The United States kicks off its 2014 World Cup campaign on Monday against Ghana, the team that eliminated the Stars and Stripes from the 2010 tournament in the round of 16. That’s the must-watch game in the U.S. But for most of the rest of the world, it’s Germany versus Portugal.See our World Cup interactive for the latest probabilities. — Allison McCannIN DEPTHSo what’s changed for Ghana and the U.S. since they last faced each other on this stage?America’s lineup has been transformed in the four years since 2010’s disappointment. Only four of the U.S. starting 11 from the loss to Ghana — goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielders Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, and striker Jozy Altidore — will be in coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s opening lineup Monday. (The most notable absence is Landon Donovan, though central defender Carlos Bocanegra was another useful veteran who saw his role with Team USA phased out in recent years.)Klinsmann made clear his preference for a fresh group during the selection process, and — Donovan’s ouster aside — that’s not a bad thing. New faces since 2010, including Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron, have acquitted themselves reasonably well for clubs in Europe, a factor Klinsmann values highly. Graham Zusi, Brad Davis and Matt Besler are playing effectively in MLS. The cupboard isn’t quite as bare as is widely believed, though the U.S. is still far from elite in the talent department.As for Ghana, it’s turned over six of its eleven starting slots from four years ago — although most of its best players from 2010 are back, including jack-of-all-trades Kwadwo Asamoah, midfielders Andre Ayew, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Michael Essien, and striker Asamoah Gyan. The Black Stars have also promoted the talented two-way midfielder Sulley Muntari into a regular starting role since their last World Cup meeting with the United States. (Needless to say, midfield is the strength of Ghana’s roster.)Most members of that group are plying their trade in top European leagues, so Ghana’s high-end talent is probably superior to that of the United States. But Ghana’s edge in talent hasn’t always translated in international play. It ranked just 38th in the pre-World Cup Elo Ratings, while the Americans ranked 13th.When ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) ranks teams, it attempts to combine these two elements — observed results and underlying talent — into a single rating for a given national team. And the current SPI rankings say the United States and Ghana are in a dead heat. The U.S. ranks 22nd in the world with a 77.53 SPI — meaning the Americans would compile 77.53 percent of the possible points if they played a round robin against every other national team in the world. Ghana ranks 25th, with an SPI of 77.37. That’s the smallest SPI margin between any two teams that will face each other in the group stage of this World Cup.As of Sunday, the sportsbook Bovada has Ghana as a slim favorite over the U.S., 35.8 percent to 34.5 percent (with a 29.7 percent chance of a draw). The FiveThirtyEight match projection system flips those odds around, giving the United States a very slight edge: 37.5 percent to 33 percent. Whatever happens, U.S.-Ghana should be one of the most evenly matched showdowns of the entire World Cup.YesterdayArgentina’s 2-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday served notice to the casual soccer fan: One individual moment of brilliance can overshadow an average game.In the first 64 minutes of the match, Argentina’s Lionel Messi was the game’s most active participant in the attacking third, but the three chances he created didn’t translate into a single shot on goal. And he had turned the ball over a game-high three times.In the 65th minute, Messi reminded the Maracana how quickly he can change a game. He made a run from the midfield, past Bosnian midfielder Muhamed Besic, and played a quick 1-2 ball to teammate Gonzalo Higuain. Messi’s short-burst quickness created separation from Besic, and he hesitated slightly before the shot, driving another Bosnian player into Besic and out of position.Messi then banked a left-footed shot off the post for the eventual game-winning goal, Argentina’s first shot on goal of the match and only the second goal of Messi’s World Cup career. From his first touch in midfield to the ball crossing the goal line, the entire sequence took just over 9.5 seconds and erased the match’s first 64 minutes from spectators’ memory.That was all it took; the night belonged to Messi, whose production under Alejandro Sabella has been outstanding. Messi has 22 goals in 26 international games since Sabella became Argentina’s manager in September 2011, compared with 17 goals in 61 matches under all other managers. — John Parolin, senior stats analyst, ESPNOFF THE PITCHIf Ghana defeats the United States on Monday, Americans shouldn’t be too quick to feel ill-disposed toward the West African nation. The United States imports two bread-and-butter items from Ghana (though they are neither bread nor butter): oil and chocolate. In 2011, just more than 44 percent of Ghanaian exports to the United States was oil (crude and refined) and roughly 42 percent was chocolate (cocoa beans, chocolate, cocoa powder, cocoa paste and cocoa butter). That’s $374,624,626 in chocolate.Ghana also sent $7,016,768 in fake hair to the U.S. Thanks, Ghana!What does the U.S. send to Ghana? Cars — worth about $303 million in 2011. — Micah CohenFurther ReadingCtrl + ← The World Cup, the World Cup And the World CupHow Soccer Explains the Sports Page
