everett Golson.

Sims is one of 12 quarterbacks who are averaging more than 10 yards per attempt. Yet, he has not been officially named Alabama’s starting quarterback.

"Jake (Coker) needs to play and he needs to develop confidence. I think we're going to have to make a decision on a week-to-week basis on what gives us the best opportunity to win.” Saban said in his postgame news conference on Saturday. “Right now, Blake probably is a little more confident. If that remains that way, he's probably going to start the game.”

Sims should be confident as the offense has been more efficient with him at quarterback.

The Tide have scored a touchdown on 11-of-22 drives with Sims under center compared with 3-of-9 with Coker.

They have lost yards on six of Sims’ 151 snaps (four percent), the second-lowest percentage for any Power Five quarterback with at least 150 plays (behind Duke’s Anthony Boone, three percent).

Why has the offense been successful with Sims?

Accuracy
Sims has been extremely accurate. He has thrown 64 passes this season: 48 were caught, one was thrown away, three were dropped, four were broken up by the defense and eight were off-target.

His eight off-target passes are the fewest for any Power Five quarterback with at least 50 attempts and as many as Jake Coker has had in 33 fewer attempts.

Sims’ accuracy has allowed him to hit receivers in stride and let them run after the catch.

Look no further than his 22-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the first quarter against Southern Miss, in which he hits Cooper on a short crossing route over the middle and Cooper gains 20 yards after the catch for a touchdown.

Great on 3rd down
Sims has been excellent on third down, leading all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage (91.7 percent), conversion percentage (75 percent) and Total QBR (99.9). Amari Cooper has been his favorite target, catching six of Sims’ 11 third-down completions.

One reason for Sims’ success on third down is that he has been in manageable situations. The Tide’s average distance to go on third down has been 4.7 yards, shortest in the FBS. This has allowed Alabama to have the entire playbook available.

For instance, the Tide have run on almost half (49 percent) of their third-down plays, including six rushes by Sims, which have resulted in four first downs. Last season, Alabama passed on 65 percent of its third-down plays, which is on par with the FBS average (64 percent)

Where can Sims get better?
Sims has struggled throwing the ball downfield. He has completed 1-of-6 passes thrown 20 yards or longer, including his only interception of the season.

His completion occurred last week against Southern Miss on a 27-yard pass to Cooper in the third quarter with the Tide up 19 points. Coker, on the other hand, has the reputation of having a strong arm, but he has not fared much better on such passes, completing 2-of-7 attempts.

For now, Sims is expected to get the nod Saturday when Florida heads to Tuscaloosa. It will be a major step up in competition for Sims. The Gators rank fifth in the FBS in points per drive allowed (0.67) this season and lead all Power Five defenses with three interceptions on passes thrown 20 yards or longer. If Sims rises to the challenge, he just may end up being declared the full-time starter.

Top stats to know: Buccaneers at Falcons

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
2:34
PM ET

Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan is 5-1 in his career at home against the Buccaneers.
Week 3 of the NFL season begins tonight when the Buccaneers travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. Here are some numbers to know for the game.

Trending in the wrong direction
The Buccaneers are one of seven teams that are one loss from an 0-3 start to the season.

Under the current playoff format, only three of the 121 teams that started 0-3 have rallied to make the playoffs: the 1998 Bills, 1995 Lions and 1992 Chargers.

In fact, the Chargers are the only team under this format to start a season 0-4 and not only make it to the playoffs but win a playoff game.

This is the fifth time since winning the Super Bowl in 2002 that Tampa Bay has started a season 0-2. The Buccaneers lost at least four games before their first win in the previous four instances, including an 0-8 start last season.

Tampa Bay has started a season 0-3 12 times since the franchise entered the league in 1976. Only the Bengals (13) have more 0-3 starts over that time frame.

Tale of two receiving corps
Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans are the two leading wide receivers for the Buccaneers.

So far this season, Jackson is averaging 10.9 yards per reception (71st in the NFL). Jackson, who’s in his 10th year, has never averaged fewer than 15.2 yards per reception in a season.

Rookie Mike Evans has been targeted 12 times this season, but only one of those targets has been more than 6 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Evans led all AQ receivers last season at Texas A&M with 19 receptions 20-plus yards downfield.

On the other side, Atlanta’s leading receiver -- Julio Jones -- has caught at least six passes for at least 75 yards in each of his past seven games. The next longest active streak is Jordy Nelson, with three such games.

