Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

29 Dec 2015

Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Panthers

by Sterling Xie

An Atlanta victory over Carolina would not have seemed so surprising at the end of September. Back then, the Falcons and Panthers were both 4-0, but Atlanta actually possessed a slightly better DVOA. Both teams had built those undefeated records with shaky one-score wins over mediocre NFC East and AFC South competition, so at least a slight amount of regression seemed imminent.

As we know, there has been nothing slight about how either team has trended since that point. From Weeks 5 to 15, Carolina ranked ninth in offensive DVOA (10.8%) and third in defensive DVOA (-23.6%), while Atlanta ranked 30th on offense (-19.5%) and 21st in defense (3.0%) over that same span.

The Panthers had pummeled the Falcons by a combined 72-3 margin in the past two meetings, and at around 1:20 EST, it looked like The Hangover Part III. Carolina waltzed down the field for an 80-yard touchdown, and Atlanta bumbled 5 yards backwards for an ostensible three-and-out. But Charles Tillman extended that drive with an egregiously foolish unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during a post-play scuffle. Officials had no choice but to hone in on the Panthers after last week's debacle. (Later that night, their Fight Club partners from Gotham saw linebacker J.T. Thomas ejected for a relatively harmless looking shove.)

Apparently, everything leading up to Tillman's penalty was just the preamble to Rod Serling coming on screen and informing us that this game had just entered the Twilight Zone. The box score suggests the Falcons were largely in control, outgaining the Panthers 373 yards to 268 and winning the time of possession battle 35:38 to 24:22. No team has held the ball longer against Carolina this season, which ranked third in time of possession headed into the week.

And yet, watching the game, it did not feel like the Falcons were really in control. A large chunk of that yardage difference stemmed from Julio Jones' Play of the Year candidate, which was Atlanta's longest play of the season by 15 yards. Remove that outlier, and the Falcons would have averaged 4.5 yards per play (even excluding their end-of-game kneeldowns), which is a full yard below their season average.

Consequently, it has become tempting to make this loss about Cam Newton. Newton's raw numbers were ugly, and his passing DVOA (-46.9%) and DYAR (-76) were his worst single-game figures of the season. But as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady will attest, a great quarterback isn't going to look great without a healthy supporting cast. And yet, despite his underrated reliability, Jonathan Stewart isn't the injured starter the Panthers offense missed the most.

It was once easy to imagine Ted Ginn Jr. as a difference-maker when he was a newly minted first-round pick, but this isn't 2007 anymore. However, during the second half of the season, when Newton posted a 22-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and seized the lead in the MVP race, it was Ginn who jump-started an offense that had been erratic from week to week. From Weeks 9 to 15, the Panthers posted a whopping 154.2% DVOA on deep passes, the third-best figure in the league over that span.

Against Atlanta, though, Ginn hurt his knee midway through the second quarter. Though he returned and finished the game, he was clearly hobbled and received just one target the rest of the way. After Ginn's injury, Newton went 11-of-19 for 84 yards. Apart from three checkdowns which generated some yards after the catch, Newton's only completed pass that went more than 10 yards was his last one, a 19-yard completion to Corey Brown on Carolina's penultimate offensive play.

More broadly, this game was about the Panthers finally getting burned after playing with fire at various points this season, as Carolina has the point differential of an 11-win team. The lesser early-season version of this team survived comeback attempts from Ryan Mallett and Luke McCown, but even the stronger second-half version needed comebacks in the final 65 seconds to beat the Saints and Giants.

Sunday's game flow was almost certainly going to ensure another tight finish. Including Atlanta's end-of-game kneeldowns, there were just 17 combined possessions, the lowest single-game total in the league this season. Neither team had a single three-and-out punt sequence, and in the first half, only once did either offense fail to pick up multiple first downs on a drive. And yet, only four drives reached the red zone, and if you took the under on the 47.5 total, you weren't sweating much in the second half. It was a weird game where each offense did enough to sustain drives, but rarely threatened to cross the goal line.

It's entirely possible to contend for the Super Bowl as a ground-bound offense, as the NFC West has illustrated in recent seasons. Like past renditions of the Seahawks and 49ers, though, the Panthers had the deep ball in their arsenal as a nice secondary pitch. One poor outing isn't reason to dismiss the real progress Newton and the Carolina offense has made this season, but it does underscore how their margin for error might not be as large as many imagined headed into the week.