After all three teams lost Wednesday, the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants remain locked in a three-way tie for the National League’s two wild-card slots. Our prediction model, which is based on a simulation that uses each team’s Elo rating, gives New York a 75 percent chance of grabbing at least one of those two slots, with St. Louis at 62 percent and San Francisco at 59 percent.1There’s also a slim chance — 4 percent — that either the Pirates or the Marlins sneaks into a wild card. But what are the odds all three end up tied after the final game of the regular season, thereby triggering a crazy three-game sprint to the Division Series?Elo assigns a 3 percent chance that the Cardinals, Mets and Giants have the same record on Oct. 2. However, it also projects that there’s a 0.5 percent chance a three-way tie could include the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies or even the Dodgers, if San Francisco somehow chases them down for the NL West title. Add it all up, and there’s about a 3.5 percent chance of a three-way tie in the NL.What might surprise you is that, although the NL has three teams tied right now, the odds of a three-way tie in the AL are almost double those of a tie in the NL. The AL’s possibilities are more varied; most include some combination of Toronto, Baltimore, Houston and Detroit, with other, more exotic combos that also involve the Mariners, the Yankees and even division leaders such as the Red Sox and Indians (if they botch the season’s final week and a half). No single AL trio is more likely than the NL’s Cardinals/Mets/Giants combo — the AL’s most likely is Baltimore/Houston/Toronto with a 1.1 percent chance of occurring — but because there are more viable contenders, the sum of all the various permutations comes out to a 6.2 percent probability of some three-team tie happening.In any event, today’s odds of 3.5 percent in the NL and 6.2 percent in the AL imply a 9.6 percent chance that we’ll see a three-way tie somewhere.2Multiplying 96.5 percent by 93.8 percent — the respective chance of each league not having a three-way tie — and subtracting the result from 100 percent yields 9.6 percent. There’s also a 0.2 percent chance that both leagues will have three-way ties. If we do, MLB’s tiebreaking rules are going to be a treat for those who love geeking out over strategies and hypotheticals.Say Mets/Cardinals/Giants does happen in the NL. In that case, the Cardinals would have top priority among the three (because of their superior intradivision record over the Mets and head-to-head-record over the Giants) and host a game for one of the wild-card slots. But the fun really begins in determining their opponent. The Mets have the next-highest priority, and they could choose to play on the road against St. Louis and, if they lose, play on the road again versus San Francisco in the next tiebreaker. Or they could let the Giants travel to St. Louis for the first tiebreaker game, then face the loser in a do-or-die contest at home.As Jayson Stark wrote Thursday morning, no team has chosen to slice its tiebreaker chances in half by taking the single-home-game option instead of having two cracks at it on the road, if necessary.3New York wouldn’t need the second try if it won the first tiebreaker against St. Louis. The Mets’ injury-riddled staff is in such shambles, however, that the team might ponder it. Elo would give New York a 73 percent chance of winning at least one of two road games against the Cardinals and Giants with top two starters Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz4Assuming Matz is available after an injury knocked him out in late August. This calculation also is based on the assumption that the Cardinals and Giants trot out a starter as good as the average of their respective rotations for these tiebreaker games. on the mound — if it can manage to set its rotation enough for that 1-2 punch — compared with only a 55 percent chance with Syndergaard starting one game at home. But burning through two starters could leave the Mets with a subpar starter on the hill — and as low as a 45 percent chance of winning the wildcard game.5Assuming the Mets use their worst starter, Robert Gsellman, against St. Louis or San Francisco. Compelling, but probably not enough to justify giving up the 18 percentage point difference between having two tiebreaker chances6Again, if necessary. and just one.Of course, that’s all assuming the 3.5 percent chance of a three-way tie even becomes a reality. A two-way tie is far more in the realm of possibility — 30 percent likely in the AL, and 22 percent in the NL — but right now it’s only about 50-507Based on a 36 percent chance of some tiebreaker in the AL and 25.3 percent chance in the NL, there’s a 47.8 percent chance that neither league produces a tie to be broken with an extra game and a 7.9 percent chance that things get really wild and both teams need at least one extra game (using the same kind of calculation we used for the chance that neither league has a tie.) that we’ll see any tiebreaker at all, despite how the standings look currently. Still, that’s a lot higher than the 1.4 percent chance of one before the season.
2000LakersO’Neal10.0Bryant5.0Horry2.5 1987LakersJohnson8.2Abdul-Jabbar2.2Worthy2.0 This makes for a fairly intuitive list. LeBron, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are the league’s six Alphas. Chris Paul falls just short of the Alpha category; instead, he joins players such as Hayward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis on the Beta list. Gammas include players like Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, John Wall, DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap.So then all you need is an Alpha, a Beta and a Gamma and — presto! — you win an NBA championship? Actually, your options are more flexible than that. A team with an Alpha and a Beta — say, this year’s Houston Rockets — could probably skip the Gamma if they had a deep rotation. A team with no Alphas but three Betas — say, Jimmy Butler, Antetokounmpo and Kyle Lowry — would more than likely be good enough to contend for a title. A team with a very strong Alpha could go without a Beta and make up for it with two or more Gammas instead — that’s sort of how the current Cavaliers are constructed.To help teams think through these decisions, let’s invent one more statistic, which I’ll call star points. The formula is simple: A team gets three star points for each Alpha on its roster, two for each Beta, and one for each Gamma. Next year’s Warriors project to have 9 star points, for example: three each for Curry and Durant, two for Draymond Green and one for Klay Thompson.Even having that much talent on your roster doesn’t necessarily guarantee a title. But historically, a team’s chances of winning a title are remote if it has four or fewer star points. It has a fighting chance with five or six star points, depending on how the rest of the roster is constructed. And its probability increases rapidly once it acquires seven or more star points. 