Matty ice
Matt Ryan has attempted 43.5 passes per game so far this season, tied for the second-highest rate in the NFL this season. Before this year, his career high for most pass attempts per game was 40.7, set last season.

But will all this passing turn into wins? In 12 career games against the Buccaneers, Ryan is 8-4 and has attempted 30 passes per game.

In the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome, Ryan is 5-1 against Tampa Bay while attempting only 23.5 passes per game (compared with 36.5 passes attempted per game in Tampa, where he’s 3-3).

Speaking of his home, Ryan is 37-10 in his career at home and 24-25 on the road.

Quick hitters
• Josh McCown has struggled early in games this season but has been good late. He has thrown three interceptions and been sacked four times in the first three quarters, but he has thrown both of his touchdown passes while avoiding being sacked in the fourth quarter.

• The Falcons are the only team in the NFL this season without a sack. The streak has spanned 96 dropbacks and 166 minutes and 49 seconds of game time.

• The Falcons have allowed 100-plus rush yards in 15 straight games, the longest active streak in the league (the Texans are next with six such games).

In their last previous meeting (Nov. 17, 2013), Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns.

From 0-2 to playoffs? Not without a fix

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
12:18
PM ET

Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints have a better chance of making playoffs at 0-3 than either the Chiefs or Colts at 1-2.
“Winless” is never a good adjective for a team, but being winless through Week 2 doesn’t ruin a season. Since 1990, 12 percent of teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs.

Week 3 is critical for an 0-2 team. Of the 288 teams to make the playoffs since the Wild Card was introduced in 1990, only three started 0-3 (the 1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions and 1998 Bills). No team has made the playoffs after starting 0-3 in the last 15 years.

Three playoff teams from last season are a surprising 0-2, putting a repeat postseason trip in early jeopardy. The Chiefs, Colts and Saints are all winless this year, and simulations from numberFire.com show trouble for all three even with a Week 3 win.

But one team in the trio is given a much stronger chance to advance. Here’s the impact Week 3 has on playoff hopes, and one thing each team needs to do to get back to the playoffs.

Chiefs (make playoffs in 12.6 percent of simulations at 0-2)
Make playoffs at 1-2: 18.8 percent
Make playoffs at 0-3: 7.0 percent

What to do? Improve the pass coverage. A two-game sample that includes the Broncos will hurt any defensive measures, but Jake Locker went 22-of-33 for 266 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 1.

The Chiefs pass rush hasn’t had a chance to make an impact.

Kansas City has sacked and pressured quarterbacks on a higher percentage of dropbacks this year than last year, even though their opponents are getting rid of the ball at the second-fastest rate in the league.

Part of that is facing Peyton Manning, but Locker released the ball three-tenths of a second faster than what the Chiefs faced on average in 2013.

Colts (make playoffs in 14.4 percent of simulations at 0-2)
Make playoffs at 1-2: 17.0 percent
Make playoffs at 0-3: 8.4 percent

What to do? Reverse the turnover trend. The Colts have struggled with preventing and forcing turnovers this season, and Indianapolis’ minus three turnover margin is tied for the third worst in the league. The Colts’ defense forced 27 turnovers in 16 games last year, but has one this season.

Since the start of 2013, the Colts are 0-5 in games with a negative turnover margin, including both losses this year. Indianapolis is undefeated (13-0) when winning the turnover battle since drafting Andrew Luck in 2012. This season, Luck has thrown interceptions on 3.4 percent of passes, more than doubling his percentage from a year ago (1.6 percent).

Saints (make playoffs in 33.3 percent of simulations at 0-2)
Make playoffs at 1-2: 37.8 percent
Make playoffs at 0-3: 22.3 percent

What to do? Give the offense some help. The projections give New Orleans the best chance of the three to reach the playoffs.

In fact, numberFire.com has the Saints more likely to reach the playoffs at 0-3 than either the Chiefs or the Colts at 1-2.

The offense has been clicking, but there are problems everywhere else.

The Saints defense and special teams have combined for a league-worst -34.0 efficiency. Only the Jaguars (75) have allowed more points than the Saints (63) this season.

How did the Royals beat Chris Sale?

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
12:26
AM ET
Chicago White Sox starter Chris Sale had allowed a total of seven runs in his previous six starts against the Kansas City Royals
before Wednesday.

But the Royals managed to get to the Cy Young candidate in a big way for a big win, slicing the Detroit Tigers lead to a half game in the AL Central.

