I have a bold opinion here. This just may be the biggest game of the year. Crazy! Right? Playing in this game are two teams. The New England Patriots are one. The Atlanta Falcons are the other. The Patriots are playing in their seventh one of these. They have been to the AFC Championship Game for the last six years; the last time they weren’t one of the final four teams, I was drinking Four Lokos with friends and family unironically. The Falcons had the best offense in the NFL, the best quarterback in the NFL, the best offensive coordinator in the NFL, and yet nobody knew about this until Week 17 because they are from Atlanta, I guess, and because Aaron Rodgers was running the table until he and all of Green Bay stubbed his entire foot against the Falcons. In August, it would have been surprising that the Falcons ended up here; in December, it wasn’t. They have been a genuinely good team all season.
Sunday night is going to be a lot of fun. It should be a great game. To help you enjoy this and not look at the news for fifteen minutes, here are five things to watch for while you’re snorting Doritos, using Oreos as pasties, and soaking your feet in some Bud Heavies.
1.) Jeez, Atlanta’s Offense Is Really Good.
The Atlanta Falcons’ offense: 25.3% DVOA (1st), Pass DVOA 53.0% (1st), Points scored 540 (1st), variance 2.8% (3rd most stable), schedule -2.5% (2nd toughest). Matt Ryan: 1,918 DYAR (1st), 40.2% DVOA (1st), 83.4 QBR (1st), Completion percentage 69.9% (2nd), Yards 4,944 (2nd), Attempts 534 (17th), Touchdowns 38 (2nd), 9.3 Y/A (1st), 13.3 Y/C (1st).
The Falcons had the best offense in the league. This season they quickly morphed back into what they were the first five weeks of last year, and then some. The biggest differences I’ve seen are Matt Ryan and the weapons he has around him.
Ryan reads the field as quick;y as anyone in the league right now. He looks high to low. He recognizes zone or man coverage immediately. And when someone isn’t schemed wide open by Kyle Shanahan, Ryan hits and finds the check downs right away, I mean, even dump-offs to Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman are lush watercolors of quarterbacking.
The other is the fact that last year, Atlanta’s passing offense was Julio Jones and nothing else. Roddy White was their number two receiver. He’s spent this season talking about the game like you, and I, and everyone else, instead of playing. Last year, Jones accounted for 32.9% of Atlanta’s targets, 33.17% of their receptions, 40.6% of their receiving yards, and 38% of their touchdowns. This year, he’s accounted for 24.3%, 22.19%, 28.4%, and 15.7% of the same major receiving categories. Atlanta’s passing offense is no longer focused on making Jones ubiquitous.
Ryan sees the whole field at once, not in individual pieces. On that field, he always has four to five players who can get open. This year Atlanta has eight players with 20 or more catches. Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel, Coleman, Aldrick Robinson, Jacob Tamme, and Justin Hardy all passed that mark, and Austin Hooper just missed by one. Ryan has thrown a touchdown pass to thirteen different receivers, an NFL record. This offense is a nauseous fun house. Instead of mirrors, it’s black helmets screeching around.
It’s a meme at this point that Bill Belichick takes away your best weapon. The problem is what is what do they take away. Julio Jones will be the best player in the game. Do the Patriots want to focus their manpower on scrubbing away permanent marker, letting Gabriel and Sanu run wild underneath deep decoy routes? Do they want to sit in zone, and let Atlanta overload squadrons of the field? Do they want to double on the outside and leave Coleman and Freeman alone in man coverage against linebackers? No matter what Belichick does, there’s another angle for Shanahan to infect.
The only way I could see the Patriots being able to hamper Atlanta’s offense is if they are able to play as they played all year. If they can play with eight defenders in the box and stop Atlanta’s top ten ranked run offense by sitting and holding their ground against the outside zone, then drop eight back on long third downs, the Patriots have a shot. They’ll have to do this and use blitzes by their secondary to attack the weak spot in the Falcons’ pass blocking, the exterior. If they can force Atlanta into running into walls and throwing into massacres, they could do enough for Tom Brady to eclipse things.
But if Atlanta can throw New England out of their eight box sets, use their play-action that they average 10.4 yards per play with (2nd in the NFL), and run against two high safeties, they will be the team that controls this game. Really, the rest from here is moot for me. I do believe the game will come down to exactly these previous two paragraphs.
2.) New England’s Defense
The Patriots’ defense led the NFL in scoring defense this year. The main reason why is they played the easiest defensive schedule in the league. The average DVOA they faced was -7.1%. Positive is good. The best offense they faced was Seattle, a game they lost in nail-biting, make primetime NFL football great again fashion. Looking past points allowed, New England had a DVOA of -1.5% (16th), a run defense DVOA of -23.7% (7TH), and a pass defense DVOA of 13.9% (23rd).
In the first quarter, the Patriots’ defense could be shocked. They played well against the run specifically all year. But they haven’t played anyone nearly as good as what may be an all-time great offense. Ryan has led eight straight opening touchdown drives. If Atlanta forces one punt in the first quarter, New England could be down by two scores and forced the same circumstances Green Bay was in the NFC Championship Game
3.) The Patriots Can Score, Too.
Okay, the past spat of words have been an Atlanta love-fest. They are new, refreshing, fun, and had the best offense in the league. New England is still New England, though.
