Seattle Marinerschristina_kahrl: The team in the division I really don’t know what to think of is the Mariners. New GM Jerry Dipoto has made the right kinds of gestures to indicate he wants to contend now without spending too much, but is this the year that guys like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton finally break through as rotation regulars? And is everybody sold on Ketel Marte as an everyday shortstop, or is he just the latest young Mariners shortstop who will be touted briefly before bouncing to the Rays (or wherever)?rob: The Mariners seem to me like a mirage. Nelson Cruz had a fantastic year in 2015, slugging .566 at age 34. That cannot continue for long. Robinson Cano saw his WAR fall by about 50 percent from 2014, and I am more sold that his decline is real than PECOTA is (second basemen tend to age quickly). And Marte BABIP‘d .341 on his way to a good year that I don’t think he can repeat (until he goes to the Rays and becomes an All-Star, anyway).neil: Also, haven’t we seen this movie before, with Seattle overhauling the roster and going all-in on pitching and defense?christina_kahrl: Yes, but that’s because Jack Z. was the Bond villain of GMs: He had a new master plan for world domination every year, and he never had a two-year plan, so in his run he had time to try everything at least once. Someone should have just given him a white Persian cat and snapped the picture.rob: As far as the pitching, Paxton and Walker could become great and change the whole trajectory of the Mariners’ season. But I think there’s a roughly equal chance they will become hurt, and Seattle doesn’t have a lot of rotation depth to replace them.As for the Zduriencik comparison, Dipoto actually seems like he’s all about the long-term plan. Why else would you waste a solid chunk of Mike Trout’s prime like what happened during his tenure with the Angels? Ben Lindbergh joins the Hot Takedown podcast to preview the 2016 MLB season. In honor of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, which starts Sunday, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about the year to come. Today, we put the American League West under the microscope with ESPN MLB writer/editor Christina Kahrl and our own baseball columnist, Rob Arthur. The transcript below has been edited.Texas RangersHouston AstrosSeattle MarinersLos Angeles AngelsOakland Athletics neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Who’s ready to talk about the AL West? Am I wrong, or does this look like it might be the most wide-open division in baseball (on paper, at least)?rob: I’m not sure I agree that it’s totally wide open. I see the Astros as a really strong team that is more likely to exceed their projections than fall apart this year. After the Astros, though, I could see an argument that any of the other teams could find themselves in second place.christina_kahrl: With the exception of the Oakland A’s in this very division, I think you can make a reasonable argument that each of the other 14 teams in the AL have a shot at 85 wins (which would equal contention). So I don’t think I’d go there, as far as “most wide open.”neil: But what about the defending division-champ Rangers! The Trout-led Angels! The better-than-their-record A’s! The … you know, the Mariners! Los Angeles Angels of Anaheimneil: About those Angels …christina_kahrl: Doesn’t this have to be a year where, having gotten his way, Mike Scioscia has to get the Angels into the postseason?neil: I mean, with this team, we also have to talk about the collective star power and its failure to really make much of an impact these past few years. Does this serve as an invalidation of the stars-and-scrubs model they’ve built with? Or do we think they have a real breakthrough this season?(And how much more does Trout have to do to make that happen???)rob: I don’t think it invalidates stars-and-scrubs generally, only this extreme version of it. They’ve had literally the best star player in the game and some of the worst scrubs all around him. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem like it’s changing all that much this year. Andrelton Simmons will help, but their farm system is still in shambles and they weren’t active on the free agent market.christina_kahrl: Maybe the Angels are an elaborate piece of performance art, a commentary on the emptiness of celebrity.rob: Or a counter-argument to the Great Man theory of history.No matter what Trout does, he cannot rescue the team on his lonesome. The Angels are projected by PECOTA for 27.1 combined WARP; Trout alone is responsible for about a quarter of that. Even if he attained prime-era Barry Bonds status, or took to the mound Babe Ruth-style, he can only add a few more wins to the team’s tally, which won’t be enough to make them true contenders.christina_kahrl: I’m reminded of why the “great” Angels teams of the ’70s — which had plenty of famous players — didn’t win while the Oakland A’s did: An absence of on-base percentage. Yunel Escobar and Daniel Nava might help them a lot in that department (especially if the Angels get the good Nava and not the nega-Nava who exasperated Red Sox fans every other season), but I’m still wondering whether this is another Trout-and-Pujols kamikaze run ending in 82 wins and a participation medal.rob: That scenario is precisely what I expect to happen. Merely having Trout on the roster is enough to make them mediocre; not having other good players is enough to stop them from being anything more than mediocre.christina_kahrl: I’m imagining Trout’s plaque in Cooperstown now:“Kept the Angels above .500. ‘Hey, you try it.’ — M.T.”neil: Poor Trout. neil: Is that a “Barton Fink” reference, @christina_kahrl?christina_kahrl: Of course. ;)neil: If this division was a Coen brothers film, which one would it be?christina_kahrl: Well, I’ve tipped my hand already. But when I think of the Rangers beating the Astros, last year and now picking them to do it again this year, I pretty much automatically think of John Goodman shouting, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” And I know that’s totally unfair to how smart the Rangers are, or how talented the Astros are. Oakland Athleticschristina_kahrl: I guess that brings us to the A’s. I guess they have some fourth-place potential if the Mariners implode. But are they left with “best last-place team in baseball” ambitions? Or will they not even be better than whoever finishes last in the AL East?neil: And, relatedly, why do they continually win less than their component stats say they should? They’re like the anti-Royals.rob: It’s the new market inefficiency.neil: Haha.christina_kahrl: On a practical, non-snarky level, I just want to see guys like Jesse Hahn and Chris Bassitt turn the corner. And find out whether Marcus Semien can stick at shortstop — because the one thing that organization has a lot of is good shortstop prospects, between Franklin Barreto, Chad Pinder, Yairo Munoz and Richie Martin.The guy to really get excited about is Sean Manaea, though. I saw his start last Sunday in Arizona, and he’s going to be fun to watch; lefties who throw that hard aren’t everyday items.rob: Yeah, they definitely have some interesting players. In seriousness, I think they’ve played below their components because of a bad bullpen that doesn’t look to get any better.On the plus side, Sonny Gray is a lot of fun to watch.christina_kahrl: Also yes, I mean, as much as I don’t think they’ll contend, they’re an interesting club with an expanding talent base. Matt Chapman isn’t too far off at third base, either. In the long term, they have to sort out their keepers in the infield and the rotation. This year will help give them clarity.neil: So are the A’s clearly in their own tier at the bottom of this division, then? Or is it fairer to lump them in amongst the Mariners and Angels — with all three solidly below the Rangers and Astros?rob: I see enough downside risk with the Mariners and a lack of non-Trout talent on the Angels to put them down with the Athletics. None of them are truly bad: They all have promising players somewhere, but each is crippled enough that I don’t think they can be a true-talent 88-90-win team, the way the Rangers or Astros could