How did they manage to do that?

Aoki again
Left-handed hitters were 17-for-115 against Sale this season, but that was of little consequence to red-hot Norichika Aoki.
Norichika Aoki
Aoki
Aoki continued to torment the White Sox, netting three more hits against them, all against Sale. That raised his batting average against left-handed pitching this season to .376. That’s the highest for any left-handed hitter against left-handed pitchers this season (23 points better than Ben Revere and 49 points better than Brandon Crawford).

The Elias Sports Bureau noted that Aoki set the Royals' record for most hits in a three-game series with 11, one better than the previous mark shared by Royals legends George Brett and Willie Wilson.

What was surprising about this game was that Sale didn’t go after Aoki with his slider. Only one of the eight pitches Aoki saw from him was one. Aoki has seen 70 sliders from lefties this season. They’ve resulted in him making 16 outs without recording a hit.

Cain can do
Lorenzo Cain has 17 career home runs. The only pitcher against whom he has more than one is Sale, against whom he hit a three-run shot on Wednesday night.

Cain had three more hits on Wednesday, giving him 12 in 32 at-bats (a .375 batting average) in his past eight games.

Ventura sharp again
Rookie starter Yordano Ventura was sharp again, allowing only one run and three hits in seven innings.

This was Ventura’s 10th straight quality start (six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer), the longest streak by a Royals starter since Kevin Appier had an 11-game streak in 1993.

Ventura averaged 98 mph on the 74 fastballs he threw on Wednesday, the third time this season (and second this month) that his heater has averaged 98 in a game.

That set up his curveball (which averaged 83 mph) and changeup (which averaged 88) as his putaway pitch, against which White Sox hitters were 0-for-8 with six strikeouts (and one walk).

The six offspeed strikeouts tied for his second-most in a game this season, trailing only the nine he had versus the San Diego Padres on May 5.

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MLB

Top stats to know: Mariners at Angels

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
5:39
PM ET
The Mariners and Angels will square off in Game 3 of a four-game series tonight at Angel Stadium of Anaheim (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN).

After a blowout 13-2 victory Tuesday, Seattle enters the night one game behind the Tigers for the last AL wild-card spot while sporting an American League-best 43-29 record on the road.

Conversely, the Angels are an MLB-best 49-25 at home, and after already clinching a playoff spot Monday, they can officially lock up the AL West with a win.

M's masterful on the mound
The Mariners enter this series with a 3.02 team ERA, best in MLB. The last team to finish a season with a team ERA 3.00 or lower was the 1989 Dodgers (2.95). Barring a pitching collapse in the team’s last 12 games, the Mariners will finish with the lowest team ERA in team history.

Rookie under the radar
They have a good chance of maintaining that trend with rookie southpaw James Paxton taking the hill, who is 9-2 with a 1.73 earned run average in his 14 games to date. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that since 1913 (first season earned runs were tracked), only two other pitchers have won at least 10 of their first 15 career starts while recording an ERA below 2.00 -- Tiny Bonham for the Yankees in 1940-1941 and Cal Eldred for the Brewers in 1991-1992.

Paxton will look for continued success with his curveball, a pitch he throws 18 percent of the time, which opponents have hit just .163 off this season. This may come in handy considering the Angels are batting .220 all season against curveballs, compared with .279 off fastballs, which Paxton throws 67 percent of the time.

Halo history
With a win, Los Angeles would grab its ninth division title and sixth for Mike Scioscia. It's been a banner season, as the Angels' current winning percentage of .624 would be their highest in franchise history. The Halos are also poised to have one of their biggest positive turnarounds from one season to the next, already having won 16 more games than they did in 2013, which is good for the second-best swing in team history (excluding years following labor stoppages).

Trying to right the ship
Southpaw C.J. Wilson toes the rubber tonight featuring a 4.61 ERA, his highest since becoming a starting pitcher full-time in 2010. His highest line-drive and walk rates since 2010 have contributed to his struggles.

Quick Hitters
• Robinson Canó has 55 multihit games this season, second-most in the American League.

• Seattle’s OPS against lefties is .656, 22 points higher than it is against righties.

• Josh Hamilton is swinging at the first pitch at a lower rate than he had in any of the last five seasons, 39 percent of the time. He’s batting .346 on those pitches.