Tom Brady was the second best overall quarterback in the NFL this year behind only Ryan. New England finished second in passing DVOA. Ever since Brady came back from suspension, he’s been absurd. He finished the season with a 67.4% completion percentage, 9.3 Y/A, a QBR of 83.1, 3,554 yards, and 28 touchdowns. New England has done it like they have always done it—by creating mismatches with their quick-footed receivers, manufacturing deep pass attempts, and spreading defenses thin like a shoddy cake.
The one difference between this year and past years is the Patriots’ set of skill players are whatever. They are coverable. Julian Edelman has been inefficient. Rob Gronkowski is out. Martellus Bennett isn’t as good as everyone thinks he is. Dion Lewis is just now starting to come on. Overall, this passing offense has been all about Brady, Josh McDaniels, and some great pass blocking (on the exterior especially). In a weird way, this is a good thing for New England, Atlanta is 9th and 10th in DVOA at stopping wide receivers #1 and #2, but they struggle against everyone else.
Atlanta has had pass defense issues. Rub routes and simple slants are completed easily. Their pass rush is mediocre, with most of it coming from some enormous Vic Beasley games. It’s a fast defense though, and as time has gone on, they have played their Cover Three scheme and occasional trips into man coverage better. They aren’t giving up deep passes like they did, and they are actually one of the better teams in the league at stopping passes down the deep left and right sidelines. Their one hole is in the deep middle part of the field, where they have allowed eleven completions on twenty targets for 283 yards and a DVOA of 69.8%. The Falcons are going up against a Pats’ offense that is 12-16 for 383 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions in that part of the field. Chris Hogan could make a huge difference on Sunday. He caught all four of his targets in this spot of the field.
I do think Atlanta’s pass defense has improved and can play well in this game. In their first twelve games, they allowed 27.58 points a game and had only thirteen turnovers. In their last six games, they have allowed 19.33 points a game and have forced the same number of turnovers. If they use Vic Beasley Jr. over center in pass rush situations like Romeo Crennel used Whitney Mercilus, and if the Falcons use stunts and interior blitzes effectively, they could create a pass rush.
What worries me is the Falcons’ run defense. Atlanta’s defense is small and fast. They don’t mash. If New England gets a lead, they can have those soul-draining, pan to Matt Ryan standing with helmet buckled incessantly checking the game clock, seven minute drives, filled with power runs and Power O plays the Patriots love to run. If James Develin plays a lot of snaps, it’s bad for Atlanta. The Falcons have a run defense DVOA of 2.5% (29th). They were 26th at stopping runs over the middle, 32nd at stopping runs over the right tackle, and 29th at stopping runs over the right edge, according to adjusted line yards. This could be one of those out of nowhere LeGarrette Blount fantasy games that never happen when he’s on your team.
The Falcons’ offense has hid this defense recently. They have gone up big, shocked, torched, and dismantled teams. This could very well happen again, even against New England. But if it doesn’t and it’s a close game at the half when Belichick can make adjustments, or if the Pats get a lead, New England can strangle this game out.
4.) SO Random,
-Tevin Coleman had two catches on eleven targets last year. This season he and Freeman combined for 85 catches on 105 targets for 883 yards and nine touchdowns.
-Atlanta averages 10.4 yards on play-action passes. They run play-action 26% of the time, which is the most in the league. When they don’t run play0action, they average 7.7 yards a play, which is also a league best. New England’s defense allows 8 yards per play on play-action (20th) and 6.1 yards per play on non-play-action passes.
-On deep passes, Julio Jones has caught 24 of his 47 targets.
-New England is seventh in adjusted line yards on runs up the middle with 4.12 and average 3.71 yards a carry, which is 21st. They are also one of the best outside run teams in the league, ranking seventh and third in yards per carry and adjusted line yards on runs to the left end and right end.
-New England’s defense gives up 73.1 passing yards a game to number one wide receivers and 50.3 passing yards a game to running backs.
-The Patriots’ run defense is seventh in second level yards allowed with 1.03. They are first in open field yards allowed with 0.27.
-Chris Long has the most hurries on the Patriots with twenty. Beasley has 15.5 sacks.
-Atlanta’s defense faced 655 pass attempts, most in the NFL.
-Atlanta was eighth in special teams DVOA. New England was seventh. The big differences were that Atlanta was much better field goal/extra point kicking and punt returns; New England was better at kickoffs and punts.
5.) Yes, He’s Very Smart. I Get It.
We all know Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. We get it. If it wasn’t for him and that zeal that surrounds him and this organization, I would pick Atlanta to win by two scores. After the first half is over, and the teams have sized each other up, that’s when the real fun begins, and we really get to see Belichick’s genius. This game could end up being completely different at the start of the second half. Coleman being open play after play as a slot receiver could evaporate after halftime. New England may nix the run game entirely or switch to running inside zone plays instead. It’s going to be fascinating to see what that mind churns out after Lady Gaga is done bouncing around and poking faces.
Prediction: Atlanta 31, New England 27.
In the end, I just think Atlanta is a better football team. New England’s defense is overrated. Atlanta’s defense has played better these past six weeks than most know about, and their offense has done dirty and despicable things against much better defenses. I see New England keeping up with Atlanta, but never being able to actually pass them before the finish line.