be.christina_kahrl: Quite right. I’d also lean more towards the two-and-three grouping. The A’s might rate below the Mariners and Angels now, but if Gray gets some help in the rotation, they might be better than both. But young pitching and heartbreak go together like Wallace Beery and wrestling pictures; we all know that roadmap. Houston Astrosneil: It does seem like what’s driving the difference between Houston and Texas in the stat projections — which favor Houston probably more than the conventional wisdom would — is the difference in the lineups, not the pitching staffs.rob: Definitely. Both lineups are chock full of interesting young players like George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gallo and Rougned Odor. Younger players are notoriously harder to predict, so I could see the division turning on a couple of huge years from either pair of hitters. All of them certainly have the talent.christina_kahrl: Aye. Although the Rangers’ bullpen does have a few more question marks as well.rob: I also think the Astros will be able to leverage their excellent bullpen to outperform their runs pythagorean record and get an extra couple of wins, which could be all they need to steal the division from the Rangers.christina_kahrl: An entirely reasonable expectation, even though I’m sticking with the Rangers. The other factor is that both GMs are willing to deal to win, and both have full farms to deal from. Who makes that big move in July? Probably both of them.rob: Yep, and I see that as another point of difference between the Astros/Rangers and the other teams in the AL West. Two of those teams have new GMs (Angels, Mariners) who probably wouldn’t go all-out to lock up a playoff appearance (better to build strength for a sustained competitive window). And the other team is run by Billy Beane, who’s been burned by in-season purchases in the recent past.christina_kahrl: One point of contrast with my earlier note about the Rangers’ hidden upside: The Astros’ rotation is a nice unit, but it has less potential for improvement on last year’s full-season numbers — by which I mean, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh probably can’t get better. So they need that ‘pen to be amazing again … and it probably will be. The thing that’s fun for them is what a full year of “Los Dos Carlos” — Correa and Gomez — might mean, and whether Tyler White or Jon Singleton (or the both of them) step up and rake. That’s definitely fun to think about.neil: Any fear about the Astros running afoul of the Plexiglas Principle? They did make quite a leap last year.rob: I’m not worried about the Plexiglas Principle with regard to the ‘Stros. They made a big jump — historically large, in fact — but their runs scored/allowed numbers suggest that they should have done even better. First-, second-, and third-order winning percentages from Baseball Prospectus had them as between a 93-win and 98-win team, which is really amazing. So while I think they will regress slightly, it will be from that lofty peak and not the more modest 86-win total they produced in the standings.christina_kahrl: I think dynamic talent turnover kind of insures the Astros against the Plexiglas Principle. Perhaps more than any other thing, I come back to thinking that we’ve yet to see what this team can do while getting full seasons from Gomez, Correa and Springer. If they do this year, and they all hit the way we think they can, that’s going to be a team that can outscore a lot of problems and play a pretty good brand of defense to boot.rob: That, too. Unlike some other teams “on the rise,” the Astros are in the midst of converting an outstanding farm system over the last few years into major-league talent. We have a legitimate reason to believe that they are going to continue getting more playing time and more performance out of a bunch of young players.christina_kahrl: Yeah, that trio plus Jose Altuve, surrounded by the Astros’ collection of power sources like Evan Gattis and Luis Valbuena? That’s what will sustain their ability to beat teams late, because in close games they have a lineup talented enough, one through nine, to put any mistake in the seats. Embed Code rob: That’s a tough one. I’ll go with “No Country for Old Men”, with Anton Chigurh representing the (in the long-term unstoppable) Astros, Llewelyn Moss as the Rangers, and the trail of violence between them as what happens to the other teams in the division when they have to face the Astros and Rangers.Also, clearly, this is No Division for Old Men. The teams on the rise have young talent by the boatload; the teams falling apart do not.christina_kahrl: Now you’re just making me feel bad for Coco Crisp. More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed A FiveThirtyEight Chat Texas Rangersneil: OK, fine, you’ve convinced me — there are several tiers to this division. So who belongs at the top?christina_kahrl: I’m down with Rob’s point that the Astros have the most upside, even though I’m leaning Rangers as the favorite to win the division. But while the Astros may have upside, there’s also a stampede-of-crowds effect where all the smarties want to call the smart guys’ win.rob: Sure, I can see an argument for the Rangers as well, although last year’s division win seemed a little more luck than skill. Then you have a crowd of mediocrity: Per FanGraphs, the Angels, Mariners and Athletics are all projected for between 79 and 81 wins. Maybe that’s what you meant by wide open, Neil — any of those teams are good enough to launch a playoff run. But it would also be a surprise for each of them.neil: Right, there seems to be at least a semi-plausible case for all of those teams. (But maybe that speaks mainly to the mediocrity factor you mentioned, Rob.)christina_kahrl: The big thing for me, as far as the Rangers go, is that the rotation’s going to get a full year from Derek Holland and Cole Hamels, plus Yu Darvish come May. Their mediocre full-season run differential last year was a reflection of how inadequate that number can be when you’re talking about 162 discrete data points, and the first 80-90 didn’t really have much predictive impact on the last 70-80 because the makeup of the team — and the pitching staff in particular — was so radically different. This season should echo that, and then you add in a much deeper lineup that should armor them against the usual injuries or allow them to live with the projectable absences of guys like Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre.rob: You make some good points! I’m convinced that the Rangers belong outside the tier of mediocrity. On the other hand, to play devil’s advocate, the strongest predictor of future injury is past injury, and the Rangers have suffered with that scourge a lot in the last few years. The roster is easy to dream on, but I suspect that we will once again see them losing many players to the disabled list.But, as you alluded to, they have a deep farm system and the capacity to replace some of what they lose.christina_kahrl: Yeah, I mean, we’ve all been dreaming about the best-case scenario for Joey Gallo, but even if he’s Russell Branyan with a glove, that’s a freakin’ valuable thing. And Nomar Mazara is probably the answer to a lot of their outfield injuries, assuming he doesn’t win a starting job outright at some point this season.The thing I keep wondering about is what Elvis Andrus has left in the tank. If he can go back to being an impact hitter with his deadball-era skills and play premium defense, that would be really very nice. The guy’s only 27, but maybe he’s a great example of the argument that we need to revise our expectations about peaks in an era where pitchers seem to be winning the game of adjustments.rob: Andrus is a fascinating player who’s still incredibly variable. By Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), he had his best season last year (3.8 WARP) and his worst season the year before (1.5 WARP). But my hunch is that he’s probably a 2-3 WAR player who never takes the next step we’ve all been waiting for.neil: Time might be running out for that to happen, for sure.christina_kahrl: Yeah, perhaps he spoiled us early with .340 OBPs and double-digit tallies in Defensive Runs Saved.
