To a very casual observer, a mid-December post on the 6-7 Atlanta Falcons would cry out for a Dickensian introduction, but it simply has not been a tale of two halves for these dirtier-than-anticipated birds.
Some, like MMQB’s Andy Benoit, really wanted to believe in that Victorian-era trope, though. Three weeks ago, Atlanta, which started the season 5-0, had lost four of five games, slipping to a 6-4 record. Falcons fans were beginning to lose hope, but Benoit told them not to panic, because “a closer look reveals a different story.” Benoit’s message was compelling in its simplicity:
On film, the 1-4, Stage 2 Falcons haven’t looked significantly different from the Stage 1 Falcons who started 5-0. And, OK, maybe the Stage 1 Falcons were not quite as good as their record indicated, but those five wins are a more accurate portrayal of the 2015 Falcons than the club’s four losses. The biggest difference between Stage 1 and 2 has been the dreaded turnover.
[T]he Falcons have beaten themselves with random fumbles and a few interceptions, of which only one was a truly bad offensive play. Ryan, cerebral as he is, has always had a slight tendency to take the bait and make a foolish throw or two into disguised or tight coverages. But interceptions have never been a major bugaboo. So unless you believe this will change in the final six games of Ryan’s eighth NFL season, there’s little reason to believe turnovers will continue to plague Atlanta.
Most likely, Atlanta’s fate hinges on how well its offense functions.
Combine the Stage 1 Falcons with the Stage 2 Falcons and what you’ll likely get is a Stage 3 Falcons club that finishes 10-6 and is a dangerous Wild-Card foe.
The seductive simplicity of Benoit’s thesis really is too good to be true. It seems easy to pick on him three weeks later, when Atlanta dropped all three games in that period and has an active six-game losing streak, but his reasoning would’ve been flawed regardless. Even if it’s true that turnovers– both fumbles and interceptions– fall within the realm of luck, and even if it also is true that the Falcons’ then-recent losses were due to turnovers, Benoit ignores the possibility that the team’s early successes also were due to luck. Instead, he simply assumes, without offering any evidence to that effect, that the team was playing closest to its true-talent level when it opened up 5-0, rather than when it went 1-4 (now 1-7, the same record with which the Detroit Lions opened the season). Couldn’t good luck have played just as much a part of Atlanta’s 5-0 opening as bad luck did in their subsequent losses? Of course, but in his overly rosy evaluation of the early season Falcons, Benoit apparently didn’t consider that.
At 6-7, Atlanta isn’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but, with another game against the Panthers remaining and the Seahawks surging, they’re very likely done for the year.
In erasing their 5-0 start, the Falcons’ poor play in the last few weeks likely is a closer approximation of their true talent level than their results in the first five weeks. Indeed, as these charts illustrate, they’ve been historically bad from Week Six onward.
For postseason purposes, Atlanta no longer controls its own destiny (scenarios), but, at a minimum, it will need to beat its three remaining opponents– Jacksonville, Carolina, and New Orleans– to have a shot. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Falcons have a two-percent chance of making the playoffs, and their projected win probability this week against the Jaguars is fifty percent. Not great, Bob.