The Atlanta Falcons are flying under the radar right now.
Of course, saying any NFL team is "flying under the radar" is a little silly. It's 2016, and every NFL team is covered by multiple newspapers, radio stations and fan sites, with national coverage on top. Everybody's paying attention to everybody. Plus, by writing about the Falcons, I'm making it even less likely they're under the radar.
That said, in terms of this year's playoff picture, an enormous amount of attention has been directed toward the Cowboys and Patriots, who are respectively locked in as the certain top seed in the NFC and the likely top seed in the AFC. They deserve the attention. There's a second tier of teams below Dallas and New England, though, and with the Raiders taking a hit after Derek Carr fractured his fibula this weekend, the Falcons likely belong at the very top of that tier. And somewhat quietly, they have as impressive a résumé as anybody in football, paced by one of the best offenses in league history.
Wait ... there's evidence!
Everybody knows the Falcons have a good offense, but is anybody really talking about how Matt Ryan & Co. have one of the best attacks the NFL has ever seen? What the Falcons have done this year has gone criminally underappreciated. They have scored a league-high 503 points through 15 games (a 33.5-point average) with one game to go at home against New Orleans, which is about the best possible recipe for a shootout. (Indeed, the Vegas line projects the Falcons to score 31 points next week.) Even before the Saints game, though, Atlanta's offense has been historic. Teams are scoring more than ever before, but the Falcons are outscoring the rest of the league with room to spare.
To whit: Kyle Shanahan's offense is currently averaging 10.8 points more than the league average (22.7 points) and 4.4 points more than the second-placed Saints (29.1 points). To put that in context, we can standardize the points per game total and find that the Falcons are 2.6 standard deviations above the mean in terms of points per game, which puts them in the 99th percentile of offenses since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.
In simpler terms: There are only a few offenses in league history that have outscored their brethren more than the Falcons have against other offenses in 2016. With one game to go, after standardizing their points per game, the Falcons have the 12th-best offense since the merger. The best offense by this measure, as I wrote about at the time, would be the 2013 Broncos. No other offense has disturbed the top 10 since then, a group that includes great offensive campaigns from the Kurt Warner-era Rams (1999 and 2001), the Steve Young-era 49ers (1993 and 1994), the Tom Brady-era Patriots (2007 and 2012), and a few interlopers.
Advanced metrics tell a slightly different story, if still a compelling one. DVOA has the Falcons' offense at No. 1 through 15 weeks at 25.6 percent, a figure which will likely rise once it accounts for Atlanta dropping 33 points and 408 yards on Carolina on Christmas Eve. While 25.6 percent is impressive, it's not all that much different from second-place Dallas at 22 percent.
DVOA accounts for a couple of things on offense which pure points scored does not. First, it notes that the Atlanta defense has scored five touchdowns this year and doesn't credit the offense for those plays. Second, it separates out the excellent work of kicker Matt Bryant, who has been 33-of-36 on field goals and 51-of-52 on extra points this season. Bryant has been worth 9.0 points of field position on scoring plays through Week 15 this season, second in the league behind enormous outlier Justin Tucker (24.3 points). I would argue that a kicking play is part of the "offense," but either way, the Falcons are great at both.
Beating the best
The other thing DVOA notes about Atlanta's offense, crucially, is that the Falcons have played the toughest schedule of opposing defenses in football this season, making their raw points total even more impressive. They've played six top-10 pass defenses this season, including those of the Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals, Chiefs and twice against the Buccaneers. Meanwhile, they'll get only three games against bottom-10 pass defenses, having already beaten the 49ers and Saints, with that return match against New Orleans to come.
In those six games against top-10 defenses, the Falcons still managed to score plenty, averaging 30 points while turning the ball over just six times. Atlanta has given the ball up just 11 times this year, a stark change for an offense which averaged 27 turnovers per season over the previous three frustrating campaigns. The Falcons haven't been particularly fumble-lucky, either, having recovered four of the eight balls they've fumbled on offense.
Atlanta has the league's fourth-lowest turnover rate on a per-possession basis, which is a huge reason why they're able to score so much. The Falcons don't come off the field, often because they gouge defenses on first down. They average a league-high 7.5 yards per play on first down (nobody else in the league is above 6.7 yards). Pro-Football-Reference has down-by-down data going back through 1994, and only one other team over that span, the 2006 Eagles, has averaged as many as 7.1 yards per first down play. Given how conservative teams were on first down in years past, it's very likely this Falcons offense averages more yards on first down than any team in league history.
If you've watched Falcons highlights this year, you also know they've been quite capable of creating big plays. With the unexpected production of Taylor Gabriel, Atlanta has generated 34 plays of 30 yards or more this season, the most in football. They also have a league-leading 14 touchdowns of 30 yards or more. Gabriel has been responsible for five of those 34 plays, with all-world wideout Julio Jones adding in seven.
Quite simply, the Falcons are a threat to score anytime they get the ball, regardless of game situation, field position or the strength of the opposition. Despite facing that league-leading slate of opposing defenses, Atlanta has come away with points on 52.4 percent of its drives this season. Nobody else in football is above 45.7 percent, and the league average is just 35.7 percent. ESPN Stats & Information has possession data going back through 2001, and the only team to score more frequently on its drives is the legendary offense of the 2007 Patriots, who are narrowly ahead at 52.7 percent.
What's interesting here is Atlanta does all this with much of the same personnel they lined up with a year ago, although several additions have helped matters. New center Alex Mack has made an enormous difference up front in protecting Ryan, while Gabriel has been a threat to take screens and bombs alike to the house. Mohamed Sanu has been marginally more productive than Roddy White after signing a free-agent deal with the Falcons this offseason. But mostly, this is the same offensive talent pool.