Five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders take a knee during the national anthem prior to a college football game against North Greenville, in Kennesaw, Ga. The group of cheerleaders from the college in Georgia say they’ll take a knee in the stadium tunnel when the national anthem is played at Saturday’s homecoming game since their university moved them off the field after an earlier demonstration. (Cory Hancock/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)KENNESAW, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia lawmaker says Scrappy the Owl, the mascot at the university where five cheerleaders have been kneeling during the national anthem, had no business leading students in a march through campus to support the cheerleaders.The five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders vow to kneel in the stadium tunnel when the anthem is played at Saturday’s homecoming football game. They were moved off-field after an earlier protest.Republican state Rep. Earl Ehrhart chairs the House subcommittee in charge of funding Georgia’s public universities.He tells The Marietta Daily Journal that Scrappy’s participation in Monday’s rally supporting the so-called Kennesaw Five was inappropriate.The lawmaker says that unless any group can solicit the owl’s services for protests, the taxpayer-funded mascot shouldn’t have been used.Video from WXIA-TV shows the mascot voicing his support.
9Felix Hernandez52.4251 The Doc was the greatest pitcher of this millenniumPitcher wins above replacement since 2000 Sources: The Baseball Gauge, Baseball-Reference.com 8Cole Hamels54.0160 5Roger Clemens57Curt Schilling26James Shields18 3Jack McDowell61Randy Johnson32Felix Hernandez18 4Clayton Kershaw59.4253 RKPITCHERCGPITCHERCGPITCHERCG 1Roy Halladay61.7652 5Mark Buehrle58.5330 RANKPLAYERWARCOMPLETE GAMESCY YOUNG AWARDS Yesterday’s news that the great pitcher Roy Halladay had died in a plane crash sent baseball’s fraternity of players and coaches into a state of deep mourning. Around the league, tributes to Halladay’s technical skill and work ethic poured in. As our former colleague Ben Lindbergh wrote at The Ringer, Halladay was the consummate pitcher’s pitcher — the guy other pitchers always wanted to be.But on a personal level, the reports hit me especially hard — I grew up a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, the team for whom Halladay first made his name as an ace. I was too young to experience the back-to-back World Series titles of 1992 and 1993, so my earliest memories came of the Blue Jays teams that stunk it up in the first decade of this millennium. Halladay was the one bright spot on an otherwise mediocre Toronto squad, so it was fitting that late Blue Jays game-caller Tom Cheek gave him the nickname “Doc” — a reference, of course, to Doc Holliday. But Halladay truly was a doctor on the mound — he healed so many of his team’s ills whenever he got the nod as that day’s starter.1As Jayson Stark pointed out, in games that Halladay started between 2002 and 2011 (his prime), his team went 195-108. When someone else started, his teams went 646-670.In his 12 seasons with Toronto, Doc pitched more than 2,000 innings and won 148 games, plus received the AL Cy Young award in 2003. He pitched 10 innings in a single game not once, but twice. Alongside Dave Stieb, Halladay is widely considered the greatest pitcher in Blue Jays history. When he was traded to the Phillies in 2009, my fellow Blue Jays fans were understandably upset, but they also understood. In his four seasons in Philadelphia, Doc’s stature grew to a whole new level. In typical fashion, he wasted no time, throwing a no-hitter in his postseason debut (just months after he pitched just the second perfect game in Phillies history). On the way, Doc won an NL Cy Young award — he’s one of just six pitchers in MLB history to win the award in both leagues.Because he spent years on a scuffling Toronto team, Doc’s greatness often gets overlooked. But it shouldn’t be. Based on total pitching wins above replacement since 2000, nobody this millennium has surpassed him yet, even though he hasn’t pitched in four years. 2Randy Johnson65Livan Hernandez36Adam Wainwright19 4Kevin Brown58CC Sabathia28Roy Halladay18 10Johan Santana51.4152 6Curt Schilling57Mark Mulder25Johnny Cueto17 8Chuck Finley46Javier Vazquez23Cliff Lee16 6Justin Verlander56.6231 1Greg Maddux75Roy Halladay47Clayton Kershaw25 10Doug Drabek41Sidney Ponson23Ervin Santana16 Halladay was a bridge between pitching erasMost complete games by decade in MLB, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s 7Tim Hudson54.8250 After this period of mourning for Halladay, writers and analysts will inevitably turn their attention to his Hall of Fame chances. And according to the yardsticks that we statheads typically look at, Halladay might seem like a borderline case. Because he had fewer dominant years than Hall of Fame voters like to see — he had injury problems early in his career and then retired relatively young — Halladay’s résumé is slightly below the HOF average for starting pitchers.2Based on JAWS, a WAR-based measure that tries to evaluate a player relative to his peers at the same position by balancing career and peak value. And although he meets the Hall’s criteria on other measures such as Bill James’s Black Ink Test (which tracks how often a player leads the league in important statistical categories), he falls short on some of the big statistical benchmarks that typically mark a HOF career.However, Halladay’s accomplishments are being sold short by these kinds of evaluations. His career stretched across two major eras of pitching, from a time when starters were often asked to finish games (no matter how many pitches it took) to the modern game, where bullpens are taking over for starters earlier and earlier. Halladay helped build a bridge between those two styles of starting pitching — as mentioned above, he could (and often did) go the distance and then some, recording complete-game totals that would have been commonplace in the 1980s and ’90s, but that stood out compared with his peers in the 2000s and even the 2010s, a decade in which he only pitched three full seasons. 1990s2000s2010s 2CC Sabathia61.5381 3Zack Greinke60.7161 9John Smoltz42Bartolo Colon23David Price16 7Scott Erickson47Mark Buehrle24Justin Verlander17 Source: FanGraphs Yet he was also a thoroughly modern pitcher, dominating with strikeouts and pinpoint control, a technician in addition to a workhorse. Since 2000, his fielding-independent pitching (relative to the league) is right up there with today’s aces such as Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. Since many of the metrics most commonly used to judge Hall of Fame standards were built with pitchers of a different era in mind, the metrics might need to be adjusted to better reflect what’s valued in today’s best hurlers. And Halladay might serve as a great test case, since he (more than maybe anyone else) helped the game transition between those eras of pitching.Whether Doc makes it to the Hall of Fame is irrelevant right now, though. What matters right now is that every time Halladay took to the mound, people were watching. Regardless of whether you were a pitcher or a hitter growing up, you wanted to be like Doc.— Neil Paine contributed research.CORRECTION (Nov. 8, 2017, 11:30 a.m.): A previous version of the first table in this article incorrectly showed Tim Hudson as having 26 complete games since 2000. He had 25.
