by Vincent Verhei
With the conference championship games behind us, it's time again to look back at the 2016 season and analyze what happened when the best teams in the league played at their worst. Yes, the Falcons and Patriots both won a lot of games to get here -- 29 in total between them -- but they also lost seven times. We know all about their triumphs, but what lessons can we learn from their struggles, and what are the weaknesses that could be exposed and exploited in Houston? Tom Brady's suspension makes the selection of New England's worst games a complicated process (though not for the reasons you might think), so we'll start with Atlanta, and cover the Patriots next week.
The Falcons had four games this year with a negative DVOA. In chronological order:
- Week 1: It seems like a whole different era, but the Falcons actually opened their season with a 31-24 home loss to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers took an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter. The Falcons would eventually get the ball back down by just seven points with nearly two minutes to go, but that drive ended on four straight Matt Ryan incompletions. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had a miserable day, combining for just 42 yards and one first down on 19 carries, getting hit for no gain or a loss six times. Ryan himself was sacked three times. Meanwhile, Atlanta's secondary couldn't cover anyone. Jameis Winston threw touchdowns to four different receivers; Mike Evans finished with 99 yards and a score; and tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Cameron Brate, and Brandon Myers combined for five catches in five targets, gaining 64 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
- Week 7: The Falcons suffer another home defeat, blowing leads of 27-10 and 30-20 en route to a 33-30 loss to San Diego in overtime. Across the board, this was a pretty average performance for Atlanta, with no overwhelming areas of strong or weak performance. Ryan was sacked three times again, and hit nine times in total. Julio Jones had nine catches for 174 yards, though it took him 15 targets to get there. The defense tackled Chargers running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage seven times, and held them to 80 yards on 25 carries. They also sacked Philip Rivers four times, but allowed him to average 8.4 yards per pass attempt. Most of that damage was done by Tyrell Williams, who caught 7-of-10 passes for 140 yards. Matt Bryant missed a 58-yard field goal as time expired. Atlanta then got the ball first in overtime, but that drive ended on a failed fourth-and-1 run at their own 45. San Diego kicked the winning field goal six snaps later.
- Week 10: The Falcons fall to Philadelphia 24-15, the only time all season the Falcons scored less than 23 points. With no Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman was the bell cow back of the day, and five of his 12 carries gained 1 yard or less. (Terron Ward also got one carry, a 1-yard loss.) Atlanta's only touchdown came on a 76-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel. Ryan averaged just 5.3 yards on his other 35 dropbacks. Including the 76-yarder, Atlanta's median gain on passing plays was just 3.5 yards. Ryan was also sacked twice, with one DPI and one interception. Again, Jones had big raw totals (10 catches for 135 yards), but again it took him a lot of plays to get there (16 targets). Meanwhile, the Falcons defense got steamrolled, allowing the trio of Ryan Mathews, Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles to ramble for 198 yards and 11 first downs on 34 carries, while getting hit for no gain or a loss just one time.
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- Week 13: In one of the weirdest and most shocking games of the year, the Falcons lose to Kansas City at home, 29-28. The Falcons scored what was momentarily a go-ahead touchdown with about four and a half minutes to go in the game, but when they went for a two-point conversion and a three-point lead, Eric Berry intercepted the pass and returned it all the way for a defensive two-point conversion that put the Chiefs on top for good. This after Berry had scored on more conventional pick-six in the second quarter, and Albert Wilson scored on a fake punt in the third. That's 16 points in the final margin that were surrendered by Atlanta's offense and special teams, not the defense. Mind you, the defense still had a lousy day. They held Kansas City running backs to 29 yards on 15 carries, but in addition to Wilson's run on a fake punt, Tyreek Hill and De'Anthony Thomas had runs of 23, 13, and 6 yards. More to the point, Alex Smith went 21-of-25 and averaged 10.8 yards per pass, his best game in that category since 2013. The most dangerous weapon in Smith's arsenal was tight end Travis Kelce, who caught each of the eight passes thrown his way for 140 total yards, including three catches that gained 20 or more yards.
All of which leaves us with a very murky picture. There's no one area here where Atlanta's game drops off. In their four bad games, they were worse in every major category compared to their ratings for the full season. Their DVOA numbers fell in pass offense (53.0% overall, 27.7% in their bad games), rush offense (1.7%, -9.4%), pass defense (11.6%, 35.7%) and rush defense (2.5%, 10.7%).
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Individual receiving numbers, though, start to give us some useful information. Julio Jones, for example, had a very similar receiving DVOA overall (31.8%) as he did in Atlanta's bad games (28.5%). Meanwhile, Taylor Gabriel saw a significant decline (from 36.6% to 7.7%), as did Mohamed Sanu (from 6.7% to -3.2%). Further, while Jones had exactly 25 percent of Atlanta's targets overall this year, that rate climbed to 36 percent in Atlanta's bad games. There's no player with a corresponding drop in targets -- everyone else was basically just targeted the same or slightly less -- but Atlanta played its worst football this year when they over-relied on Julio Jones and ignored their other weapons. Bill Belichick has always excelled at neutralizing his opponents' best players, and on the surface "make Julio Jones beat you" doesn't sound like a way to make a living. But a one-dimensional Falcons attack is less dangerous than one that can get the ball to a variety of targets at will.
There's one other surprise in Atlanta's individual receiving DVOAs: both Falcons running backs were actually more effective in Atlanta's worst games. Devonta Freeman's receiving DVOA climbed from 24.5% overall to 38.0% when Atlanta struggled, while Tevin Coleman's jumped from a league-best 48.5% overall to 50.7%. This again suggests that the key to beating Atlanta is eliminating Taylor and Sanu from the game plan. You actually want to funnel deep passes to Jones, while allowing Freeman and Coleman to get their short catches and do your best to limit the damage from those plays. Admittedly, a lot of this sounds counter-intuitive, but when you're talking about a great offense like Atlanta's, the best you can realistically hope for is to keep their scoring down to about a league-average level, and hope your own offense can do better than that.
And New England's offense certainly can do better than that, especially against this defense. The Falcons were horrible against the run in their good and bad games alike, but their pass defense went from "below average" over the whole season to "total incompetence" in their four bad games. The quartet of Jameis Winston, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, and Alex Smith (none of whom ranked higher than tenth in DVOA combined to complete 70.1 percent of their passes at an average of 8.42 yards per throw, with six touchdowns, two interceptions, and seven sacks. For the weeks in question, Atlanta was among the bottom eight teams in coverage against No. 1 wide receivers, "other" wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. They were actually 13th-best in coverage against No. 2 wide receivers, though the 2s they faced in those weeks -- Vincent Jackson, Tyrell Williams, Nelson Agholor, and Albert Wilson -- weren't exactly a murderer's row. Regardless, even if the Falcons do shut down Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman and the other Patriots receivers are more than capable of winning football games on their own.
So that's what a worst-case scenario Super Bowl looks like for Atlanta: big plays in the passing game will put some points on the board, but an inability to extend drives will give New England's offense too many opportunities to score themselves, and the Falcons will be powerless to stop the Patriots' long marches. In this kind of deep south nightmare world, the Falcons score in the neighborhood of 20 points, and still get doubled up.
Next week, we'll look at New England's worst games, and the effect that Tom Brady's absence apparently had on the Patriots defense (no, that's not a typo).