Atlanta was healthy last year, ranking second in the league in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost statistic, and it has remained healthy with better talent this season. The Falcons' 11 projected offensive starters have combined to miss just 10 games this season, most of which have come from tight end Jacob Tamme, who was part of a rotation with rookie Austin Hooper and the professionally tall Levine Toilolo. Their five offensive linemen, crucially, have made it through 15 games without missing a single contest. They're on pace to go 80-for-80, a meaningful feat in the modern NFL.
Ryan's MVP-worthy season
All of this has given Ryan the opportunity to shine, and he has delivered a performance worthy of the MVP award. Ryan leads the league in QBR (82.1) and passer rating (115.5), ranking in both categories ahead of Tom Brady, who has thrown 99 fewer passes than Ryan as a result of missing the first four games of the season. Ryan is third in the league in completion percentage, but his average throw has traveled 9.3 yards in the air, while the guys above him (Sam Bradford and Drew Brees) are below 7 and 8 yards per pass, respectively.
What's different this year, at least on the surface, is that Ryan has avoided giveaways and managed to piece together an offense when opposing defenses have shut down Jones. Take Week 3, when the Saints somehow limited Jones to one catch for 16 yards on seven targets. Ryan went 19-of-23 for 224 yards to his other targets, and Devonta Freeman ran for 152 yards on 14 carries. Jones has posted 60 yards or fewer in four other games this year, and Atlanta has won them all, averaging just under 32 points per game in the process. And with Jones missing against the admittedly middling defenses of the Rams and 49ers, the Falcons scored 40-plus points in each contest, albeit with two defensive touchdowns against Los Angeles.
Ryan has been good in games against the league's best teams, a group of opponents that the Falcons actually stack up well against based on their regular-season performance. Atlanta was just 2-2 in the regular season against likely playoff teams, but it outperformed that record. The Falcons beat the Raiders 35-28 in a road game that required a late Raiders touchdown to appear closer. Ryan then led the Falcons to a 33-32 comeback win over the Packers with a touchdown pass to Sanu with 31 seconds left.
The Falcons' two losses against likely playoff teams were extremely close. Ryan led the Falcons back with a brilliant third quarter in Seattle to take the lead, but he had a pass go off Jones' hands for a late fourth-quarter interception, setting up a Seattle field goal in a heartbreaking 26-24 loss. He also engineered a comeback against the Chiefs with a fourth-quarter touchdown that gave Atlanta a 28-27 lead with 4:32 to go, only for Eric Berry to intercept the two-point try and return it for a game-winning pick-two in a 29-28 crusher. That play may be enough to push the MVP out of Ryan's hands.
There are concerns, of course, which may hold the Falcons back. I haven't mentioned their defense yet, and with good reason: It's not very effective. Atlanta was 26th in defensive DVOA heading into Week 16. Those numbers also fail to account for the absence of star cornerback Desmond Trufant, who went down with a torn pectoral muscle and has been missing since Week 9. Optimistic fans might note that the Falcons have allowed only 115 points in the six games since that injury, but they've also faced the Eagles, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Chiefs over that stretch.
Things aren't much better going by raw numbers, either. Atlanta has allowed 24.9 points per game, which is 0.7 standard deviations worse than the league-average rate of 22.7 -- and while 2.2 points per contest doesn't sound like a big deal, and the old axiom of "defense wins championships" is simplistic, the Falcons would be the second-worst defense in the modern era to win a Super Bowl. Just three teams have won a Super Bowl with a defense allowing more points than the league average, with the 2009 Saints coming within four points of becoming the fourth.
The only team worse on defense? The 2011 Giants, who allowed points at a rate 12.7 percent worse than league average. Atlanta is at 9.6 percent. The 2006 Colts were in the same ballpark, but they got Bob Sanders back for the postseason after their star safety missed 12 games that year with an injury. Sanders helped the Colts allow just 65 points over four games en route to the Super Bowl.
But there's an upside here: There aren't any complete teams with dominant defenses lurking in this postseason. The Patriots might lead the league in scoring defense, but they're 19th in defensive DVOA. Dallas is just behind them in 20th. With Denver and Baltimore eliminating themselves with losses on Sunday night, the only top-10 defenses by DVOA en route to the postseason are the Giants (who have an ugly offense), the Seahawks (who aren't the same without Earl Thomas) and the Steelers (who are missing their best defensive player in Cameron Heyward). If there was ever a year in which a bad defense could make a run to Super Bowl lore, it's this one.
One other knock against the Falcons is that they are somehow jinxed in the postseason or can't come up with big games when they need them, which is nonsense and a product of the ridiculous moving-goalposts school of playoff discussion. Ryan took flak earlier in his career for not winning in the playoffs, so when he did by leading the Falcons back to a dramatic come-from-behind win over the Seahawks during the 2012 postseason, it should have ended the discussion. Instead, the argument just shifted to Ryan needing to win a conference championship with this team, and if he does that, Ryan will need to win a title before most people will accept him as a true superstar, whatever that's worth.
Atlanta can make its path easier by winning in Week 17. A victory over the Saints would give the Falcons the second seed in the NFC, granting them an opening-round bye and a home game before presumably traveling to Dallas for the NFC Championship Game. If the Cowboys slip in the divisional round and the Falcons win, Atlanta would then host the NFC Championship Game.
Four years ago, Atlanta very narrowly missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl when a wide-open Harry Douglas slipped on a route heading upfield that could have resulted in a touchdown, giving Atlanta a three-point lead over the 49ers at home with minutes to go. Now, four years later, the Falcons and their incredible offense get their chance at revenge.