725832.0– 216721.2– 1992BullsJordan8.7Grant5.7Pippen5.6 1986CelticsBird7.7McHale5.4Parish2.5 Rudy Gobert3.6Kevin Love2.4 2016CavaliersJames8.9Love3.2Irving2.1 2013HeatJames10.6Wade5.8Bosh1.2 1993BullsJordan9.4Pippen3.6Grant2.7 LeBron James7.0G. Antetokounmpo5.2John Wall3.0 114700.0 To no one’s surprise, the best players on title-winning teams are usually extraordinary talents. Among the 33 NBA champions since 1985, the top-rated player on the team, according to CPM, was one of the three best players in the league that season on 23 occasions. And the team’s best player was among the top 10 in the league on all but three occasions. The exceptions were Bill Laimbeer of the 1988-89 and 1989-90 Pistons (CPM, perhaps dubiously, rates Laimbeer ahead of his teammate, the other Isiah Thomas) and Ben Wallace of the 2003-04 Pistons. Pretty much all the other No. 1 players are current or future Hall of Famers, however, with the possible exception of Manu Ginobili, who may be a borderline case.No matter how brightly he shines, however, a superstar usually can’t deliver a title without a good sidekick or two.6Take LeBron James’s 2012-13 season, for example, when he had a CPM of +10.6 and played almost 38 minutes per game — about as good as an NBA player can be under modern conditions. A team with that version of LeBron, plus a roster full of replacement-level players, would still project to go only 41-41, according to our forecasting method. A team with that version of LeBron plus a roster full of league-average players (as opposed to replacement-level players) would project to go 59-23, which is closer to being a title contender. League-average players don’t just grow on trees, however. On average, the second-best player on these championship teams was the 14th-best player in the league, according to CPM. And although not every champ had a classic “Big Three” like LeBron James’s Miami Heat, the third-best player on the championship team rated as the 37th-best player in the league, on average — still very solid.So let’s get back to the idea of Alpha, Beta and Gamma players, which were meant to correspond to a typical championship team’s best, second-best and third-best players. By looking at the historical data, we can define these classifications as follows:An Alpha has a CPM of +6.0 or higher.A Beta has a CPM of between +3.5 and +6.0.And a Gamma has a CPM of between +2.0 and +3.5.I re-ran CARMELO using CPM instead of its usual blend of statistics, and it projected the following players to be Alphas, Betas and Gammas for the upcoming NBA season: 410321.9– 2008CelticsGarnett7.8Pierce4.5Allen2.8 2005SpursDuncan7.5Ginobili7.1Barry1.9 Kawhi Leonard6.8Anthony Davis4.3Paul George2.9 CONSENSUS PLUS-MINUS 2002LakersO’Neal8.4Bryant4.7Horry1.9 ALPHASBETASGAMMAS 1990PistonsLaimbeer3.8Rodman2.6Thomas1.7 STAR POINTSTEAMSCHAMPIONSCHAMPIONSHIP PROBABILITY Victor Oladipo2.1 1996BullsJordan9.4Pippen5.6Kukoc4.6 1997BullsJordan7.7Pippen5.5Kukoc4.1 2006HeatWade8.0O’Neal5.2Mourning2.4 1994RocketsOlajuwon5.8Horry1.9Thorpe1.6 314342.8– Kevin Durant6.7Karl-Anthony Towns4.1Mike Conley2.9 2011MavericksNowitzki4.9Chandler2.8Kidd1.9 2015WarriorsCurry9.9Green4.4Thompson4.3 1989PistonsLaimbeer3.8Rodman3.1Johnson1.3 DeMarcus Cousins4.1Isaiah Thomas2.8 1991BullsJordan10.9Pippen4.9Grant3.6 Draymond Green3.8Kyrie Irving2.8 1985LakersJohnson5.6Abdul-Jabbar5.3Worthy1.6 CPM reflects a combination of Real Plus-Minus, Box Plus/Minus, Win Shares and player efficiency rating.* Player was acquired midseason. His +/- total reflects performance for entire season, and not just for the acquiring club. 642614.3– Star points: 3 points per Alpha player, 2 points per Beta player, and 1 point per Gamma player. Table includes all teams since the 1984-85 season. 2009LakersBryant6.0Gasol3.6Odom3.0 2004PistonsB. Wallace4.3Billups3.8R. Wallace*1.7 How good were the best players on recent NBA champions?Player ratings based on Consensus Plus-Minus (CPM) Blake Griffin3.7Otto Porter Jr.2.5 8 or more13430.8– 2010LakersBryant4.5Gasol3.7Odom2.2 1995RocketsDrexler*6.1Olajuwon5.7Smith1.0 1998BullsJordan6.0Pippen5.0Kukoc2.5 1999SpursRobinson6.9Duncan5.2Elie2.8 YEARTEAMNO. 1 PLAYER+/-NO. 2 PLAYER+/-NO. 3 PLAYER+/- Hassan Whiteside2.0 Kyle Lowry3.7Paul Millsap2.6 James Harden7.4Jimmy Butler5.5Bradley Beal3.2 Gordon Hayward3.8DeAndre Jordan2.7 Who are the NBA’s championship-caliber players?Projections based on Consensus Plus-Minus for 2017-18 57479.5– Klay Thompson2.1 CPM reflects a combination of Real Plus-Minus, Box Plus/Minus, Win Shares and player efficiency rating CJ McCollum2.1 Russell Westbrook8.2Chris Paul5.9Damian Lillard3.3 Average22.214.171.124 2003SpursDuncan7.5Robinson3.8Ginobili1.1 1988LakersJohnson5.2Scott3.1Worthy1.9 Kemba Walker2.2 021600.0% 2017WarriorsDurant8.3Curry6.7Green3.7 2012HeatJames10.8Wade7.5Bosh1.7 2001LakersO’Neal8.9Bryant4.8Fox0.6 2007SpursGinobili7.2Duncan6.6Parker3.4 PLAYER+/-PLAYER+/-PLAYER+/- Stephen Curry7.0Nikola Jokic4.8DeMar DeRozan3.0 2014SpursGinobili4.8Leonard4.8Mills3.2 How much star power does an NBA team need?Probability of team winning a championship based on star points The Boston Celtics, after whiffing on trades for Jimmy Butler and Paul George, finally got some good news this week when Gordon Hayward announced that he was leaving the Utah Jazz to play for the Celtics. Although Isaiah Thomas would have some beef with this assessment, Hayward’s well-rounded combination of skills will probably make him the best player on the Celtics next year. He’s a good fit with the team’s approach.And yet, projection systems (including our own CARMELO) are somewhat skeptical of the Celtics, not expecting them to improve on last year’s 53-29 performance or to seriously challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. Hayward is also fairly expensive; he’ll cost the Celtics $128 million over four years (the fourth season, 2020-21, is a player option). So let’s ask a tough question of Boston and general manager Danny Ainge: If Hayward is the best player on your team, could that team plausibly be good enough to win a championship?The answer is probably not. Hayward made the All-Star team last season, but he’s a long way from being a superstar. A handful of modern NBA teams — the 1988-89 and 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, the 2003-04 Pistons, and the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs — won a title with someone about as good as Hayward as their best player. But this is unusual: It requires a team to be constructed almost perfectly, with above-average players at nearly every position, a deep bench, and a cohesive rotation. It sometimes also requires a fair amount of luck.1The “Bad Boys” Pistons peaked just as the 1980s Celtics and Lakers were declining, but before Michael Jordan’s Bulls really took off, for example.But Hayward can be a building block toward a championship. He’s roughly as good as the second-best player on a typical championship team. That might sound like faint praise, but it’s no small achievement.Let’s develop some terminology to describe degrees of the stardom in the NBA. I’ll introduce three types of players: Alphas, Betas and Gammas.An Alpha is a player who’s as good as the