The college football playoff picture would have become much blurrier had Auburn held on to defeat No. 1 Alabama on Saturday. Instead, the Crimson Tide prevailed 55-44. There were some losses to teams ranking behind Alabama — No. 4 Mississippi State, No. 8 UCLA and No. 9 Georgia were all beaten — but they tended to clarify how the teams will line up heading into conference championship weekend. Here’s how FiveThirtyEight’s college football forecast model expects the playoff committee’s rankings might look when they come out on Tuesday evening:The top four seem reasonably clear. Alabama, Oregon and Florida State are likely to remain No. 1 through No. 3 in that order. TCU, No. 5 entering the week, will probably be promoted to No. 4 after demolishing Texas 48-10.Ohio State, No. 6 last week, might give the committee more to think about. Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett was injured (and knocked out for the season) late in a win against Michigan. The committee has said it will consider “key injuries that … likely will affect [a team’s] postseason performance.” (The FiveThirtyEight model does not make any assumptions about injuries and so it might overrate Ohio State’s chances of making the playoff.)But the team ranking just behind Ohio State, Baylor, turned in one of the less impressive performances of the week, prevailing over Texas Tech by just 2 points, 48-46. Texas Tech, 4-8 on the season, could have tied the game and probably sent it into overtime with a successful two-point conversion.Michigan State and Arizona, No. 10 and No. 11 entering the weekend, are almost certain to move up in the rankings given the losses ahead of them. But only Arizona has realistic playoff hopes; the Wildcats will face Oregon for the Pac-12 championship after having beaten Arizona State. How far they move up on Tuesday should tell us something about how seriously the committee takes them.Here’s how the FiveThirtyEight model projects the committee’s final rankings on Dec. 7, which will determine the four teams that make the playoff:Even with just one one week to play, the scenarios are reasonably complex. So let’s briefly discuss the playoff from the perspective of the seven teams that are most likely to make it:Alabama (94 percent chance of making playoff). Are the Crimson Tide guaranteed to be in? Not quite. But in addition to catching a few breaks against Auburn, Alabama also benefitted from Missouri winning and advancing to face them in next week’s SEC Championship game. At least according to the computer rankings, Missouri is a weaker opponent than Georgia would have been. And Missouri (No. 17 heading into the weekend) is probably coming from too far behind to leap Alabama in committee standings even with a win in Atlanta. In fact, the model gives Alabama a 67 percent chance of making the playoff even with an SEC Championship loss.Oregon (82 percent chance). Oregon controls its destiny but has less ability to survive a loss in their championship game; the model gives them a 30 percent chance of making the playoff if they lose. That’s, in part, because Oregon’s opponent, Arizona, could plausibly enter the playoff if it wins the Pac-12 championship.TCU (80 percent chance). Although TCU will likely remain behind Florida State in Tuesday’s rankings, the model has them as a safer bet to make the playoff. That’s mainly because TCU’s upcoming matchup is easier. TCU will play a previously-scheduled game against a middling Iowa State team next week (the Big 12 does not host a championship game). Florida State will face a more difficult opponent, Georgia Tech, in the ACC Championship.TCU’s case may be more complicated than the model implies, however, because it lost earlier in the season to Big 12 rival Baylor. But last week’s performance may give the committee a good excuse to ignore the head-to-head result and instead look to factors like results against common opponents like Texas Tech. While Baylor only narrowly escaped Texas Tech, TCU had beaten them 82-27 on Oct. 25.Florida State (70 percent chance). The undefeated Seminoles helped their cause with a win against Florida. But they’re only 65 percent favorites to beat Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship. If the Seminoles lose, they’ll have only a 15 percent chance of making the playoff, according to the model.It didn’t help Florida State that the No. 5 through 7 teams (TCU, Ohio State and Baylor) all won last weekend. The committee isn’t especially fond of the Seminoles, and a loss in the ACC Championship could allow TCU, Ohio State or Baylor to leap frog them.Ohio State (39 percent chance). The model gives Ohio State a 66 percent chance of making the playoff should it beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship (and almost no shot if it loses that game). That doesn’t account for the injury to Barrett — although if backup Cardale Jones is good enough to beat the Badgers, that arguably ought to resolve the committee’s questions. Still, this wasn’t a great weekend for Ohio State. In addition to Barrett’s injury, they would have benefited from more chaos ahead of them in the standings. The Buckeyes could beat Wisconsin and still be left out.Baylor (23 percent chance). The Big 12 doesn’t play a championship game, but the Bears, will have the chance to impress the committee as they’ll face a challenging opponent in Kansas State next weekend. Still, it may be wishful thinking to expect Baylor to suddenly leap ahead of TCU or other teams in the rankings. The committee, to the extent it evaluates head-to-head performance, seems to have decided that Baylor’s win against TCU isn’t enough to outweigh what it sees as TCU’s better resume.Arizona (7 percent chance). This sounds like a real long shot, but it’s partly because the model gives Arizona just a 26 percent chance of beating Oregon. Should they win that game, the Wildcats will have a 27 percent chance of making the playoff, according to the model. The Wildcats might need one or two of the teams ranked ahead of them to lose (in addition to Oregon) to feel great about their chances. Overall, Alabama and TCU were helped the most by the past weekend’s action. Alabama’s chance of winning the national championship — not just making the playoff — is up from 26 percent last week to 32 percent. TCU’s chances improved from 9 percent to 15 percent.