Julio Jones > The Ghost of Mike Smith

Envisioning an Atlanta upset probably would have included a few key developments: Winning the turnover battle, a strong game from Devonta Freeman, the red zone offense reverting to its early-season excellence, and Julio Jones making a few splash plays.

Well, one out of four ain't bad, I guess. For a team that pulled off one of the season's signature upsets, the Falcons sure did a lot to shoot themselves in the foot. Freeman was boom-but-mostly-bust on the ground, with four runs of 10-plusyards but 10 carries going for 1 yard or less. Additionally, Atlanta had snap shenanigans that would have made the Jaguars blush. Matt Ryan dropped a shotgun snap which forced Atlanta to abort its first offensive play; tripped over his lineman's feet trying to hand off the ball; and saw another shotgun snap sail over his head for a critical fourth-quarter turnover. And all this happened before heinously terrible end-of-game clock management gave Newton and Co. one last ditch drive that never should have happened, evoking memories of the London loss to Detroit last year which was effectively the final nail in the coffin for the Mike Smith era.

But in a close contest, a game-breaker like Jones can make all the difference. Watching his leaping catch over Luke Kuechly made me think of a similar play he made at the end of a 2013 game against the Patriots. In retrospect, maybe not as spectacular, but catching a pass despite borderline interference against Devin McCourty is probably just as impressive as outleaping a linebacker, even one as athletic as Kuechly:

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Even though Josh Norman wasn't there on the game's biggest play, Jones compiled most of his nine-catch, 178-yard day against the Panthers' top corner. With Norman on him, Jones had seven catches for 91 yards, though it's hard to definitively pinpoint responsibility on all of those given Carolina's heavy use of zone schemes. Without traveling too far down the rabbit hole of debating the qualities a No. 1 corner should have, it's worth noting that Atlanta did not appear to use Jones in the slot any more than they typically would to avoid Norman. This was just a signature performance from arguably the only player who can legitimately challenge Antonio Brown for the "Best Wide Receiver Alive" title belt.

By the VOA

As you might expect, opponent adjustments ultimately gave Atlanta a fairly significant edge in the end. However, without the adjustments, Carolina actually played the better game overall.


DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
CAR -0.7% 21.5% 3.2% -18.9%
ATL 11.2% 0.5% -4.9% 5.9%
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
CAR 1.4% 16.5% 3.2% -11.9%
ATL -5.1% 5.4% -4.9% -15.4%

It's weird to think the Panthers had the better offense on the day, though the low number of possessions helped prevent things from getting too ugly. Carolina did have a strong day on the ground, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. And it's not as though Newton skewed that figure, as the Panthers' running backs actually averaged 8.3 yards per attempt. And yet, despite not trailing by more than one score the entire second half, the Panthers ran the ball on just eight out of their 25 plays after halftime.

The Keep Lookin' at Wins Stat of the Week

Sunday's win, Atlanta's eighth of the season, was also its sixth one-score win of 2015. This propensity for close wins is old hat for the Falcons. Since the Matt Ryan era commenced in 2008, 38 out of the Falcons' 74 regular-season wins (51.4 percent) have been by one score. That alone isn't particularly extraordinary; 10 other teams have had a higher percentage of their wins come by a single score since 2008.

But as you might suspect, most of those teams are perennial cellar-dwellers. The Falcons and the Colts are the only franchises to have more than half their wins come by one score, yet still be above .500 since 2008. Not coincidentally, both teams have had multi-year stretches of spectacular one-score luck. From 2008 to 2012, during the halcyon days of the Ryan era, the Falcons' went 27-11 in one-score games. That .711 winning percentage was the second-best in the league, just behind (guess who) the Colts at .732. Atlanta underwent a severe market correction, going 5-11 in one-score games in 2013 and 2014, before rebounding to a more normal 6-4 so far this year. As for Indy? Even in this disastrous campaign, the Colts can still claim a 6-4 record in one-score games, the 13th time in the past 14 seasons they'll finish with a winning record in such situations.

Posted by: Sterling Xie on 29 Dec 2015

2 comments, Last at 29 Dec 2015, 7:28pm by Eleutheria

Comments

1
by techvet :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 2:32pm

Also, regarding "The Keep Lookin' at Wins Stat of the Week", it's been well-documented how (relatively) awful the AFC South is and how poor the Colts record is outside the division in recent years.

2
by Eleutheria :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 7:28pm

Though it is exaggerated, they tend to leave out the 2012 season, where they went 4-2 in division games and 7-3 in non-division games.

They went 12-0 in division games and 10-10 in non-division games in he following two years.