best player on a typical championship-winning team. This is an MVP contender — one of the half-dozen best players in the league.A Beta is as good as the second-best player on a typical NBA champion. As I mentioned, Hayward is a good example of a Beta. Betas are usually All-Stars, perhaps even All-Star starters, and they’re among the best players at their position. But they’re not among the very best players in the league.And a Gamma is good as third-best player on a typical championship team. A Gamma might be an All-Star, but he usually won’t make one of the three All-NBA teams. He probably has one or two weaknesses (defense, shooting, etc.) along with his obvious strengths. But he’s still a very good player and might be the best player on a non-contending team. Thomas, although he’s somewhat difficult to evaluate because of his defense — various statistical systems rate it anywhere from mediocre to execrable2There’s a big difference between mediocre and execrable. If Thomas’s defense is merely somewhat below average, as the NBA’s opponents’ shooting data suggests, then his offense more than makes up for it and he’d probably qualify as a Beta. If it’s terrible, as RPM suggests, then Thomas is barely even an above-average player overall. Classifying Thomas as a Gamma, as CPM does, is something of a compromise between these assessments. — is a reasonably good example of a Gamma.At any given time, only a few dozen players in the league will rated as Alphas, Betas or Gammas. (CARMELO projects that there will be 35 of them in 2017-18, for example.) It’s these players who determine who competes for NBA championships. Doesn’t depth matter also? Well, sure. A well-rounded roster is often the difference between winning a title and losing one. But a team needs its share of star-level talent to compete for a championship in the first place. Otherwise, it’ll usually wind up like last year’s Celtics, a well-constructed team that was overmatched in the playoffs.Below, you’ll find a table listing the top three players on NBA championship teams since 1984-85 — the first year the league used a salary cap — as rated by a statistic called Consensus Plus-Minus. Consensus Plus-Minus, or CPM, is a statistic I use when I don’t want to get into arguments about the value of individual players. It reflects a combination of four popular statistics — Real Plus-Minus,3RPM is available from the 2000-01 season onward. For seasons prior to 2000-01, I use BPM twice in the average. Box Plus/Minus, Win Shares and player efficiency rating — equally weighted and translated to the same scale. It also adjusts for the player’s position, which the other metrics do not,4CPM measures a player’s value relative to the positional average, rather than relative to the league average. Right now, there’s an excess of good centers and point guards but less depth among small forwards and shooting guards. This adjustment helps Hayward, who plays both those positions. and it regresses players’ ratings to replacement level if they fall below a certain threshold of playing time.5If the player plays less than 20 minutes per team game — or 1640 minutes over an 82-game season — his actual CPM is blended with a replacement-level CPM of -2 points per 100 possessions. For predictive purposes, we think CPM is liable to be slightly less accurate than the blend of statistics CARMELO uses (a combination of RPM and BPM), but CPM is still a perfectly reasonable stat and much more in line with the consensus view of NBA players. Like BPM and RPM, CPM is expressed in net points added or subtracted per 100 possessions. So a player with a CPM of +2.5, teamed with four average players, would help his team to outscore his opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions, for example. This system isn’t perfect, but it lines up intuitively with how we evaluate teams. After the Warriors and their nine projected star points next season, the Cavaliers and Rockets are the closest thing the league has to ready-made title contenders, as they’re tied for second at five star points each. They’re followed by the Thunder, Timberwolves and Pelicans at four each; these four-point teams probably need at least one more thing to click (say, George taking the next step in Oklahoma City) to be title-worthy. The Celtics are one of several teams with three star points.This measure can underrate the importance of team depth; the Spurs, who have only three star points, are rated too low, for instance. The Celtics — although they’re losing a few players to make room for Hayward — are also a deep team, with lots of average or slightly-above-average players and lots of draft picks to keep priming the pump. They could probably compete for a title with five star points, therefore, instead of needing six or seven. Adding another Beta-level player might be enough to do the trick.It’s hard to see where that player comes from, however. The Celtics lost some of their financial flexibility in signing Hayward. And while they could develop a star player rather than acquiring one, giving more playing time to young players such as Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum could make them less competitive in the short run.If there’s one Celtics move that looks bad in retrospect, it isn’t necessarily trying and failing to acquire Butler or George, it’s trading the No. 1 draft pick for Philadelphia’s No. 3 pick, with which they chose Tatum. While Tatum has a fairly promising projection, he doesn’t have the upside of No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, whose comparables include players such as Harden, Westbrook and Wall. The trade might have made sense for a team that already had its stars in place and wanted to develop complementary players around them, but the Celtics have plenty of complementary players and are short on stars.At the same time, it would be easy to underestimate the challenge Ainge faced. The Celtics’ 53-29 record last year was deceptive, in that it came against a weak conference and relied on what were arguably career years from several players, including Thomas.7The Celtics also outperformed their 48-34 Pythagorean record by several games. In many respects, they were a rebuilding team dressed up as a competing team. And precisely because the Celtics weren’t just one player away from contending for a title, Ainge needed to acquire a player like Hayward or Butler without compromising the Celtics’ ability to acquire or develop another such player down the road. Even if the Celtics are still a star away from seriously contending for a title — maybe even a superstar away — that’s closer than they were last week.