Anderson Packers–19491562 ELOEQUIVALENT RECORDTEAM DESCRIPTION Baltimore Bullets–19471419 Fort Wayne PistonsDetroit Pistons19481495 120015-67Historically awful 150041-41Average Sheboygan Red Skins–19491405 There are just a few NBA-specific parameters to set, which we’ll describe below.The K-factorElo’s K-factor determines how quickly the rating reacts to new game results. It should be set so as to efficiently account for new data but not overreact to it. (In a more technical sense, the goal is to minimize autocorrelation.) If K is set too high, the ratings will jump around too much; if it’s set too low, Elo will take too long to recognize important changes in team quality.We found the optimal K for the NBA to be 20. This is higher than we expected; it’s in the same range as the K used for NFL and international soccer Elo ratings even though the NBA plays far more games than those sports. It’s much higher than the optimal K for baseball. It implies that you ought to give relatively high weight to an NBA team’s recent performance.One way to interpret this is that NBA data is subject to relatively little randomness. This makes it different from sports like baseball and hockey, whose game-by-game results are pretty noisy; in those sports, your default assumption should be that a winning or losing streak is mostly luck. That isn’t so true for basketball. Streaks may reflect true, if perhaps temporary, changes in team quality. When the Atlanta Hawks went on a 19-game winning streak this season, for instance, they were undoubtedly getting a little lucky, but they were probably tougher to beat than at other points in the season.There are still some cases in which Elo seems too slow to catch up to reality, like when Michael Jordan left the Bulls or LeBron James left the Cavs. But remember: Elo is only looking at game scores and not the composition of the roster. If that’s all the information you have, setting Elo to react more quickly to these cases would make it overreact to others. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Elo rating never dipped below 1508 this year despite its 3-12 start, for instance, and that proved to be prudent since the team went 42-25 the rest of the way and ended the year with an Elo rating of 1583.Home-Court AdvantageHome-court advantage is set as equivalent to 100 Elo rating points. One hundred Elo points is equivalent to about 3.5 NBA points,1As for our NFL Elo ratings, it’s possible to translate NBA Elo ratings into point spreads. Here’s the formula: Take the difference of the two teams’ Elo ratings, add 100 points for the home team and then divide by 28. That gives you a projected margin of victory for the game. For instance, in Game 1 of the 2013-14 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs had a 92-point Elo advantage over the Miami Heat, as well as home court, for an overall advantage of 192 Elo points. Dividing that by 28 would make San Antonio roughly 7-point favorites in the game. so that’s like saying the home team would be favored by 3 or 4 points if the teams were otherwise evenly matched.In practice, the magnitude of home-court advantage has waxed and waned over the NBA’s history. Home teams won by an average of 5.8 points in the 1987-88 regular season, for instance, but by just 2.4 points in the past season. And some teams (especially those like Denver and Utah that play at high altitudes) have historically had slightly larger home-court advantages.Still, the spirit of the Elo system is to keep things simple. We experimented with a dynamic home-court advantage rating that changes over time, but we found that it made almost no difference to the overall ratings, partly because each NBA team plays about half its games at home and half on the road. So we’re using the constant 100-point home-court advantage instead.Margin of VictoryElo strikes a nice balance between ratings systems that account for margin of victory and those that don’t. While teams always gain Elo points after wins and lose Elo points after losses, they gain or lose more with larger margins of victory.This works by assigning a multiplier to each game based on the final score and dividing it by a team’s projected margin of victory conditional upon having won the game. For instance, the Warriors’ 4-point margin over the Rockets in Game 1 of this year’s Western Conference finals was lower than Elo would expect for a Warriors win. So the Warriors gain Elo points, but not as many as if they’d won by a larger margin. The formula accounts for diminishing returns; going from a 5-point win to a 10-point win matters more than going from a 25-point win to a 30-point win. For the exact formula, see the footnotes.2The margin of victory multiplier is calculated as follows.Take a team’s margin of victory, add 3 points and then take the result to the power of 0.8.Divide the result by the following formula: 7.5+.006*(elo_diff), where elo_diff represents the Elo rating difference between the teams, accounting for home-court advantage. Elo_diff should be negative in games won by the underdog.For instance, in Game 1 of the Warriors-Rockets series, the Warriors entered the game with a an Elo rating 118 points higher than the Rockets’ and had home-court advantage, for an elo_diff of +218. They wound up winning the game by 4 points. Thus, their margin of victory multiplier is calculated as follows:What if the Rockets had won by 4 points instead? Since they were underdogs, they’d get a larger multiplier:While this formula may seem clunky, it accounts for the fact that favorites tend to win games by larger margins than they lose them. Failing to correct for this will introduce autocorrelation into the system and make the ratings less stable. See here for further discussion.Year-to-Year Carry-OverInstead of resetting each team’s rating when a new season begins, Elo carries over a portion of a team’s rating from one season to the next. In our NFL Elo ratings, teams retain two-thirds of their rating from the end of the previous season. In our NBA ratings, by contrast, they keep three-quarters of it. The higher fraction reflects the fact that NBA teams are more consistent from year to year than NFL squads.For example, the Miami Heat ended the 2012-13 NBA season with an Elo rating of 1754. The team’s Elo rating for the start of the 2013-14 season is calculated as follows:(.75 * 1754) + (.25 * 1505) = 1692Detail-oriented readers may see something that seems amiss here. Each team’s Elo rating is reverted to the mean, and — as we’ve said — the long-term mean Elo rating is 1500. So why does a slightly different number, 1505, appear in the formula?Expansion, Contraction and MergersThe reason has to do with the way we handle expansion teams. In principle, the implementation of this is pretty simple. Each franchise begins with an Elo rating of 1300 in its inaugural professional season. The reason we revert to a mean of 1505 rather than 1500 is that there are liable to be a couple of relatively recent expansion teams in the league at any given time. Giving established teams a rating very slightly higher than 1500 counteracts the expansion teams and keeps the league average Elo close to 1500 over the long run.But the league average Elo rating will be slightly different from 1500 in any given season, depending on how recently the league has expanded. It was 1504.5 during the 2014-15 NBA season, for instance, slightly higher than the long-term average because the NBA hasn’t expanded much recently.The league average tended to fluctuate more in the early years of the NBA because of constant expansion, contraction and mergers with other leagues. (We’ve learned way more than we wanted to know about the early history of American professional basketball, like that you could have once watched a game between teams named the Indianapolis Kautskys and the Akron Firestone Non-Skids.) The league average reached a peak of 1534.5 in 1954-55 after a number of losing teams had disbanded. By contrast, it was just 1440.5 in the 1970-71 season after the NBA expanded rapidly.There’s