A 7-4 team generally is favored against a 4-7 team. Yet even after 11 games, Las Vegas bettors were skeptical that the Atlanta Falcons were better than the San Diego Chargers. On Sunday, the Falcons showed they are for real, while the Chargers came up short in their last shot at a late-season playoff push.
The Falcons are without a doubt one of the biggest surprises of this NFL season. A franchise in disarray, the Falcons cleaned house and decided to rebuild with first-round draft pick Matt Ryan. Almost all rookie quarterbacks go through growing pains, but Ryan has held his own and become a legitimate MVP candidate. According to Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric (explained here), the Falcons have the best passing offense in the entire NFL.
In that regard, Sunday's game was not a fair fight, as the Chargers' pass defense has struggled all year. The Chargers' run to last season's AFC Championship Game was fueled largely by an attacking defense that pressured quarterbacks. During training camp, pass-rusher extraordinaire Shawne Merriman tore knee ligaments. He tried to play in Week 1 but quickly shut himself down for the season.
Without Merriman, the pass rush disappeared and exposed a defensive secondary that is not as good as it looked last season. At that point, the Chargers had ranked 12th in Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate stats, which measure sacks (and intentional groundings) per pass play adjusted for situation and opponent. This season, the Chargers rank 24th in that statistic. Without a good pass rush, a pass defense that was among the league's best last season is now among the league's worst.
Ryan faced absolutely no pressure Sunday, and without pressure, he played like a composed veteran. He sat back and picked apart the Chargers. He relied heavily on the exceptional, if unheralded, Roddy White. White caught six passes for 112 yards and drew a 40-yard pass interference penalty.
The Falcons also picked up 120 yards from their major free-agent acquisition, running back Michael Turner. But if we look closer, Turner was not that impressive. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry, struggled in the red zone and fumbled. Turner has been a solid addition, but his overall stats have been inflated because he has faced a number of weak run defenses. Turner has had more value than the man he used to back up, LaDainian Tomlinson, but Turner provides absolutely no value in the passing game.
Ryan has benefited to some extent from the attention paid to Turner and the running game, but this is not a reprise of Ben Roethlisberger's rookie campaign. Ryan is not a game manager who relies on others to carry him to success. Ryan is better on a per-play basis and already has attempted more passes than Roethlisberger did in his entire rookie season. Ryan is the most impressive rookie quarterback since at least Dan Marino in 1983, and possibly since Greg Cook, who led the AFL in yards per attempt, completion percentage and quarterback rating for the 1969 Cincinnati Bengals.
Ryan has been particularly good since a mediocre Week 4 performance against Carolina. Since that game, he has averaged 7.5 yards per attempt in all but one game and has thrown 11 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. His Week 12 performance showed his improvement, as he dominated the Panthers, who had flummoxed him in their first meeting.
For San Diego, its declining defense has put too much pressure on its offense. The passing game, while stymied a bit Sunday, has largely delivered this season. The run offense, however, has disappeared. Tomlinson is having the worst season of his career and gained a woeful 24 yards on 14 carries Sunday.
The Falcons' defensive line contained the Chargers' rushing attack and took advantage of reserve left guard Scott Mruczkowski. The D-line corps pushed through the line on multiple occasions to stop Tomlinson on runs to the left, and Jonathan Babineaux came from the middle for 1½ sacks. The lack of time for Philip Rivers prevented him from attacking down the field. The Chargers' vaunted downfield passing attack disappeared, and Rivers' longest completion was a mere 18 yards. With a struggling running game and no downfield passing, the Chargers scored only nine offensive points.
The Chargers' season is effectively over. They are not as bad as their 4-8 record, but they basically are a mediocre team that has caught a few bad breaks. Considering the talent on this team, that performance is simply unacceptable. The Chargers will have a difficult offseason, and they'll need to determine how almost the same team that made the AFC Championship Game went so bad this season. They'll also need to decide what, if any, changes are necessary.
For Atlanta, they have four games to finish the season's most unlikely playoff push. With their 8-4 record, they would hold the final playoff spot if the season were to end today. If they can win in New Orleans this week, they'll host Tampa Bay in a game that would have massive playoff implications. Tampa Bay is the one team that has dominated Ryan this year, and if he can turn things around to beat the Bucs, his ascent to topflight quarterback will be complete. Ryan seems to be the unique rookie who might be up to that challenge and will lead, not manage, his team into the playoffs.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.