Before scrolling down and peeking at the table, take a guess: Which team has the highest projected end-of-season win total according to FiveThirtyEight’s latest NFL Elo ratings and playoff odds?While you’re thinking, let me briefly explain what these numbers are all about. A team’s Elo rating represents its current strength — or at least an estimate thereof using a simple method that incorporates margin of victory, home-field advantage, strength of schedule and team quality in previous seasons. (For the really gory details of how the ratings work, click here.) To give you a sense of the scale, the average NFL team always has an Elo rating of 1500, and the ratings usually range from 1700 on the high side to 1300 on the low end of the spectrum.Anyway, once computed, they can be used to derive win probabilities for each game and even point spreads. That’s how we’re able to simulate the remainder of the NFL schedule thousands of times and track each team’s chances of winning the division or making the playoffs, right down to using the NFL’s actual, highly arcane tiebreaker rules.OK, so now that the explanation is out of the way, which team has the most predicted wins?Perhaps you’re thinking of the Seattle Seahawks, who won their Super Bowl rematch with the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon. You’d be close; Seattle once again checks in with the top Elo rating this week (see left), but their schedule is difficult enough — eighth-toughest in the league, to be exact — that they don’t have the league’s highest expected win total. Speaking of the Broncos, they had the most predicted wins in last week’s column, but their loss to the Seahawks was damaging — both because it took away about 0.38 expected wins for the Seattle game itself, and because their Elo rating was downgraded by 14 (or the equivalent of a little more than a half a point of victory margin per game), reducing their win probabilities in future games as well.New England, then? The Patriots did manage to win last week but only marginally improved their Elo rating after a seven-point victory over the Oakland Raiders in a game Elo thought they should have won by more than two touchdowns. They currently rank fourth in expected wins. And the Carolina Panthers, who had been pegged for 10.7 wins after a 2-0 start, dropped to a 9.1-win expectation in the wake of an 18-point home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.The answer you were looking for was actually the Cincinnati Bengals, who project to win a league-high 11.2 games, according to our simulations. The Bengals moved to 3-0 for the first time since 2006 (don’t ask what happened that year) by drubbing the Tennessee Titans 33-7, and they now have the NFL’s best point differential. They also have an easier remaining schedule than the teams above them in the Elo pecking order. Based on Elo, an average team would be expected to beat Cincinnati’s remaining opponents by about 0.1 points per game (taking into account where the games are being played), while an average team would lose by 0.6 PPG against Seattle’s slate, 0.4 PPG against Denver’s and 0.2 PPG against New England’s.The Bengals also have the league’s best playoff odds at 78 percent and its second-best shot at winning the Super Bowl. Cincinnati does not have the best division odds, thanks to the re-emergence of Pittsburgh and Baltimore (sorry, Cleveland). Before the season, we thought the AFC North would be up for grabs, and three of its teams had preseason Elo ratings above 1500, but they were all bunched at the fringe of the top 12. Now Elo’s fourth-, ninth- and 12th-best teams hail from the AFC North, making it the NFL’s second-best division (in terms of its members’ average rating) behind the fearsome NFC West.Either way, Bengals fans should enjoy their team’s newfound success. They’re in a relatively prosperous cycle of the franchise’s history; including the end of last season, the team is consistently producing its best Elo ratings since the end of the 2005 season. Let’s hope there isn’t another Kimo von Oelhoffen moment waiting to derail the momentum this time around.Here are the projected standings and playoff odds for every NFL team:Some other observations:After briefly pulling themselves up to a 1503 Elo with a win over the New York Jets in Week 2, the Green Bay Packers dropped below 1500 again and now have their worst rating since the beginning of the Aaron Rodgers era. It’s a far cry from the Packers team that boasted a 1780 Elo late in the 2011 season, just 145 short weeks ago.Like Cincinnati, the Arizona Cardinals are zooming up the expected-win charts. Our simulations have them winning an average of 10.6 games by the end of the season, which ranks third in the league. Interestingly, by Elo they aren’t even the second-best team in the NFC West — San Francisco is barely ahead despite losing to Arizona last week — but they are expected to win 1.8 more games than the 49ers because they are already two games up in the standings (though they play the fourth-hardest schedule in football from now on).San Diego shouldn’t be forgotten in the Super Bowl derby. Although the Seahawks are the clear favorites, with a 14 percent chance of winning it all, the Chargers are at the periphery of the next tier of contenders — a group that also includes Cincinnati, New England, Arizona, Denver and possibly the Philadelphia Eagles. And along with the Bengals and Cardinals, the Chargers have added the most to their Elo score since the preseason ratings, improving from a 1555 to their current 1602 mark over the course of three straight victories.Although their 1999 incarnation was pretty extraordinary, the 2014 St. Louis Rams — along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars — seem to be deteriorating. No teams have shed more points off of their Elo ratings since the season began, with each losing in excess of 49 points (the equivalent of about two points per game of expected scoring margin) compared to their preseason ratings.As I mentioned, Elo ratings can also be used to generate point spreads for future games. It is our staunch recommendation, however, that these be used for “entertainment purposes only” — especially after a performance like last week. Going up against the point spreads listed at Pro-Football-Reference.com, Elo’s picks were a dreadful 4-11-1 in Week 3. (They did have a 12-4 straight-up record.) But we’ll soldier on anyway and list the matchups for this week, along with their predicted win probabilities and point spreads:The best matchup of the week in Elo’s eyes is Philadelphia at San Francisco, which matches Nos. 6 and 10 in our rankings. But as far as marquee games go (measured by the harmonic mean of the two teams’ pregame ratings after adding half the home-field advantage to each side), it’s the worst week-leading matchup of the season yet.Even so, there are some interesting pairings to be had, in addition to Eagles-Niners. Elo