Ameer Abdullah sets pace for Cornhuskers

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
12:28
PM ET

AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah has run for 41 percent of Nebraska's rushing yards this season.
Ameer Abdullah might have already had his “Heisman Moment.” With Nebraska tied with McNeese State late in the fourth quarter in their Week 2 game, Abdullah took a three-yard pass, broke three tackles and ran 55 yards for a 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Not only did that reception give Nebraska the lead with 20 seconds remaining, but it also gave Abdullah more than 100 yards from scrimmage, something he has done in every game since the start the 2013 season.

Abdullah has a streak of 16 games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage, the longest active streak in the FBS and fourth-longest streak for a running back in the last 10 seasons.

Given Abdullah’s streak, it should not be surprising that he leads all FBS players with 2,423 yards from scrimmage since the start of last season.

During that time, he has had the second-most offensive touches (368) in the FBS and is averaging 6.6 yards per touch, the 12th-best average in the FBS (min. 200 plays).

What has made Abdullah successful?
Abdullah has been the catalyst for this offense.
Nebraska ranks eighth in the nation in rushing yards per game (324.3) this season and second in yards per rush (7.4).

He has been responsible for 43 percent of the team’s carries and 41 percent of the Cornhuskers' rushing yards.

Abdullah is one of the most versatile running backs in the nation.
He is the only Power Five running back with at least 900 rushing yards both inside and outside the tackles since the start of last season.

During that time, Abdullah has gained 1,135 rushing yards outside the tackles, fourth-most in the FBS.

Abdullah is productive and consistent.
Since the start of last season, Abdullah is averaging 130.4 rushing yards per game, seventh-most in the FBS.

He leads all FBS players with 13 100-yard rushing games.

Abdullah finds the correct running lane.
He has 83 rushes in which first contact was not made until 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, tied with Washington’s Bishop Sankey for the most by any Power Five player.

That said, this week could be a challenge for Abdullah with Miami (FL) coming to Lincoln. The Hurricanes have allowed 2.0 yards per carry this season, fourth-best in the FBS.

If Abdullah can have a big game against one of the best rushing defenses in the FBS on national TV, it could vault him up the Heisman Watch list.

Super Bowl rematch hinges on receivers

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
11:37
AM ET

Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesThe Seahawks shut down the Broncos ability to run after the catch in last year's Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos have a rare opportunity. Only five teams have had a chance to avenge a Super Bowl loss against the reigning champion the following season.

The Super Bowl winners hold the slight 3-2 advantage in the rematches, but Manning & Co. will look to create more space for the offense to shine this Sunday in Seattle.

Breaking Free (After the Catch)
During Denver’s historic regular season in 2013, the Broncos led the league with 2,583 yards after the catch.

But as the Broncos short-passing game went to work during Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks secondary shut down all running lanes after the catch.

Denver was limited to 3.6 yards after the catch on short throws (10 yards or fewer downfield), its lowest total of the season.

Seahawks Starvin’ for More Harvin
After Seattle gave a healthy Percy Harvin 11 touches on opening night (on which he averaged 9.1 yards per play), Harvin only saw three touches in Week 2, including his disputed 51-yard touchdown run.

In Super Bowl XLVIII, Harvin only needed four plays to terrorize the Broncos. His kick-return touchdown to open the second half stretched the score to 29-0. His other three touches in the half netted 50 yards.

Peyton Poise vs. Potential Pressure
Manning excels against the blitz. Since 2006, when ESPN began video tracking, only Aaron Rodgers has a higher Total QBR against the blitz than Manning (74.2).

The Seahawks, who are usually great at forcing pressure without the blitz, struggled to get to the quarterback in San Diego last week. Seattle pressured Philip Rivers on only 12 percent of his dropbacks, by far the Seahawks’ lowest pressure percentage since last season.

Since the start of 2013, no defense has pressured the quarterback more than the Seahawks (31 percent of opponents’ dropbacks).

Searching for a Running Game
Last February, neither team’s running backs found much success, as they combined for a measly 2.5 yards per rush in the Super Bowl (highlighted by 0.2 yards per rush for the recently-promoted Montee Ball).

Unfortunately for Ball, not much has changed this season as he's had little room to run. Among 48 qualified running backs, Ball’s 1.26 yards before contact per rush ranks 43rd this season.

The Seahawks stumbled upon similar rushing problems in San Diego. After Marshawn Lynch unleashed Beast Mode for 110 rushing yards and two scores in Week 1, the beast went into hibernation. He ran only six times in Week 2, despite a strong 6.0 yards per rush average.