one other tricky part. We said a team begins with a rating of 1300 in its first professional season. That doesn’t mean its first NBA season. Instead, teams get credit for their performance in predecessor leagues that merged with the NBA:The Basketball Association of America (BAA), which began play in 1946-47, is usually considered the official predecessor of the NBA. So we track all BAA teams’ Elo ratings explicitly, starting them at 1300 in 1946-47.We also track American Basketball Association (ABA) Elo ratings explicitly — yes, that includes The Floridians! — starting them at a rating of 1300 in the ABA’s inaugural season of 1967-68. The year-end adjustment takes care of the rest, allowing the ABA’s performance to gradually improve over time. The four ABA teams that joined the NBA in 1976-77 simply carry over their ratings from ABA. Because these teams — the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and New York Nets — had been among the more successful ABA franchises, Elo ratings imply that the merger with the ABA did not weaken the NBA much. The four ABA imports averaged a respectable 40-42 record in their first three NBA seasons, in fact.The National Basketball League (NBL) was a competing professional basketball league that began play in 1937-38 and included colorfully named franchises like the Non-Skids. It merged into the BAA in advance of the 1949-50 season, at which point the combined league was renamed the NBA. In fact, most of the better franchises in the early days of the NBA originated in the NBL rather than the BAA, including the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals and Fort Wayne Pistons. While we could not track down game-by-game results for the NBL, we inferred Elo ratings for NBL teams based on the season standings and playoff results, and these ratings carry over when teams enter the NBA. For instance, the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) begin with a rating of 1458 in their first NBA season in 1949-50.Finally, one early NBA team, the Baltimore Bullets, originated in a third early league, the American Basketball League (ABL). Confusingly, that original version of the Baltimore Bullets bears no relationship with the team that would later play as the Baltimore Bullets from 1963 to 1973 (and which is now known as the Washington Wizards). However, Elo gives the original Baltimore Bullets credit for the seasons they played in the ABL.3Since data on the ABL is very hard to come by, the Bullets’ initial rating is simply calculated by starting them with a rating of 1300 and then reverting them toward the mean of 1505 for each season they played in that league. You can find the starting Elo ratings for the Bullets and NBL teams below: 180067-15All-time great 130022-60LOL 140031-51In the lottery Rochester RoyalsSacramento Kings19481535 Minneapolis LakersLos Angeles Lakers19481527 Waterloo Hawks–19491382 Tri-Cities BlackhawksAtlanta Hawks19491430 Teams retain their prior Elo ratings when they change cities or nicknames. This includes the teams now known as the New Orleans Pelicans and Charlotte Hornets. The NBA, in a bit of revisionist history, considers the current Charlotte Hornets (who were known as the Charlotte Bobcats until this season) to “own” the statistics of the team that played as the Charlotte Hornets from 1988-89 through 2001-02, before they moved to New Orleans. We instead link those Hornets seasons with the New Orleans Hornets, who are now the New Orleans Pelicans. Denver Nuggets–19491295 Syracuse NationalsPhiladelphia 76ers19491458 160051-31Playoff bound Hopefully if you’re reading this, you’ve had a chance to explore our new interactive graphic, “The Complete History Of The NBA,” which tracks each NBA and ABA franchise’s performance through every game of its history.So now for the exciting part: 2,000 words about autocorrelation and the Akron Firestone Non-Skids.Actually, this won’t be too bad because Elo is a pretty simple formula. The guts of the system are the same as we used for the NFL and which other researchers have applied to competitions ranging from chess to soccer. For those new to Elo, here are its essential features:The ratings depend only on the final score of each game and where it was played (home-court advantage). They include both regular-season and playoff games. The principal source for game-by-game scores is Basketball-Reference.com.Teams always gain Elo points after winning games and lose ground after losing them. They gain more points for upset wins and for winning by wider margins.The system is zero-sum. When the Denver Nuggets gained 30 Elo points by upsetting the No. 1 seed Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 NBA playoffs, the Sonics lost 30 points.Ratings are established on a game-by-game rather than a season-by-season basis. So you can see changes in a team’s “form” over the course of the year: The Toronto Raptors had a much higher rating early in the 2014-15 season than at the end of it, while the reverse has been true for the Cleveland Cavaliers.The long-term average Elo rating is 1500, although it can vary slightly in any particular year based on how recently the league has expanded (more about that below). More than 90 percent of team ratings are between 1300 (pretty awful) and 1700 (really good), but historically great or truly execrable teams can fall outside that range: Indianapolis Jets–19481366 170060-22Title contender NBL/ABL TEAMCURRENT FRANCHISEFIRST YEAR IN NBA/BAASTARTING ELO
Former Charlotte head coach Alan Major, right, hired by Ohio State. Courtesy: TNSAfter three seasons of not meeting expectations, it appears Ohio State coach Thad Matta is bringing back another member of his staff that brought him some of his best teams.Alan Major is returning to Matta’s staff for the 2016 season, but this time in a new role. The team said he will serve the role of director of recruiting and player development.Major has spent plenty of time working under Matta. He was an assistant coach to Matta at Xavier University from 2001 to 2004 and went on to OSU to coach under Matta again. From 2004 to 2010, Major helped to recruit and develop big men. He left after the 2010 season to serve as the head coach of UNC-Charlotte for five seasons where he accumulated a career record of 67-70 before leaving the team due to health issues during the 2014-2015 season.Prior to his time with Matta, Major served as an assistant coach at Cal Lutheran from 1992-95, Pacific from 1995-98, Southern Illinois from 1998-99 and Pacific again from 1999-2000.“Alan has many skills and talents above and beyond those he’s utilized as a coach over the years,” Matta said in an email. “I want him to help us develop a complete and well-rounded student-athlete. Alan is the perfect fit for this position.”Major is no stranger to developing players. In his vast college basketball career spanning 23 years serving as either assistant coach or head coach, he has coached such players as former OSU first round NBA selections Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Evan Turner as well as former Xavier star and first rounder David West and Pacific No. 1 overall selection Michael Olowokandi. Nearly everywhere he has gone, Major has found success. While Major worked with Matta both at Xavier and OSU, he contributed to a 234-77 record in his nine years. He reached the NCAA a total of seven times, once at Xavier reaching the Final Four (2004) and once going as far as the national championship game (2007). In 2008, the pair won the National Invitation Tournament title.Along with Major, OSU announced that former manager and graduate assistant Kyle Davis has been promoted to the video coordinator position vacated after Jake Diebler left for an assistant coaching job at Vanderbilt.Davis served as recruiting coordinator for the summer until Major was hired. As a graduate assistant in 2015-16, Davis helped the coaching staff with coordinating recruiting visits and preparing nearly all video footage used for game preparation. This is his first coaching job.
