Are the Atlanta Falcons Truly Great or Just Benefiting from an Easy Schedule?
The 1972 the Miami Dolphins remain the only NFL team to go undefeated during the regular season and playoffs making their case for being the greatest squad of all time. One key to their success was a schedule against a group of teams who combined to go 70-122. Miami won four games decided by four points or fewer. This year the Falcons are 10-1. Their success relies upon some of the same factors that helped the Dolphins.
The Falcons lead San Francisco by one-and-a-half games in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Atlanta controls their own destiny in large part due to a 7-1 record in games decided by seven points or fewer. The Falcons are 3-0 in games decided by a field goal or less. On more than one Sunday afternoon Atlanta has had luck on their side.
On five occasions an opponent has imploded, collapsed, or otherwise handed the Falcons a win. It started with Peyton Manning's three first quarter interceptions in week two. Just a couple of weeks later Atlanta scored twice against Carolina in the final five minutes with a critical Cam Newton fumble aiding the cause. An injury to Robert Griffin III helped the Falcons rally to beat Washington in week five, while a defensive touchdown and 55-yard field goal at the buzzer were enough to eke out a win against Oakland in week six. The victory against Arizona November 18 might be the best of all. Despite Falcon QB Matt Ryan tossing five interceptions, the inept Cardinals managed just 41 passing yards and went two for 16 on third down conversion chances giving away what could have been an easy victory. How they won is important, and who they have played tells a portion of the story too.
According to Jeff Sagarin's ratings, the Falcons have played the fewest top tier opponents in the NFL. Sagarin ranks Atlanta's schedule number 28 in the league and notes that they are 1-0 against the league's top 10 teams. If the playoffs began today, Denver would be the only postseason quality opponent the Falcons have faced. Of the six teams in the league with marks of 3-8 or worse, Atlanta has beaten them four times. Falcon opponents so far have combined for a record of 47-74. Playing bad teams helps mask a one-dimensional offense.
Atlanta can pass. Matt Ryan and the Falcon aerial assault rank among the top teams in the league with more than 3,400 yards and 21 passing touchdowns. However, the running game has been sluggish. Falcon RB Michael Turner is just 23rd in the league with 592 yards on the ground. His 3.5 yards per carry ranks 40th in the NFL. As a team the Falcons sit among the bottom five in the league in rushing and yards per carry.
An easy schedule can do wonders, just ask the Dolphins. However it seems likely that little seasoning against good teams, a bad running game, and luck running out will spell disaster for the Falcons before Matt Ryan gets to go to Disneyland.