considers Washington and the New York Football Giants to be a classic “pick ’em“, while Vegas sees Washington as three-and-a-half point favorites, perhaps underestimating just how bad of a period this is in the franchise’s history. Likewise, Green Bay is a one-and-a-half point favorite at Chicago despite Elo pegging the Bears as five-point favorites. How much of that is owed to the Bears’ banged-up defense, and how much simply stems from a refusal to believe the Packers aren’t the same team they were several years ago, is tough to say.Finally, a couple of NFC South teams are getting a lot more love in Vegas than the ratings say they deserve. The books have both Atlanta and New Orleans favored by 3 on the road this week (the Falcons visit Minnesota; the Saints go to Dallas), while Elo thinks Vegas is off by about 5 points in each matchup — enough to swing the expected winner of both games. In general, Elo has the NFC South as the fifth-best division in football, but if both teams buck the odds and live up to those spreads on the road, our computer might have to change its tune.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Urban Meyer isn’t an especially large man, but he casts an especially big shadow. So big, it almost overshadowed the Ohio State-Michigan game. Some say “The Game” is the most important part of the season every year. Toss the records out and forget about last week because it’s a one-game season. I could feel the hatred in Ann Arbor during OSU’s 40-34 loss to Michigan. I could feel the passion. But no matter what the outcome was, the biggest story in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday morning is going to be Meyer becoming OSU’s next football coach. In a way, “The Game” was trumped by Meyer’s impending arrival. Sure, it’s not official yet, but Meyer coming to OSU is the worst kept secret in college football. Even during Michigan week, it’s all anyone wanted to talk about. As much as coach Luke Fickell can talk about his program being in a “bubble” and ignoring the outside world, everyone was listening to the rumors — players and coaches included. I’m sure the university didn’t want the news to break until after the end of the regular season out of respect for Fickell and everyone else on this year’s team, but the fact that it did couldn’t have helped the Buckeyes. As a coach, how can you concentrate on the task at hand when, in all likelihood, you won’t have a job the following week? I’m sure they all wanted to beat Michigan and cared about the players enough to prepare to the best of their ability, but in the back of their minds, they have to be thinking about supporting their family. Any sane person would be at least considering future coaching options. As a player, how likely are you to listen to a coach that you only have to deal with for a couple more games — especially a coach that has already led you to five losses? The bottom line is, the Meyer rumors didn’t just excite the fans. They affected the internal program’s focus and at least partially distracted them from the Michigan game. The defense was porous, giving up a season-high 40 points and junior quarterback Denard Robinson had his way with the Silver Bullets, scoring a total of five touchdowns. Fickell did what he could, but what does it say about “the greatest rivalry in all of sports,” when the focus during game-week isn’t on the game?
Depending on a team’s record, playing in a college basketball conference tournament can have a variety of implications. For some, it’s a final opportunity to attain an unlikely spot in the NCAA Tournament. For others, it’s a chance to improve seeding or tune up for a deep tournament run. This year, the Big Ten tournament could serve as something else: a tiebreaker. Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State each finished with a 13-5 record in the Big Ten, forcing a three-way split of the regular season conference title. Would winning the Big Ten tournament, which will be played Thursday through Sunday, give one of those three teams an unofficial title as the conference’s best? “These tournaments, the regular season champion, tournament champion, they’re a big deal,” said OSU junior forward Evan Ravenel. “It kind of sets you apart from the rest of the pack as far as within your conference.” Although a Big Ten tournament championship by one of the top three teams might offer some clarity within the conference, it might not have a significant impact on the national level. Despite the Big Ten being widely regarded this season as college basketball’s top conference and having five teams ranked 15th or better in the AP Top 25 Poll this week, many projections don’t have a Big Ten team receiving one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tourney. OSU coach Thad Matta said that should the Buckeyes, Spartans or Wolverines win this weekend’s tournament, that team should receive a top seed for the national tournament. “From what I’ve just gone through, I would say yes,” Matta said. “Now you can say, ‘Hey Thad, how would you guys do going through the Big East?’ There’s probably too much hypothetical involved in it, I don’t know the answer. But I know, just lobbying for the Big Ten, the different styles that you face from night to night, the arenas that we play in, that sort of thing, it’s a great challenge. But yeah if one of the three of us wins the conference (tournament) championship I could see validity in (getting a No. 1 seed).” Unlike last season when the Buckeyes went 16-2 in the Big Ten en route to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the strength of teams in the Big Ten this season ultimately prevented a team from pulling away in the standings. “We did a nice job of beating each other up throughout the course of (this season),” Matta said. “You didn’t have that dominating performance by anyone in the league. I mean 13-5 won it, so it probably just speaks more to top to bottom how good the conference is.” Based on tie-breaking procedures, Michigan State is the top seed, Michigan is the No. 2 seed and the Buckeyes are the third seed in this weekend’s tournament. OSU will play Friday in the quarterfinals against the winner of Thursday’s game between sixth-seeded Purdue and No. 11 seed Nebraska. Matta said conference tournament games give the younger OSU players a preview of what NCAA tournament games are like. “You’re going to a neutral site, you’re playing in a nice arena, you’re playing great competition obviously, and there’s that heightened awareness of second half, score tied, ‘Hey, if we don’t get it done we’re going home,’” Matta said. “So without really saying it, they have that understanding and appreciation for what we have to do at that time. “I will be anxious to see how this team plays in this setting.” Tip between the Buckeyes and either the Boilermakers or Cornhuskers is set for 9 p.m. Friday at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind.
Redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee (43) runs a recovered fumble toward the end zone during a game against Michigan on Nov. 29 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won, 42-28. Credit: Mark Batke / Photo editorFor nearly three quarters of play, Ohio State football fans across the country must have thought it was deja vu.Just like the previous year, OSU was heavily-favored going into its game against archrival Michigan. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, however, the Wolverines were once again matching them step for step. With 7:41 left in the third quarter, Michigan tied the game at 21 following a 12-play, 75-yard drive. The Wolverines had already scored on drives of 80 and 95 yards in the first half, leaving a record Ohio Stadium crowd virtually quiet.Enter Michael Bennett.The senior defensive lineman and co-captain gave a speech to the entire Buckeye defense after the score, he said, and the unit then forced the Wolverines into two straight punts and a fumble, allowing the offense to take the lead back in what would become a 42-28 OSU victory.OSU allowed just 129 yards in the game following the speech, and after the game redshirt-freshman Darron Lee credited Bennett with the improved caliber of play.“Second half, yeah — credit that to Mike Bennett for getting into us in the third quarter. He’s a vocal leader, a vocal force when we’re not doing our job,” Lee said. “He’s a great captain for that. We all needed that for our defense and it showed.”Bennett took similar action during halftime of OSU’s game against Minnesota on Nov. 15. At that point the Buckeyes only led by three, and this time around Bennett said the message was simple.“When you gotta say something, you gotta say something. I felt like that was the best time. I think they had just scored, and it didn’t feel right, they way they were scoring,” he said after The Game. “We expected them to do a bunch of screens and draws and all this stuff, but they just straight up ran the ball down our field and scored, and that’s not all right.”The Centerville, Ohio, native finished with three solo tackles and one sack, as did his linemate, junior Adolphus Washington. Washington noted after the game that Bennett’s interventions in the games against Minnesota, and now Michigan, have been important to the defense’s play.“Guys definitely respond better to peers than they do to a coach, so Mike’s been showing a lot of leadership these past couple weeks,” he said. “And I think that’s been helping us a lot in this second half.”But before addressing his teammates, Bennett and Buckeyes were just hanging on against Michigan’s redshirt-senior quarterback Devin Gardner. In the meeting between the two team’s last season, Gardner threw for 351 yards and four touchdowns. This year he had 129 yards in the first half, and helped the Wolverines convert on four of six third-down attempts in the opening 30 minutes.Washington credited the competitive nature of the rivalry as the reason why the Wolverines — who ranked last in scoring offense in the Big Ten entering Saturday’s game — put together long drives and 21 points through three-and-a-half quarters.“They always got a game plan for us, they always have something up their sleeve for us. Like you said, they were coming right at us and was we were making mistakes on little things and they were just capitalizing on it,” he said. “But once we went in there the second half and we talked about it, we got it covered.”Despite the defense finding its collective footing and the offense doing similar, perhaps the biggest play of the game came on the first play of the fourth quarter. With OSU driving, redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was tackled after a short game. But he didn’t get back up. The potential Heisman Trophy candidate had to be carted off the field, and an OSU official said after the game that Barrett suffered a fractured right ankle on the play, meaning his season is over.Lee said he approached Barrett after the play to reassure him that the team had the game under control.“I went out there and told him, ‘hey man, we got you.’ Told him I love him because I do, he’s a great guy and he’s a great brother,” Lee said. “Everybody was just gonna pick it up from there on, and that’s all it was.”After the teams traded three drives in which they punted, the Buckeyes extended the lead to 14 when sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott ran in from 44 yards. On Michigan’s next drive came the real game-clincher: sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa stripped Gardner, before Lee picked up the ball and took it another 33 yards into the end zone.It was a similar play to the first game of the season against Navy when Lee — in his OSU debut — gathered a fumble and ran for a score. The linebacker said his play against the Wolverines hadn’t quite hit him yet.“It’s really different from the video games, I’ll tell you that. It’s nice, a lot louder,” he said. “Hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it feels good that we won.”Even in victory, eyes turn to OSU’s quarterback situation as redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones takes the reigns for a Dec. 6 matchup in the Big Ten Championship and a potential bowl game. Junior linebacker Joshua Perry, who leads the Buckeyes in total tackles with 108, said the change means the defensive side of the ball has to be even better than before.“We’ve got some things to shore up, definitely,” he said. “We can’t have six and seven-yard runs on first down. But you get past the emotions of the game and you really turn on the film and see what you need to work on, and we’ll find out.”Lee had similar feelings when it comes to what the defense must do to help the team win going forward.“Personally, I feel like defense is going to have to step up tremendously now,” he said. “I’m gonna do everything I can, and if that means I gotta do a little extra, then so be it.”OSU is scheduled to face Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 6 in Indianapolis.
Ohio State junior defenseman Matt Miller (50) warms up against Minnesota in the Schottenstein Center for Military Appreciation Night on Feb. 15. Ohio State lost 4-3. Credit: Nick Hudak | For The LanternWhile other hockey coaches may have spent their pregame drawing X’s and O’s on a whiteboard, Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik instead presented a $13,000 check to the United Heroes League to provide sports equipment and game tickets to military families across the U.S. and Canada.Instead of looking up to a flag in the rafters during the national anthem, the hockey crowd saluted a 20-by-36-foot garrison flag, unfurled by 41 Ohio State student veterans, military and ROTC members, honoring the military for Ohio State’s Military Appreciation Night.The Buckeyes’ Feb. 15 game against Minnesota was the second year in a row that the hockey team honored the armed forces, which Rohlik said was indicative of the team’s desire to recognize veterans and their sacrifices. “We’re pretty thankful to be able to do what we do because of what they do,” Rohlik said. Honoring the military has become a tradition at Ohio State, according to Mike Carrell, director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services. The first recognitions came at basketball and football games, but is now branching out toward other sports, Carrell said. “With the start of our office in October 2011, we really began to include student veterans much more prominently with athletics,” Carrell said.Carrell said men and women who are serving or have served are invited and recognized for their engagement. The Ohio State Athletics’ Fan Experience and Promotion division sends out an announcement to all military-adjacent students before a sporting event. The Veteran Community Advocate program and Ohio State Athletics Fan Experience arrange all appreciation events, said Devin Zeisset, a veteran community advocate. Ohio State has roughly 2,200 student veterans, military dependents, military and ROTC members, and about 1,400 faculty members who have served in the armed forces. Those who are interested in an event RSVP to receive further information. The coordination is then done through a liaison with Ohio State ROTC. The Veteran Community Advocate program helps promote military participation for these occasions. Carrel said that since 2012, the participation has continued to improve year after year.The importance of honoring service members, especially during a hockey game, was not lost on members of the Ohio State team. Ronnie Hein, a junior forward, said he knows that the work of the armed forces impacts everyone at some level.“Whatever they do over there lets us come out here and play a game,” Hein said.The honor of representing the entire Ohio State veteran population comes from everyday student veterans. Zeissest said these events are meaningful to him. “It’s a humbling experience to have the athletic department manufacture these events for student veterans and military members in which we’re recognized by the fans, coaches and players,” Zeisset said. This past fall when Ohio State took on Nebraska on Nov. 3, 25 student veterans took the goal line after the first quarter to represent and honor the 2,200 student veterans at Ohio State. There will be 14 military appreciation games this fall and spring semesters, according to Chris Oswalt, a student Veteran Community advocate. There are also events called Scarlet and Gray Salutes, which honor military members, veterans and first responders from the community. Oswalt said Ohio State has about 40 Scarlet and Gray Salutes planned for the 2018-19 school year. The military appreciation has caught the attention of the student population as well. Nicolas Moore, a student veteran at Ohio State, said it feels good that veterans get the recognition they deserve. “It gives me a sense of joy to see that the hard work that veterans put in doesn’t go unnoticed by the leaders of Ohio State,” Moore said. “It’s nice to know that as a whole, veterans are appreciated here.”
