by Ned Macey
Atlanta entered the week as the only team from last year's NFC Divisional round to sport a winning record. The only question about the 6-2 Falcons seemed to be whether or not they could secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. With the woeful Packers in town, a win was a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately for the Falcons, the Packers found a secret weapon in Samkon Gado and exposed the Falcons for the second-rate squad they really are.
In analyzing the NFL, most people focus too much on quarterbacks. A good quarterback certainly helps, but if Kyle Orton's team is 6-3 and Donovan McNabb's team is 4-5, it clearly only means so much. No middle ground seems to exist in evaluating Michael Vick, with half the world decrying him as a glorified running back and the other half forging his bust for Canton. So much focus on Vick leaves the rest of the Falcons rarely analyzed. What the loss to the Packers shows is that no matter what Vick does, the Falcons defense will leave them fighting for a Wild Card.
Whatever you think of Vick, he is basically the same player this year that he was a year ago. He has a quarterback rating of 76.9 this year compared to 78.1 a year ago. He is completing a slightly higher percentage of passes for fewer yards per attempt. He is gaining a little less on each individual scramble, but he is also taking fewer sacks. No major growth or regression has occurred from last season.
Since the statistics at Football Outsiders show Vick to be a substandard quarterback, the overall ranking of the Falcons is fairly low. No amount of data can convince either side of the Vick debate that it's wrong, so for today we are just going to ignore his contribution, which by statistical measurement remains consistently mediocre.
A year ago, the Falcons ranked 19th in DVOA, our innovative stat that ranks each team on a per play basis (and is further explained here). That ranking seems low for an 11-5 team, but they only outscored their opponents by three points on the season, a differential much more indicative of a .500 team.
It's also important to remember that last year's NFC consisted of Philadelphia and the 15 dwarves. At the point when the Falcons clinched their playoff position after Week 15, they were ranked just 16th in the entire league -- but this was still good enough to be third in the conference behind Philadelphia and the surging Carolina Panthers.
This season, the rest of the NFC has improved. Atlanta's offense has stayed strong thanks to the impressive work of Warrick Dunn and an underrated offensive line. On defense, however, the team is among the worst in the league.
A season ago, the importation of Rod Coleman helped elevate the Falcons from the 26th best defense to the 16th best according to DVOA. This year, the defense has regressed to 25th overall, including an abysmal 29th against the run.
Despite the improvement of the defense last season, the Falcons turned over four members of their front seven in the off-season, due mostly to the aging of such players as Ed Jasper and Chris Draft. Of their replacements, only linebacker Ed Hartwell was a proven commodity. He came in and played well early, but since his injury in Week 5, the Falcons have been weakened, with fifth-round pick Michael Boley forced into the line-up. The Falcons have been particularly susceptible to runs at the left side of their line, which featured Jonathan Babineaux and Chad Lavalais on Sunday.
This deficiency was exploited against the Packers by the most unlikely of players, Samkon Gado. A career back-up at Division I-AA Liberty University, Gado was cut by the Chiefs in the pre-season before eventually landing on the Packers practice squad. Injuries to the Packers' top three running backs left them with their fifth starter in nine games.
What was impressive about Gado's performance was that he was running behind a line that until Sunday had been inept. After anchoring one of the league's best offensive lines the past few seasons, guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera were allowed to leave in free agency. Without them, a Packers line that ranked in the top 12 in the league the past three seasons in our adjusted line yards statistic has fallen into the mid-twenties this season. The combination of injured running backs and shoddy line play left the Packers entering their game against Atlanta as the second worst rushing offense in football.
The decline in rushing offense is the only major difference between this year's Packers team and last year's division-winning squad. A season ago, the Packers were not a great team, feasting on a weak NFC to compile a 10-6 record. They ranked 21st in DVOA in large part due to a defense that ranked 29th. This season with new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, the Packers defense has improved slightly to 21st.
Brett Favre, playing without Javon Walker, has led a passing offense that still ranks 9th in the league after ranking 8th a year ago. Favre's play has been denigrated because of his very high interception total, but with no help in the running game, he is frequently put in impossible situations. According to our statistic DPAR, which measures points contributed above a replacement-level player, Favre is the 6th most productive quarterback in football. That ranking would be his highest since 2001.
The other major difference between this year and last year is a change in luck. To date this year, they have lost five games by seven points or less. They lost only two such games a year ago. Thanks to their humiliation of the Saints in Week 5, they had actually outscored their opponents even before the victory over Atlanta. While it gives little consolation, the Packers were likely the best 1-7 team in history.
With all of those close losses and such a deficiency in the running game, it is clear that any semblance of a running game would have had the Packers contending in the NFC North. The Packers' best hope for establishing the running game is Gado, which may be the most surprising story of the NFL season. Gado is different than the average NFL player not just because he spent his first nine years in Nigeria but also because rather than majoring in "general studies," he earned a pre-med degree. His medical career is on hold for now, as he will likely finish the season as Green Bay's starting running back.
Gado's story is an exceptional one, but given that he struggled for 62 yards on 26 carries against Pittsburgh the week before, his performance is likely the result of Atlanta's deficient run defense. The 62-yard effort was sadly the highest output by a Packers running back before Sunday's outburst. Even in Sunday's game, Gado's failure to secure the ball could have cost the Packers dearly. Gado fumbled twice and was fortunate to have both recovered by teammates.
Fumble recoveries are for the most part random occurrences that tend to even out over time. Before the Packers game, Atlanta's defense had recovered an amazing nine out of 10 fumbles by opposing offenses. Such luck had helped mask how deficient the Falcons defense had become. This random occurrence can have a major impact on an individual game. Gado's first fumble this week came on the Packers' first touchdown drive. His second fumble came in Green Bay's own territory on a drive that led to an eventual field goal. Had Atlanta recovered either fumble, they could very easily have won the game.
Atlanta's bad luck did not end on fumbles. The final margin in the game was provided by an exceptional performance from Packers kicker Ryan Longwell. For the game, Longwell hit four field goals, including one each from 46, 51, and 53 yards. On average, kickers hit only 62 percent of all 46-yard field goals, 53 percent of 51-yard field goals, 49 percent of 53-yard field goals. For Longwell to hit all three is both an amazing individual performance and bad luck for the Falcons. Before this game, Longwell had hit only seven of 11 field goals on the season, including three of six from over 40 yards.
After this game, the Falcons rank 19th and the Packers 20th in overall DVOA. By weighted DVOA, which considers only the most recent eight games, the Packers are actually ahead of the Falcons. Of course, all the statistics in the world do not change the fact that the Packers are 2-7 while the Falcons are 6-3.
The Packers have virtually no hope of making the playoffs, but they are well-positioned to play the role of spoiler. They finish with six of their final seven games against teams within two games of first place, including four within the division. A 6-10 season would be Favre's first losing season, but after a 1-7 start, it would be a promising conclusion that could bring Favre back for one more year.
Going forward, Atlanta's road to the playoffs will be strewn with potholes. They close with five of seven games against teams with winning records and four of seven on the road. The only seemingly sure victory they have is when they host the Saints. The NFC features eight teams with a winning record, meaning the days of the 8-8 Wild Card are over. The Falcons will need at least 10 wins to qualify for a playoff spot. With their difficult remaining schedule and suspect defense, it is far from assured that they will get there, an unthinkable prospect just a few days ago.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.