Takeaways the Turning Point
Since the start of last season, the Seahawks lead the league in both takeaways (40) and turnover margin (+19). During that span, Seattle is 13-1 (including the playoffs) when winning the turnover battle.

Meanwhile, the Broncos are one of four teams yet to commit a turnover this season. Those teams are a combined 7-1 through two weeks.

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Seahawks dominated thanks to a plus-4 turnover margin as they intercepted Manning twice and recovered two fumbles.

Top stats to know: 2014 Nationals

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
12:47
AM ET
The Washington Nationals are NL East champions for the second time in three seasons. They clinched the division title with a win over the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night.


The Nationals have been the best team in the National League for much of the second half of the season. The high expectations from last season that went unfulfilled were met under first-year manager Matt Williams.

Story of the season
The Nationals have won with consistent starting pitching. Five starters have combined to make all but 10 starts for the team this season. Three of their top five starters have ERAs below 3.00.

The Nationals survived injuries to Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman thanks to a very deep lineup. They entered the day ranked second in the National League in runs scored. Four regulars have hit at least 15 home runs.

Most valuable player
Second-year infielder Anthony Rendon has developed into a star. He entered the day ranked sixth among NL position players in wins above replacement. He also leads the league in runs scored.

Rendon has been consistent throughout the season, but he has excelled in the latter part, hitting .300 with 11 home runs and 12 stolen bases in his past 81 games.

He has made significant improvements to his defensive work from a year ago as well. He ranks sixth among third basemen this season with nine defensive runs saved.

Circle these games
What were the best wins for the Nationals this season?

April 2: The Nationals rallied from multiple deficits against the Mets, battling back to tie on Denard Span’s two-out hit, right after Danny Espinosa worked an eight-pitch walk. Washington would score four runs in the 10th to win on Opening Day.

June 8: Jordan Zimmermann pitched the best game of the season for the Nationals, a two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout against the Padres, in which he retired the first 16 hitters he faced.

June 24: The longest game for the Nationals since they moved to Washington, D.C., was won on Ryan Zimmerman’s 16th-inning home run.

Aug. 16-21: The Nationals had an amazing 10-game winning streak in which five of six wins (two against the Pirates, three against the Diamondbacks) were via walk-off. Rendon had the last two, on back-to-back days against the same pitcher, Evan Marshall.

Sept. 3: An epic game between the Nationals and Dodgers ended with Washington winning in 14 innings. The Nationals rallied from 2-0 down in the ninth to go up 3-2, but the Dodgers tied the game in the bottom of the inning. Each team would score twice in the 12th before the Nationals scored two in the 14th to win.

Key stat
After a loss on June 27, the Nationals were 41-38 and tied for first place in the NL East with the Braves. Since then, they are 46-25, the best record in the National League over the span.
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MLB

Top stats to know: 2014 Orioles win AL East

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
11:47
PM ET
The Baltimore Orioles clinched their first American League East title since the 1997 season by beating the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night.

The Orioles are in the postseason for the second time in three years following a run of losing seasons that stretched from 1998 to 2011.

Story of the Season
The Orioles have won with a combination of power (they lead the major leagues in home runs) and pitching depth (they entered the day with the third-best ERA in the American League). Though none of their starters has an ERA below 3.00, each pitcher in their current rotation has an ERA below 4.00.

Most Valuable Player
Amazingly, the Orioles' leader in wins above replacement is 31-year-old first baseman and outfielder Steve Pearce (5.5), who hit his 18th home run in Tuesday’s clinching win. Pearce had 17 home runs in 290 games entering this season. He’s excelled both offensively and defensively (18 defensive runs saved) this season.

Baltimore’s big boppers have been Nelson Cruz, who leads the majors with 39 home runs, and Adam Jones, who is having a year typical for him with 25 homers.

The Orioles got unexpected contributions in a number of areas. Zach Britton stepped into the closer role and excelled when Tommy Hunter was ineffective. Caleb Joseph has been a capable replacement for injured catcher Matt Wieters.

Circle These Games
What were the most memorable Orioles wins of the season?

May 26 -- With the Orioles trailing by two with two outs and nobody on in the ninth inning against the Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez, this game looked like a sure defeat. But Baltimore would tie on a home run by Jonathan Schoop and a double by Nick Markakis. After escaping a situation in which the Brewers had a man on third with one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles won in the 10th on Nick Hundley’s RBI single.

