As the local professional football collective comes down the stretch, they are 12-2, which gives them a two-game lead over the Saints and Eagles for the best record in the NFC. Unless something goes terribly wrong, the Dirty Birds are going to be at home for the NFC playoffs. At first glance, the Falcons’ record is deceiving because the team has won seven straight games decided by one score after losing the opener in Pittsburgh in overtime. They look like a team whose record flatters. However, the Falcons are also second in the NFC in point differential, so maybe they aren’t a lucky team after all. The best team in the NFC in terms of point differential is Green Bay, a team that last year and this year seems like less than the sum of its parts. Great offense, good defense, and yet still loses more games than they should. Do we point a finger at Mike McCarthy? They’re the anti-Falcons: good statistical profile, but mediocre record because they lose close games.
When I say that the Falcons don’t have a good statistical profile, this is what I mean:
|Yards per play gained||Yards per play allowed||Margin|
Eeek. We can explain away that low yards per play gained number by pointing out that the Falcons have a low variance offense that consistently churns out first downs by getting medium-sized gains without giving up sacks or penalties. The opening two drives on Sunday against Seattle were the Platonic ideal for this team’s offense: 15 plays and 51 yards for a touchdown, followed by 14 plays and 51 yards for a field goal. At the end of two drives, the Falcons had ten points while gaining a mere 3.5 yards per play. (Put in context, the hapless Panthers have the worst offense in the league and they gain 4.3 yards per play.) Yards per play doesn’t quite do this offense justice. The Falcons don’t hit big plays, so their number isn’t very high, but they score points just fine because they are rarely in third and long and they convert makeable third downs on a consistent basis. The Falcons are first in the NFL in total plays and second in first downs. The offense may look like a tortoise, but we ought to remember who wins the race in Aesop’s fable.
The defense, on the other hand, is harder to justify. They are significantly worse on a per play basis than any of the other contenders in the NFC. They are decent at denying opponents first downs (11th in the NFL), but that’s probably a function of the fact that the offense keeps the ball all day. The saving graces for the defense is that they are good against the run (seventh in yards per rush allowed) and they force turnovers (fifth in the NFL). (The Falcons are not unlike the Patriots, who also allow 5.6 yards per play and get by by forcing turnovers. The Pats, however, are better on offense.) That said, the NFL is a passing league and the Falcons give up a lot of passing yards. Should we feel confident that we can win consecutive playoffs games against Aaron Rodgers and then Mike Vick or Drew Brees? Yes, the Falcons beat Green Bay and New Orleans this season, but both games were very tight and the Falcons needed a little bit of good fortune both times.
So how much does yards per play matter? Can the Falcons win a Super Bowl when their opponents are outgaining them by a healthy margin? Let’s look at the last decade’s worth of conference champions:
|Yards per play gained||Yards per play allowed||Margin|
Eeek squared. 19 of the last 20 conference champions have had a positive yards per play margin. In fact, only two of 20 conference champions have been lower that +.4: the ‘01 Patriots and the ‘07 Giants. Both of those teams won the Super Bowl, but they needed to pull two of the biggest upsets in NFL history to do so. Is that what we’re counting on to make the Super Bowl? You wouldn’t know it from reading the paper or listening to the radio, but this Falcons team doesn’t fit the statistical profile of the vast majority of conference champions.
Again, we need to point our fingers at the defense. There are six teams that have made the Super Bowl averaging five yards per play or less and five of them came home with the Lombardi Trophy. (An interesting side note: there are four teams on the chart that allowed less than 4.5 yards per play and every one of them won the Super Bowl. If you drop last year’s Super Bowl in which both teams had top offenses, there have been seven teams to make the Super Bowl with an offense gaining 5.8 yards per play or more and six of those teams lost. Let’s file that away in the memory bank if the Eagles or Patriots make the Super Bowl.) There isn’t a single team on the list that allowed 5.6 yards per play, although there are two teams that allowed 5.5 yards per play and both of them won the big game.
So we have one team as our beacon of hope: the 2001 New England Patriots. A young team with a burgeoning star at quarterback that got hot, won a ton of close games, and then pulled a massive upset in the Superdome. There’s actually a larger point to be made here: it might not be hyperbole to say that the Falcons are built on the Patriots model. Look at the three New England teams that won the Super Bowl. One had a negative yards per play margin and the other two were a nothing special +.4 and +.5. Those New England teams won with superior turnover margins: +8 in 2001, +17 in 2003, and +9 in 2004. If there is a secret to having a positive turnover margin, then Thomas Dimitroff has brought it from Massachusetts. Maybe we aren’t doomed after all. If the Tuck Rule comes into play in the Falcons’ first playoff game, then I’m headed for the nearest casino to bet on the Dirty Birds in Dallas.