The Falcons are 8-2, tied for the best record in the NFL, but in terms of efficiency they are below average. The efficiency model has them ranked 19th out of 32 teams. So what's the story?
I often hear the refrain that Matt Ryan had a down year last year, but he's back as one of the best QBs in 2010. But he's throwing at a 6.2 net YPA pace, exactly average this season.
The defense is giving up 6.7 net YPA, over a standard deviation worse than average. Their running game is nothing special either, gaining an average 4.1 YPC, while the defense gives up 4.3 YPC.
Atlanta hasn't faced a terribly tough schedule either. Their opponent GWP is slightly below average at 0.48.
So could it be a consistency thing? Do their SR numbers indicate they are deadly consistent, inching the ball up the field on offense and forcing frequent 3-and-outs? Nope, their opponent-adjusted team SR is the same as their efficiency ranking--19th.
The answer appears to be that turnovers are the reason Atlanta has been winning. They have the 2nd lowest interception rate and are tied with the lowest fumble rate. Their defense has a 4.3% interception rate, which is second best in the league. I suspect they probably are better than not at protecting the ball, but it's unlikely that kind of turnover rate is sustainable over the long haul.
I'm not predicting the Falcons will fall out of the sky, but they're not as good as their 8-2 record suggests. They are a mediocre team in a lot of ways. And although it's likely they're doing things well that the stats aren't detecting, the pundits who are calling them one of the two or three best teams in football are off the mark. (They'll be the same guys who are scratching their heads, writing columns titled 'What went wrong with the Falcons?' if they fall behind the Saints in the NFC South.) Regardless of their actual team strength, the Falcons already have 8 wins under their belt, so a perfectly average team could expect to be 3-3 in the remaining 6 games, making them 11-5 for the season and putting them in the playoffs.