The singer, actor and TV star has enjoyed a remarkable career spanning more than half a century.Sir Cliff’s greatest hits include chart-toppers such as The Young Ones, Living Doll, Summer Holiday, We Don’t Talk Anymore and 1988 Christmas number one Mistletoe And Wine.A BBC spokesman said: “While we haven’t received any notification of action, we’ve said previously we are very sorry that Sir Cliff has suffered distress but we have a duty to report on matters of public interest and we stand by our journalism.”The Telegraph approached South Yorkshire Police for comment. I am obviously thrilled that the vile accusations and the resulting investigation have finally been brought to a closeSir Cliff Richard Sir Cliff Richard, the singer, is suing the BBC and South Yorkshire Police after a raid on his home was filmed from a helicopter and shown live on TV.Sir Cliff was the subject of a long-running South Yorkshire Police investigation which centred on accusations dating between 1958 and 1983 made by four men.Officers investigating allegations of historical sex offences were filmed searching his apartment in Berkshire in 2014, leading to him being publicly named as the subject of the probe. Sir Cliff was never arrested or chargedCredit:Steve Paston/PA Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings. Sir Cliff described the accusations as “vile”Credit:Heathcliff O’Malley Responding to the announcement Sir Cliff said that “a cloud lifted. After the initial investigation was brought to a close in June, Sir Cliff said he was “thrilled”.He criticised what he called “vile accusations”, adding he was “named before I was even interviewed, and for me that was like being hung out like ‘live bait'”.Sir Cliff added: “I have always maintained my innocence, co-operated fully with the investigation, and cannot understand why it has taken so long to get to this point.”Nevertheless, I am obviously thrilled that the vile accusations and the resulting investigation have finally been brought to a close.”Lawyers for the singer lodged papers at the High Court in London yesterday. They give little detail but Sir Cliff is listed as a claimant and the BBC and Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police as defendants. He was never arrested or charged and his case was discontinued by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in June on the grounds of insufficient evidence.Applications to review two of the charging decisions under the Victims’ Right to Review scheme were later received.However, last month the CPS said a review of the evidence “concluded that the decisions not to charge were correct”.
Thomas Mair was armed with British-made hollow-point rifle bullets more commonly used to kill vermin when he murdered MP Jo Cox, his trial heard.A plastic bag found in a holdall when the alleged killer, 53, was arrested was found to contain 25 live .22 calibre rounds, jurors were told.Twelve of the rounds were lead hollow-point cartridges made by British maker Eley, firearms expert Andre Horne told the Old Bailey trial. The other 13 were made by a German firm. A gun that was presented in evidence during the trial of Thomas Mair Credit:West Yorkshire Police A photograph of the gun in a bag next to a small drop of blood Credit:West Yorkshire Police Mr Horne said hollow-points were designed to expand after firing, adding: “The idea of that is to cause a greater wound size, especially when hunting, which would be considered a more humane way of disposing of animals.”He explained this was because a bullet staying together and causing a smaller wound might allow it to escape, prolonging its suffering before it died.He added: “They are most commonly used for hunting vermin, squirrels, rabbits and other small animals.”Mr Horne said that the bullets could be legally owned in the UK with the correct firearms licence. Show more Prosecutor Richard Whittam QC said to the expert: “In its long form it’s a firearm and you could have had lawful possession of it with a certificate. But in its reduced size it is a banned weapon in this country altogether?”Mr Horne replied: “That’s correct, yes.”Kerry Versfeld, of the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, examined the gun, two casings, a spent cartridge and items recovered from the post mortem. Blood stains that were a “billion-to-one” match to both Mrs Cox and Mair were found on the gun and dagger when they were tested, the court heard.Jurors also heard that Mrs Cox tried to shield her face with her hands as her killer shot her in the head.They were shown the modified .22 calibre Weihrauch rifle found in the holdall. The bolt-action gun had had its shoulder stock and all but 4cm of its barrel removed, Mr Horne said.This, jurors heard, would have made the now 29cm (12-inch) weapon fireable with one hand, but decreased the penetrating power of the resulting shot – perhaps accounting for why the two shots to Mrs Cox’s head failed to penetrate her skull. A knife that was allegedly used in the killing of Jo Cox Credit: West Yorkshire Police Testing “conclusively” determined that two cases from the scene and one found in nearby John Nelson Close were all fired by the rifle, she said.Two bullets recovered were “consistent” with being fired by the gun, she told jurors.The court was also shown the dagger allegedly used to stab Mrs Cox 15 times in the chest and abdomen.Mr Horne said it was a Fairbairn-Sykes “fighting dagger”, a design first made in 1941 for British special forces and commando units, with a 17.4cm blade.But he added: “It was determined that it was a fake replica and not one that was produced for the military.”The trial continues. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings.