Can the Atlanta Falcons Really Be a Super Bowl Contender?

Do the Falcons have what it takes to make a run for the Lombardi Trophy?

Before the season began, Las Vegas had the Atlanta Falcons at 40-1 to win the Super Bowl.

After opening the season with wins over the Philadelphia Eagles (home), New York Giants (away), Dallas Cowboys (away) and Houston Texans (home), the odds are now at 14-1. 

Since 2000, there have been 43 instances in which a team began the season 4-0. Here is how they fared.

4-0 Teams Since 2000Times Accomplished
4-0 Teams43
Missed Playoffs7
Wild Card Loss6
Divisional Round Loss11
Conference Round Loss7
Super Bowl Loss8
Super Bowl Win4

For you Falcons fans out there, 83% of the teams made the playoffs with 28% ending up in the Super Bowl. That should make you feel pretty good, but do remember that 16% missed the playoffs. According to our nERD metric, the Falcons enter Week 5 number nine in the power rankings. Our algorithms also project a 91.0% probability of making the playoffs and 9.3% chance of winning the Super Bowl for the Falcons.

Super Bowl Recipe

Because we are talking about Super Bowl aspirations, let’s break down some characteristics of the Super Bowl participants since 2000. 

In the sample, 19 teams had a top-10 offense in terms of points per game, and 22 had a top-10 defense by that measure. 14 teams were top-10 in both.

Only one team did not sport a top-10 offense or defense: the 2007 New York Giants (14th in points scored and 17th in points allowed).

Makes sense that would be the only team because they were the ones to stop the undefeated tour of the New England Patriots, a team that happened to possess the best scoring offense and fourth ranked scoring defense. That’s why they play the games, ladies and gentlemen. 

After four games, the 2015 Falcons rank third in offense (34.2 points per game) and 15th in defense (23.2 points per game). 

Of course, the season is a long haul, and not every 4-0 start is the same. Can this squad go all the way?

New Coaching Staff

After seven years with Mike Smith as head coach, owner Arthur Blank plucked Dan Quinn from the Seattle Seahawks to infuse a new voice and energy. Quinn was the defensive coordinator of the league’s best scoring defenses in 2013 and 2014.

Seattle also ranked first and third in our Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metrics, respectively, in those two seasons. NEP indicates how a team or player performs compared to expectation level. Atlanta ranked 29th in the metric last season.

Additionally, the Falcons ranked 27th in scoring defense and allowed the most yards in the league last year at 398.2 yards per game.

This is Quinn’s first job as a head coach in the NFL. There have been five rookie coaches to make the Super Bowl: Don McCafferty in 1970 (won), Red Miller in 1977 (lost), George Seifert in 1989 (lost), Bill Callahan in 2002 (lost) and Jim Caldwell in 2009 (lost).

In choosing an offensive coordinator, Quinn went with Kyle Shanahan. He witnessed first-hand what a physical running game combined with a stout defense could do while in Seattle. The Falcons were 24th in the league rushing last year with 93.6 yards per game. In three different stints that covered seven years, Shanahan utilized his zone blocking scheme to coordinate a rushing attack that exceeded 100 yards per game in five of the seven seasons. So far in 2015, the Falcons are ranked 13th with 113.5 yards per game

Through Week 4, the Falcons rank third in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play.

Skill Players

Of course, the best coaching in the world can only go so far, and the players need to be able to perform. Atlanta's surely have so far.

Through four weeks, Matt Ryan ranks third among quarterbacks with a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.38. The current leader is Ben Roethlisberger (0.56), but he's attempted 50 fewer drop backs.

Since and including 2000, only three teams featured quarterbacks with a negative Passing NEP per drop back, so Atlanta has that in their favor, as well.

Julio Jones is the main receiving option, and he’s a beast. He finished 2014 with 104 receptions for 1,593 yards and 6 touchdowns. His Reception NEP per target was 0.87 last year. So far in 2015, he has the same 0.87 score. The only issue for Jones is his health. He’s missed 14 games in four years.

The new number two receiver is Leonard Hankerson. He is currently sporting a Reception NEP per target of 1.00 on 17 receptions, which ranks him as one of the most efficient wide receivers through four weeks

Former star Roddy White has only caught six passes with a paltry 0.46 Reception NEP per target to show.

Running back Devonta Freeman  was terrible last year. His Rushing NEP per rush was -0.28. Boy, what a difference a year and a new offensive coordinator make. In 2015, Freeman has gone berserk by rushing for seven touchdowns in four games. His Rushing NEP per rush for 2015 is 0.09. Freeman has also been productive in the passing game with 17 receptions and a Reception NEP per target of 0.57.

Rookie Tevin Coleman is expected to return soon and could provide the Falcons with another weapon out of the backfield. On 29 carries, he has produced a Rushing NEP per rush of 0.01.


The 2015 Falcons are definitely Super Bowl contenders. They have a good quarterback, can run the ball, and have a dominant receiver.

The defense is second fiddle to the offense, but that unit has a shutdown cornerback (Desmond Trufant), explosive pass rusher (Vic Beasley) and stout run stuffers (Ra'Shede Hageman, Paul Soliai, and Tyson Jackson). There are definitely holes on that side of the ball (they rank 19th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play), but they are trending up from where they were last year.

The coaching staff is competent (so far) and the schedule is really favorable, which should allow the Falcons to rack up wins and vie for home field. In 56 career starts at home, Ryan is 41-15. On the road, 29-29.

If they indeed do make the playoffs, health and matchups will be a huge factor in determining how far they can advance. With a 91.0% chance to clinch a playoff spot, though, they should at least have a chance to show what they can do in the postseason.