June 25-- The Orioles come back from four runs down to tie the White Sox in the eighth on a Cruz grand slam andwin in extra innings on a walk-off wild pitch.

July 7 -- The Orioles exploded for six runs in the 11th inning to beat the Nationals 8-2 in what could be a World Series preview. Chris Davis hit the go-ahead home run in the 11th inning.

September 7 -- Cruz beat the Tampa Bay Rays by himself with a four-hit, seven-RBI game that accounted for all of the team's runs. He hit a three-run go-ahead triple in the ninth inning and then delivered a two-run go-ahead homer in the 11th.

September 12/14 -- The Orioles bookended a series in which they took three of four from the Yankees by winning in walk-off fashion. They rallied from 1-0 down in the 11th inning to win on a two-run single by pinch hitter Jimmy Paredes. In the series finale, they strung together three doubles in a four-batter span to score twice to win against Yankees closer David Robertson.

Key stat
The Orioles have had their share of ‘Orioles Magic’ with 10 walk-off wins this season. They’ve also prevented their opponents from magical victories. They have only 21 losses in which they blew a lead, the fewest blown leads in the majors.
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MLB

Panthers not regressing

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
3:03
PM ET

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsCarolina's defense is one of the best in the NFL since Week 6 of last season.
The winner of the Super Bowl XLVIII rematch between the Broncos and Seahawks on Sunday will likely determine the No. 1 spot in next week's ESPN.com NFL Power Rankings.

Lost in the shuffle though has been one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

Off to a 2-0 start and winners of 13 of their last 14 regular season games, the Carolina Panthers have jumped from 15th to sixth in the rankings, and it’s possible they are even better than last year.

Picking up where they left off
After starting the 2013 season 1-3, the Panthers came back from a bye week and started rattling off wins.

Since Week 6 of last season, no team has been better protecting the ball. The Panthers committed 10 turnovers over their last 12 games last season and have yet to commit a turnover this season.

Meanwhile, the defense has forced a league-best 27 turnovers during that span and allowed the fewest points per game (14.6).

The Panthers had some big changes in the offseason, but those moves appear to be paying off.

Wide receivers
Much was made of the Panthers overhauled wide receiver corps this offseason, as no wide out on the 2014 roster had ever caught a pass from Cam Newton. But were the old receivers even that good?

The 35-year-old Steve Smith Sr. has gotten off to a hot start in Baltimore but Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. have combined to catch two passes this season (both by Ginn).

In his 2014 debut, Newton completed 9 of 11 attempts to veteran additions Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery.

Newton went only 2-for-8 to first round pick Kelvin Benjamin, but Benjamin showed big play ability in Week 1 with six receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown.

Panthers wide receivers have caught 69.7 percent of their targets so far this season, tied for third best in the NFL. Last season Panthers wide receivers ranked 22nd in catch rate (57.6 percent).

The secondary
The Panthers brought in two new safeties (Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper) after losing last year’s starters (Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell). These changes have led to an improved pass defense so far.

The Panthers allowed 66.6 percent of passes to be completed last season, third worst in the NFL. This season that number is down to 59.0 percent, good for ninth best through two weeks.

The Panthers biggest weakness in the secondary was defending deeper passes, and this year they’ve shown improvement in that area as well.

In Week 2 the Panthers limited Matthew Stafford to 1-of-6 passing with an interception on passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield to Calvin Johnson.

In Week 1, the duo completed 5-of-8 with two touchdowns against the Giants.

Big tests to come
The Panthers bye week doesn't come until Week 12 and they will be tested every step of the way until then. Of their next nine opponents, only one (Falcons) finished with a losing record last season.

During that stretch (and barring injury) the defense will have to face five of the last six Super Bowl winning quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger) as well as Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton.

Top stats to know: Brewers at Cardinals

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
2:50
PM ET

Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsMatt Holliday has seen a decline in his power production over the past four years.
The Brewers and Cardinals begin a three-game series Tuesday night at Busch Stadium (8 ET on ESPN/WatchESPN), where St. Louis has won eight straight games. The Cards lead the NL Central by 3½ games over the Pirates and five games over the Brewers.

Here are some stats to know for Tuesday night’s game.

Going in opposite directions
After play on June 28, the Brewers were an NL-best 51-32 and held a 6½ game lead over the Cardinals in the division.

However, from June 29 to Aug. 25, the Brewers went 22-26 and saw their lead shrink to a game and a half. But things got worse from there.

