The best record in the NFL belongs to the Atlanta Falcons, who come into Week 13 at 10-1, four games clear of Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Matt Ryan is practically tied with Matt Stafford for the league lead in passing yards, and time and again the Falcons have found ways to win close games (seven of Atlanta’s wins were by a touchdown or less).
So is this finally the year Ryan and the Falcons take the next step and become a serious contender?
It seems odd to ask that question about a team that has made the playoffs three of the past four seasons, including garnering the NFC’s top seed after going 12-4 in 2010. It seems even odder when you consider that Ryan has done just about everything possible to justify his third-overall selection in the 2008 NFL Draft, as he has yet to have a losing record, was named Rookie of the Year in 2008, and has been considered an MVP frontrunner for most of this season.
Yet many pundits are, to put it mildly, skeptical when it comes to Atlanta’s championship hopes. Recent history and advanced metrics do not smile upon these Falcons, and neither does the classic “smell test.” So what is the truth about this team? Are they as good as their record indicates? Are they as flawed as everyone seems to think they are? Is it a little bit of both?
First, let us examine how Atlanta stacks up against the rest of the league from a statistical standpoint. Ryan is only four yards behind Stafford for the NFL lead in passing yardage, and appears poised to improve upon his career-high of 4,177 yards from a season ago. Going along with that success, tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White are in the top-10 in the league in receptions, while White and Julio Jones are both in the top-10 in receiving yards.
Yet the Atlanta offense is dragged all the way down to sixth in the NFL thanks to an anemic run game. The Falcons are ranked 26th on the ground, averaging just 88 yards a game despite the presence of talented running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, ranking behind notoriously one-dimensional offenses in Green Bay and New Orleans.
On the defensive side of the ball, the numbers get weird. While the Falcons are ranked in the top-10 in points allowed, giving up just over 19.5 a game, the defensive unit is currently ranked 15th in yards allowed. Beyond that, the Falcons are positively pedestrian when it comes to sack totals and interception numbers, coming in tied for 15th and 11th in those categories.
So what can the numbers really tell us about the Falcons? Perhaps the best source for answers on that front is the indispensible Football Outsiders. Simply put, FO has devised a statistic called DVOA, defense-adjusted value over average, that seeks to measure the efficiency of a team’s individual units as well as the team as a whole. DVOA is perhaps best represented by a percentage that indicates how much better or worse a unit or team is than the league average. For example, it should come as no surprise that the Patriots’ offense tops the NFL in DVOA, outperforming the average NFL offense by 34 percent.
These advanced metrics do not tell a good story for the Falcons.
Atlanta came into their game against the Buccaneers this week ranked just 17th in DVOA in regard to their offense, outpacing the league average offense by just 3.4 percent. That number can be largely attributed to their poor ground game, which clocks in at a dismal -19.8 percent; a number that tops only Oakland and Arizona, and is almost equal to Jacksonville.
Perhaps most distressing for Falcon fans that put stock into statistics such as these is that Atlanta’s 3.4 percent DVOA is less than half of every team that has appeared in the Super Bowl since XLIII. Both the Steelers and Cardinals had low offensive DVOA numbers that season (4.6 percent for Arizona, -1.5 percent for Pittsburgh), but the eventual champion Steelers led the league in defensive DVOA, posting a defensive performance 29 percent better than the league average.
Atlanta’s defensive DVOA clocks in at 14th in the league, performing 0.3 percent worse than the league’s average defense. Taken together, Atlanta has a total team DVOA of 4.8 percent, enough for just 12th in the NFL. While the Giants did win last year’s Super Bowl with the 12th-highest team DVOA, their actual percentage was 8.5 percent, well above this year’s Falcon squad.
Again, in order to find a conference winner with a DVOA lower than Atlanta’s, we have to go back to the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, that finished with a -5.0 percent team DVOA, and caught the NFL world by surprise with their playoff run.
So it’s certainly not impossible that this Falcons team, talented as it is, could make a run, even given the discouraging numbers.
Taken in conjunction with recent history, however, a Falcon run deep into the postseason would be surprising.
Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game, going 0-3 in his attempts so far. He played well in 2008, losing a competitive game to a hot Arizona squad that would eventually make it to the Super Bowl. In that game, Ryan set an NFL rookie record with 26 completions, and the future looked bright.
After a 9-7 season in 2009 that did not garner a playoff spot, Ryan and the Falcons entered the 2010 postseason with a team DVOA over 16 percent and a 12-4 record, good enough for the NFC’s top seed. The Falcons were summarily destroyed by the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, losing 48-21 in a game that saw Ryan throw more interceptions than touchdowns. 2011 saw Atlanta enter the playoffs with a team DVOA of 13.9 percent and once again they fell in embarrassing fashion to the eventual Super Bowl winners, as the New York Giants defeated them 24-2.
Taken together, another epic collapse in the playoffs seems almost pre-destined for this Atlanta squad, as Ryan appears to be regressing in the playoffs, while the numbers indicate that the Falcons as a whole are becoming less efficient, despite their league-best record in 2012. While it would be foolish to write them off with five weeks left in the regular season, it may be even more foolish to put faith in their win-loss record.