The Atlanta Falcons are not good. From a play away from the Super Bowl last year to a 2-6 first half this year, saying their season has been a disappointment is like saying the Braves occasionally lose in the playoffs. And while the Falcons fall from grace hasn’t been as predictable as the annual early postseason exit of their baseball counterparts, there were signs coming into the season that 2013 wasn’t going to be nearly as kind to Falcons fans as was 2012. (And this isn’t complete hindsight; in my preseason predictions, I left the Falcons out of the playoffs.)
Obviously nobody could have foreseen both halves of the best wide receiver duo in the NFC going down with injury. But there were two other big reasons — predictable reasons — a repeat performance wasn’t in store for the Dirty Birds: schedule and probability. Last season the Falcons played the sixth easiest schedule in the NFL; this season, the 11th hardest up to this point and the third hardest the rest of the way. Swapping out the NFC East for the NFC West (arguably the worst and best divisions in football, respectively), as well as, the resurgence of the Saints and the emergence of the Panthers, has given the Atlanta Falcons, 2013 a much tougher row to hoe than the 2012 model. Then there’s this nugget: Falcons’ winning percentage in close games (seven points or less) last year, .778 (7-2); Falcons’ winning percentage in close games this year, .200 (1-4). Given that teams generally have a .500 record in one-score games, it seems like the Falcons’ pixie dust dried up sometime shortly before their 4th & 4 misfire, late in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.
With that said, schedule and luck can only explain so much of the Falcons’ decline. They were 13-3 last year; this year they’ve won two (!) games. 9-7 would make sense, but 4-12? Surely, the injuries to Julio Jones and Roddy White (and to a lesser extent Steven Jackson) have irreparably harmed Atlanta’s 2013 season, right? Probably not. The numbers just don’t bear it out. The Falcons aren’t faring that much worse offensively this year than they did last year. They’re averaging almost the exact same yards-per-play (5.8 in 2012, 5.7 in 2013), and they’re actually better this year by DVOA (6.1% in 2012, 6.9% 2013). If there is compelling evidence to pin the failures on the offense, I’m not seeing it. So then what’s been the problem? Well, if it’s not the offense …
Last year the Falcons’ defense was average; this year they’ve been among the worst units in the league. By DVOA, the only teams more inept defensively are the Chargers, Jags, and Eagles. A D that was very bend-but-don’t-break-y in 2012 (19 points-per-game, 365 yards-per-game) has turned into one that bends and breaks (27 points-per-game, 365 yards-per-game). Last season they held opponents to under 23 points in a game 11 times; this season they’ve done it not a once. All things considered, the injuries to linebackers Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon — Atlanta’s two leading tacklers last year — are probably more damaging than those to the two braided superstar pass catchers. After all, there is no Matt Ryan nor Tony Gonzalez to salvage things on defense.
So what does it mean for this Sunday? Well, it should mean the Seahawks will roll to victory, but given their performances against the Rams and Bucs (the only two teams the Falcons have beaten, by the way), rolling — really, doing anything that conveys ease — seems like a tall order. Consider my confidence in the ‘Hawks slightly roiled. Not shaken, but a little perturbed. Like when you get near the bottom of a cup of coffee and you swirl it around a bit so that your final sip isn’t just dregs, that’s where I’m at with the ‘Hawks. I don’t have a doppelganger game for this week, because I’m not sure what to make of things. The Seahawks have officially left “definitely winning this game” mode and are back in “guess I’ll just have to watch and see” mode. Well, if nothing else, it makes things more exciting.