Since Aug. 26, Milwaukee has won only five of 19 games, while the Cardinals (who have made postseason play each of the past three seasons, including two World Series appearances) have surged forward, winning 12 of 20 games to move into first place in the division.

Peralta struggling lately, but strong vs. Cardinals
Wily Peralta started off the season 15-7 with a 3.27 ERA in his first 25 starts. But he’s 1-3 with a 7.40 ERA over his past four starts.

However, he likes facing the Cardinals this season. Before losing to them Sept. 4, Peralta won his first three starts against St. Louis in 2014, pitching into the seventh inning every start.

What has been different against the Cardinals in 2014 from 2013?

• The Cardinals hit .524 (11-for-21) off Peralta with runners in scoring position last season; they are hitting .222 (4-for-18) this season.

• He has been much better at getting ground balls -- 60 percent ground ball rate in four starts against the Cardinals this season, 42 percent last season.

• Left-handed batters hit .286 with a 7-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season; they are hitting .184 with an 11-2 ratio this season.

Power outage
Matt Holliday's power production has been in a steady decline since 2010, with his slugging percentage dropping each year (from .532 in 2010 to his current .439 this season).

One reason for this lack of power could be his inability to hit pitches on the outer half of the plate.

He’s hitting almost 100 points lower on such pitches this season compared to 2013.

Quick hitters
• No player to play at least half of his games at catcher in the modern era (since 1900) has produced as many doubles in a season as Jonathan Lucroy this year (51).

• The Cardinals have hit 99 home runs this season, 29th in the majors. The last time St. Louis finished last in MLB in home runs was 1991.

• St. Louis ranked 22nd last season in defensive runs saved (minus-39). This season, they lead all of baseball (plus-59).

Top stats to know: Eagles 30, Colts 27

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
1:04
AM ET
The Philadelphia Eagles look like they’ve picked up where they left off at the end of the 2013 regular season.

They’ve now rallied late in each of their first two wins this season and got a last-second field goal to edge the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night.

What a comeback
The Elias Sports Bureau notes the Eagles are the first team in NFL history to start 2-0 after trailing by 14 or more points in the second half of each game.

They are only the fourth team over the past 30 years to win consecutive games in which it trailed by 14 or more points in the second half.

Difference-maker: Darren Sproles
The 5-foot-6 Sproles made a big impact in his second game with the Eagles. He finished with a career-high 152 receiving yards, 148 of which came after the catch.



It was the third most receiving yards by any player in a game this season and the fifth most by a running back in a single game in the past 15 seasons.

Elias noted Sproles had the second most receiving yards in a game in NFL history by a player 5-foot-6 or shorter. Lionel James (5-foot-6) had 168 receiving yards for the Chargers on Nov. 10, 1985, against the Raiders.

A change of plans
Nick Foles averaged 7.8 completions per game to running backs and tight ends this past season. He has 31 such completions in two games in 2014.

Foles was 15-for-19 when throwing to a running back or tight end on Monday and 6-for-18 when throwing to a running back or wide receiver.

Foles was also 5-of-5 for 115 yards against added pressure, including 2-of-2 for 41 yards on the game-winning drive.

The Colts defense was vulnerable
The Colts allowed 458 yards to the Eagles, the most they've allowed in a home game since Week 10 of 2009 against the New England Patriots. It's the most they've allowed in a home loss since the 2003 season (a 31-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 16).

The Colts allowed 231 yards after the catch, the most they have allowed in a game in the nine seasons in which ESPN has video-tracking data.

A tough one for Luck
Andrew Luck lost back-to-back regular-season games for the first time in his career. Luck was tied with Dan Marino for the longest streak without consecutive losses (33) to start a career since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970.

Luck threw all three of his touchdowns on passes of 5 yards or fewer downfield. Luck was limited to only two completions on six attempts of more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Royals run their way to a big win

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
12:26
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Teams fighting to make the postseason have to steal every win they can get at this time of year.

The Kansas City Royals did that and then some in coming from three runs down to beat the Chicago White Sox on Monday night.

It was an epic comeback, one that will be circled to be remembered should the Royals make the postseason.

Run, run, run
The Royals tied the game on a play in which Jarrod Dyson stole third, then scampered home on Jake Petricka’s wild pitch. They won it when Terrance Gore went from second to home on an infield hit by Lorenzo Cain, whose second career walk-off hit was his first since the 2010 season.

