Can the Atlanta Falcons Make the Super Bowl Again This Year?
Last year, the Atlanta Falcons didn't have much resistance on their way to the Super Bowl. They had a first-round bye, plowed through the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, and wound up squaring off with the New England Patriots to set up an eventual heartbreak. They were the clear favorites to emerge from the NFC the whole time.
This year? Things are a wee bit different. Not only did they enter Week 17 without a playoff berth in hand, but they had to play in the wild card round, adding an extra game to the docket.
This begs the question: can the Falcons make another run? They're already playing on borrowed time, and the scheduling deities have blessed them with a matchup against a team missing its best player. If they can snag that victory, then they're just a few big plays away from representing the NFC in the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season.
Every now and then, a team that sneaks in with a wild card spot can make a run and shock the world. Are the Falcons capable of such magic? Let's check it out.
Catching the Eagles at the Right Time
Clearly, the loss of Carson Wentz for the Eagles is going to have a profound effect on the way we view this postseason path for the Falcons. And Vegas is showing us the weight of that injury.
The playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990. A 6-seed has never been favored over a 1-seed, until this year. The #1 seeded Eagles are as high as +3 point home underdogs to the #6 seeded Falcons.
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 7, 2018
Having the Falcons be favored would imply that their odds of advancing to the NFC Championship game would be greater than 50%. It wouldn't eradicate the ills of having to face the Minnesota Vikings or New Orleans Saints on the road, but it's at least a start.
The true question comes down to whether or not this confidence in the Falcons is justified. After all, Nick Foles did win his two full games as starter after Wentz's injury, so maybe this is all getting overblown.
It's really not.
We can see the effect of going from Wentz to Foles by looking at numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players with the team totals being adjusted for the strength of opponent. As opposed to a yards-per-attempt metric, NEP shows the expected points added on each play, illustrating the immense difference between a three-yard completion on 3rd and 2 and that same completion on 3rd and 4. It gives us a better idea of which offenses are most efficient and which players are setting their teams up to score points.
Let's compare the three quarterbacks tied to this game in Wentz, Foles, and Matt Ryan. Below are their regular-season marks and ranks for Passing NEP per drop back and Success Rate. Passing NEP per drop back takes into account expected points lost for events such as sacks, incompletions, and interceptions, and Success Rate is the percentage of drop backs that increased the team's expected points for the drive. The ranks are out of 45 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs for the season.
|In 2017||Passing NEP per Drop Back||Rank||Success Rate||Rank|
If this matchup were Wentz against Ryan, it'd be pretty tight, but the Eagles would clearly have the leg up there. Foles' metrics, though, were more akin to Drew Stanton and Jacoby Brissett than they were to Ryan.
Certainly, there are other factors at play, but with the importance that quarterbacks carry, the Falcons likely should be favored in this game. That's not to say they're a lock to win -- the Eagles' front seven can still mess you up in a hurry -- but it's understandable why Vegas views this game the way it does.
If the Falcons were to pull off this one on the road, they'd then -- as mentioned -- have to face either the Vikings or Saints on the road. That's certainly no small task, and with the offenses both units have, the Falcons will undoubtedly be underdogs regardless of the opponent. But over the stretch run of the season, the Falcons' defense seemed to find a new gear, and that could be the key to getting them a shot at Super Bowl redemption.
The turning point for the Falcons' season seemed to be in Week 10 against the Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons entered that game with a 4-4 record, plunging their playoff odds to around 10%. But that was the game where the Cowboys didn't have Tyron Smith at left tackle, allowing Adrian Clayborn to lose his mind with a six-sack game. Those gains carried over through the rest of the season.
The Falcons allowed more than 23 points in a game just once over the final eight games, and that included two matchups with the Saints and one with the Vikings. The opponents averaged 18 points per game in those three. That type of defensive play can at least give them a shot, again with the caveat that they have to first get past the Eagles.
These defensive improvements allow the Falcons to hang tight with their two potential foes in the NFC Championship. Below is a look at where each team ranked in three categories from Week 10 on. These are all numberFire's schedule-adjusted ranks over an eight-week span, and it makes the Falcons look like a legit contender.
|Week 10 On||Overall Defense||Pass Defense||Rush Defense|
|New Orleans Saints||10th||13th||21st|
It's true that the Saints were the better defense for the entire season. But an injury to defensive end Alex Okafor seemed to sink the team's pass rush over the final few games, tilting the scales in Atlanta's favor.
If the Falcons' defense can contain the opposing offense, then they'll at least have a chance. Whether or not Ryan and Julio Jones can overcome the tough environments is another discussion entirely. But they do seem to be more than just your average wild-card hopeful, especially when you account for how Wentz's injury bolsters their chances of advancing to the next round.
What the Algorithms Say
When you factor all of this in, the Falcons are still longshots to make a return trip to the Super Bowl. But things are certainly starting to slide in their favor.
As of Monday morning, they now have 10.99% odds of winning the NFC and 4.27% odds of winning the Super Bowl. Both of those odds are the second-worst among remaining teams, edging only the Tennessee Titans. But considering the Falcons' odds were 3.77% and 1.46%, respectively, entering the playoffs, it's hard to complain too much.
The algorithms are also a bit less optimistic about the Falcons' chances of beating a Wentz-less Eagles team. They have the Eagles winning that game 58.0% of the time. The number would certainly be higher if Wentz were at the helm, but it does show that this will still be a battle with the game in Philadelphia.
But that's not the most important takeaway from this discussion. The bigger thread is that the Falcons have a chance, and it's due to a dual-pronged effort from both the offense and the defense. The defense showed in the second half of the season that it can keep great offenses in check, and the offense flashed its potential on Saturday against the Rams. The odds may not be in the Falcons' favor, but with newfound balance on both sides of the ball, we shouldn't be overlooking Atlanta when discussing the favorites to emerge from the NFC.