Six years ago, the Ohio State Buckeyes were at the end of arguably their most disappointing season under coach Jim Tressel. Heading into the last week of the regular season, the Buckeyes were 6-4 and looking ahead to what would be the first non-January bowl game of the Tressel era. Then one game changed the outlook of not only the entire season, but also the entire OSU football program. On Nov. 20, 2004, the Buckeyes stunned the No. 7 Michigan Wolverines in Ohio Stadium behind 391 yards of total offense from quarterback Troy Smith. In one game, the Buckeyes went from a disappointing team that lacked an identity to a team with a quarterback of the future who provided them with just that. It was also the start of a streak of domination in the rivalry for the Buckeyes, who have won six straight contests against the Wolverines, outscoring them 181-101 in that stretch. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is hopeful that a win Saturday against the Buckeyes will provide a similar reversal of fortunes for the Wolverines. “It’d mean an awful lot, certainly for our fans and for our university, but more importantly for our seniors and our players because they haven’t had the chance to win that,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got to perform better and get some wins to make us feel better and make our fans feel better.” In his first two seasons as Michigan’s coach, Rodriguez’s teams have lost 42-7 and 21-10 to the Buckeyes. This year’s Wolverine team is the most formidable — at least offensively — that Rodriguez will bring into “The Game.” Unlike Rodriguez’s first two seasons, Michigan’s offensive personnel now fit its spread scheme. The Wolverines have found success behind dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson, an early-season Heisman candidate who fell out of contention because of injuries and a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season. Robinson has rushed for 1,538 yards and 14 touchdowns and has thrown for 2,229 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the Wolverines to a 7-4 record that will land them in their first bowl game under Rodriguez. Tressel said Robinson’s ability to both run and throw the ball makes him difficult to prepare for. “It’s impossible to simulate him because there’s no one like him,” Tressel said. “It’s a tremendous challenge because it gives you all of the problems that a Wildcat offense gives you with a great running back back there. But along with it, it has all of the passing problems.” Robinson has played a critical role in Michigan’s offense, which is ranked 10th in the nation in rushing, with 257.4 yards per game, and 15th in the nation in points scored, with 36.8 points per game. Michigan’s defense has failed to find the same success that its offense has, as it is ranked 99th in the country in scoring, giving up 33.5 points per game. Despite the statistics, Robinson said he hasn’t lost confidence in his team’s defense. “I think our defense is one of the best defenses in the nation,” Robinson said. “I don’t care what nobody say. We play against them every day, and they help us get better.” Tressel agreed that the statistics don’t necessarily tell the tale of the Michigan defense. “They’ve given up too many big plays, but the thing I love about them is I see them flying around and I see a lot of young guys who aren’t young anymore,” Tressel said. The longest streak in the rivalry thus far came from 1901-1909, when the Wolverines got the better of the Buckeyes for nine straight years. A win on Saturday would move OSU two games away from matching that streak. “There’s been pressure every year. It’s something that comes with it,” OSU wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. “Nobody wants to be the team that breaks the streak.” With a share of the Big Ten title and a potential sixth straight trip to a BCS bowl game still within grasp, the Buckeyes have more than just pride to play for. OSU defensive end Cameron Heyward said the Buckeyes understand the high stakes. “A lot. A share of the Big Ten title and our biggest rival,” Heyward said. “Michigan is always going to play their best against us. We wouldn’t have it any other way to go out against a quality opponent. It’ll be a rough one, but we’re ready for it.” Regardless of bowl game implications, the Buckeyes remain focused on extending their winning streak over the Wolverines to a lucky No. 7. “The Ohio State-Michigan game is the focus,” Tressel said. “There are tons of by-products for everybody, but the single most one everyone knows that’s ever coached or played at Ohio State is that you’re defined by your Ohio State-Michigan games.”
Before his fateful back injury, if you had asked New Jersey native and high school quarterback Will Lauricella where he’d be in two years, he wouldn’t have told you he’d be a javelin thrower on the track and field team at Ohio State. When faced with a stress fracture in his lower vertebrae, Lauricella made a life-changing decision. “I decided for my safety not to do football anymore and all my friends were doing track and field so I decided to go out for the team with them,” Lauricella said. “I fell in love with it.” Lauricella made the choice and hasn’t looked back. The freshman placed first at four consecutive meets before finally meeting his match at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 29. Lauricella decided to look at the positive side of the losing performance. “The Drake Relays was the biggest learning experience of my life for my javelin career,” he said. “I learned that, to be successful in the javelin in a college career, you just really have to be consistent and throw your marks.” Consistency has defined Lauricella’s performance this season. In all five outings, he’s thrown more than 60 meters. Sophomore teammate Aaron Roberts is impressed with what’s he’s seen from Lauricella. “Obviously, he’s off to a great start to his career,” Roberts said. “He won his first three or four meets and that’s really awesome. … For a freshman to come in and really help us out like that is a huge benefit for our team, and he’s set himself up for a great four years here.” When Lauricella arrived, there was much discussion that he may be redshirted. However, Lauricella’s throws impressed his coach so much that they decided to start him as a true freshman. “We were going to redshirt him, but he was looking so good in practice we decided, ‘Let’s just throw him in,’” coach Robert Gary said. Even Lauricella wasn’t entirely sure he was ready to face top collegiate competition. “We were talking about redshirting at first,” Lauricella said. “I only have a couple years under my belt of this, but the fact that I have such a good chance to even win Big Tens or score high is just great so far. I never thought I’d be at this point.” Gary was confident Lauricella was ready to perform. “We just thought, ‘Let’s not waste it; let’s let him go,’” Gary said. Going into the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, Lauricella is ranked fourth among Big Ten javelin throwers. But his sights are set on taking first place this weekend. “I’m hoping for one to three, but I really think if I throw my best and the competition throws the way they’ve been throwing, I should be shooting for one or two,” Lauricella said. But no matter where he places, Lauricella said he’s happy with his first season at OSU. “I would say being injury-free and winning my first couple meets in college was the most rewarding part,” he said. “I never would have thought that I could come in and be so successful.” In his first season, Lauricella planted firm roots within the track and field program. He’s developed a unique bond with his coaches, and Gary likes to give his thrower a hard time. “I call him ‘Jersey Shore’ guy,” Gary said. “You know, always tan, hair always looks good.” When Lauricella’s father posted his son’s nickname as “Will the thrill,” Gary had to poke fun. “Everyone keeps giving me a lot of stuff for this nickname,” Lauricella said. “To be honest, it’s really not my nickname. My dad put it up there and coach Gary found it, and they’ve been calling me it since. … They like to make fun of me for it, but I’m starting to embrace it.” In his time at OSU, Lauricella’s performance has surprised even himself. Always a hard worker, Lauricella said he knows he has had help along the way. “I really have to thank my high school coach and the professional help I got during high school also,” he said, “but none of this would have been possible without coach (Kevin) Mannon and everything that he’s taught me since I got to Ohio State.” Lauricella is still learning, and feels his best is still to come. Although he’s a long way from New Jersey, Lauricella says he feels at home at OSU. “It’s absolutely a whole different world,” he said. “I’m used to only seeing populated areas. It’s very nice. It’s very laid-back. It’s much more lax. Everyone’s a lot nicer out here … no complaints about it. I’m very happy where I’m at.”
Tyler Moeller still remembers No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan’s 2006 battle in Ohio Stadium. He said he never imagined his college memories would be the last of his football career. “I just can’t forget my freshman year – the excitement of winning the game and everyone storming the field and taking the grass of the field because we were going to turf the next year,” Moeller said. “Thousands of people holding up big chunks of grass over their head like they just conquered the world.” The possibility of an NFL career for the former OSU safety and linebacker was taken from him after he was allegedly attacked at a bar while with his family in St. Petersburg, Fla., on July 26, 2009. He suffered a fractured skull and a serious brain injury. “It was hard for Tyler. He is so high-strung, so if he wasn’t out there playing, he didn’t feel like he was a part of the team. So really it was as much as us trying to get Tyler back just to be around his friends,” OSU defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell told The Lantern. “By nature, if he’s not playing, he doesn’t feel comfortable. I think that was most difficult.” Moeller returned for the 2010 season, but his troubles did not end there. Moeller suffered a pectoral injury five games into the 2010 season after already missing nearly two seasons. Fickell said Moeller was physically behind but mentally ready to start playing again. “I think that was the biggest thing, to see if he really, truly was back, because sometimes when you’re not being yourself, coming off of injuries of different sorts, you’re vulnerable to more injuries because you’re not playing like you normally do, puts you in almost more harm,” Fickell said. Moeller came back during the 2011 season for the Buckeyes and accumulated a total of 44 tackles and one interception. After the season, Moeller began training for the NFL Draft, but he ultimately accepted a medical sales position with VWR International, a chemical and laboratory supplier headquartered in Radnor, Pa., four weeks into the process. “It was one of the toughest decisions I have had to make because one, so many injuries, first with the head injury then the chest, my body physically was just a wreck. It’s still a wreck now,” Moeller said. “I feel fine now, but I don’t want that to affect me in 10 or 20 years and have it come back to haunt me.” Dr. Paul Gubanich is a team physician for OSU Sports Medicine and an assistant clinical professor of internal medicine at OSU. Gubanich previously worked with professional football players as a member of the Cleveland Browns’ medical staff from 2004-2010. Gubanich cited head injuries that players receive during their careers as a continuing issue throughout their retirement. “Right now, people are having issues down the road, consequences decades later,” Gubanich said. “There is evidence with athletes who have three or more concussions are likely to become depressed or suffer other cognitive problems. And there are retired NFL players that are looking at mental health diseases after playing.” Moeller said many wanted him to continue playing, but he knew it wasn’t what was best for his body. “It was junior year of high school, I knew I wanted to play for a big-time college, ” Moeller said. “In college, I wanted to do whatever I could do to get to the next level.” Moeller said that he is enjoying his life after OSU football. “Everything’s so convenient out here,” Moeller said. “I have a Whole Foods about 200 feet away from me, so everything is just so close.” Fickell said one of the hardest things for players is realizing when it’s time to move on, but seeing Moeller develop other interests while finishing his OSU career was the transformation he needed. “That’s the one thing you miss when you see guys transition from football to whatever you want to call the real world – moving on and changing what they have a passion for,” Fickell said. “Sometimes, guys are still holding on to the game of football – you saw Tyler transform and hopefully he’ll be successful because he is such a passionate person.”
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, right, is stopped after catching a pass for a short gain by Cleveland Browns defensive back Joe Haden at FirstEnergy Stadium Sunday, Sept. 29. The Browns won, 17-6.Credit: Courtesy of MCTThe Cincinnati Bengals return home to face the undefeated New England Patriots this Sunday in a game that has great implications.If the Bengals pull out the win, last week’s loss to the Cleveland Browns will be viewed as an anomaly. But with a loss and perhaps another weak outing by quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals may find themselves searching for ways to salvage their season.At home, the Bengals (2-2) are undefeated and performed much better against the pass than they have on the road. They have held Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in check, forcing Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers into a two interception performance and limiting Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to 278 yards of total offense.Meanwhile on the road, Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Brian Hoyer of the Browns were able to find the holes in Cincinnati’s secondary to help their respective teams win. Bengals fans can only hope that this pattern continues in week five when they face three-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.However, the Patriots, though undefeated, have question marks of their own. Brady began the season with a significantly inexperienced group of receivers who have struggled to stay on the same page as their quarterback. But the wide receivers have shown recent signs of improvement as both Kenbrell Thompkins (127 yards receiving) and Julian Edelman (118 yards receiving) had strong games last week against the Atlanta Falcons.On defense, New England must deal with the loss of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork who sustained a season-ending injury (achilles) against Atlanta. Wilfork is key to the Patriots’ ability to stop the run. Over the last five seasons, New England is ranked ninth against the rush with Wilfork on the field and dead last without him.But the Bengals cannot concern themselves with their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses at this point. They have the talent to beat almost any team in the league, as evidenced by their comeback victory over the Packers. But when they fail to execute on offense, they are capable of losing to any opponent, including a team depleted of its starting quarterback, just like the Browns.While Hoyer gave an inspired performance, Cincinnati’s lack of offense was the biggest factor in the loss. The Bengals converted only four of 14 third down attempts against Cleveland and gained only 16 first downs. Meanwhile, the Falcons lost to the Patriots in week four despite picking up 26 first downs. If offensive coordinator Jay Gruden cannot make the proper adjustments and Dalton continues to miss open receivers, the promise that surrounded the Bengals before the season will quickly vanish.