Talk from baseball fans on Twitter was that this was a very Royals kind of win. What did they mean by that?

The Royals rank second in the “Ultimate Baserunning” stat (UBR) tracked by Fangraphs.com, trailing only the Washington Nationals. This stat combines elements of baserunning; its components include base-stealing efficiency, the success rate taking extra bases on hits and outs, and the avoidance of baserunning mistakes.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that:

• Dyson improved to 21-of-24 on steal attempts of third base for his career. He atoned for getting caught stealing by Joe Nathan in a key moment in a game against the Tigers last week.

• Gore was someone brought up from the minors for situations just like this one. He’d stolen 47 bases in 54 attempts in his time in the minor leagues this season. His first steal on Sept. 3 led to a run when he scored on a throwing error.

Moustakas beats the shift
The comeback was set up by Mike Moustakas’ one-out opposite-field double in the ninth inning. Moustakas has struggled for much of the season against shifted defenses but has shown more of a willingness to hit the ball the other way lately.

In Moustakas’ first 350 at-bats, he had only nine opposite-field hits. He has had eight in 69 at-bats since Aug. 24.

Aoki’s four-hit day
Norichika Aoki kept things going for the Royals with his fourth hit of the game after the tying run had scored.

Aoki’s offensive contributions have been minimal this season, but he’s now hitting .333 (21-for-63) in his past 17 games.

And let’s not forget the bullpen
Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis each pitched a scoreless inning in relief of James Shields.

Davis has now thrown 31 2/3 straight innings without allowing an earned run. Herrera has a similar streak, only one inning behind him.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Davis and Herrera have the third- and fourth-longest streaks in the majors this season, trailing a 41-inning streak by Clayton Kershaw and a 32 1/3 innings streak by Boston Red Sox reliever Burke Badenhop.
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Top stats to know: Eagles at Colts

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
2:28
PM ET

Getty ImagesMcCoy has 303 combined rush yards his last 2 MNF games; Luck making only 2nd MNF start of career.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts are meeting for the 19th time ever tonight, but the first time on Monday Night Football (8:30 ET on ESPN/WatchESPN). Here are the best statistical angles for the game tonight.

Great late
Both teams fell behind by 17 points in Week 1, but only the Eagles came back to win.

Philadelphia trailed 17-0 at halftime in its season opener against the Jaguars, but outscored Jacksonville 34-0 in the second half.

Prior to that game, the Eagles were 1-39 since the merger in games they trailed by at least 17 points at the half.

Like the Eagles, the Colts also trailed by 17 points at halftime in their season opener. Indianapolis rallied, but still lost at the Broncos 31-24.

The Broncos thwarted the Colts’ comeback attempt in the fourth quarter thanks to some stellar pass defense.

They intercepted or defended seven passes by players in coverage in the final 10 minutes of the game, more than any other team since 2006 (when ESPN began video tracking).

Quarterbacks with something to prove
Nick Foles had four turnovers all of last season, but had three in the first half against the Jaguars in the season opener.

Foles’ improvement in the second half was the biggest reason the Eagles scored 34 straight points and came away victorious.

As mentioned above, Andrew Luck and the Colts fell behind by 17 at halftime against the Broncos, but rallied in the second half.

Although Luck's completion percentage was lower in the second half (63.2) than the first (73.3), he did throw for 134 more yards after the break (252) than he did in the first two quarters (118).

Coming back is nothing new to Luck during his brief NFL career. Although he didn't get it done in Week 1, since he entered the league in 2012, Luck leads the NFL in game-winning drives (10). Tony Romo is second on the list with nine such drives.

Quick hitters
• Reggie Wayne will be appearing in his 198th game with the Colts. That’ll tie him with Eugene Daniel for third on the team’s all-time list, behind only Peyton Manning (208) and Johnny Unitas (206).

• Luck has gone 33 straight starts without losing back-to-back games to begin his career, tied with Dan Marino for the longest such streak since the merger.

• The Eagles have won each of their last five road openers, including last year on Monday Night Football in Washington. That’s one behind the Texans (who won at Oakland on Sunday) for the longest active streak of its kind.

• LeSean McCoy has rushed for 119 (2012 at Saints) and 184 yards (2013 at Redskins), respectively, in his last two games on Monday Night Football.

• Trent Richardson is averaging just 2.9 yards a rush since being traded to the Colts prior to Week 3 of the 2013 season. That ranks 44th out of the 45 qualified rushers in that time span.

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