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Are The Falcons Going To Screw This Up Again?

After handing the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos their first loss of the season on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons are 4-1 and rising quickly in our NFL Elo power ratings. They began the season ranked 17th in the league but are now ninth. They have the fifth-highest probability of making the playoffs and a 67 percent chance of winning their division (thanks in part to the general awfulness of the NFC South so far1).

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A year ago, the Falcons started strong, jumping out to a 5-0 record. They also rose sharply in our power rankings, from 24th in Elo before the season began to ninth after Week 5. It was enough to convince meand others — that the team was for real under new coach Dan Quinn after the final two misbegotten seasons of the Mike Smith era.

The Falcons then went 3-8 over the rest of the schedule to finish the season a disappointing .500.

Will Falcons history repeat itself this season? Well, the team is already making history of its own, in a way. Since the advent of the NFL’s 16-game schedule in 1978,2 only six teams have gained at least 50 points of Elo3 through five games of one season, lost at least 50 Elo points over the remainder of that season, and then gained back at least 50 Elo points through five games of the next season:

PREV. SEASON CURRENT SEASON
YEAR TEAM ELO CHANGE IN FIRST 5 GAMES ELO CHANGE IN REST OF SEASON ELO CHANGE IN FIRST 5 GAMES ELO CHANGE IN REST OF SEASON
1979 WAS +71 -170 +81 +13
1994 MIA +53 -92 +68 +4
2001 STL +55 -103 +92 +86
2002 SD +71 -74 +91 -72
2004 MIN +115 -55 +53 -65
2016 ATL +101 -87 +90
Will history repeat for the Falcons?

NFL teams to gain 50+ Elo points through five games of a season, lose 50+ Elo points over the remainder of that season, and gain 50+ Elo points through five games of the next season, 1978-2016.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The five earlier teams had mixed results after performing this seesaw act. Two — the San Diego Chargers in 2002 and the Minnesota Vikings in 2004 — collapsed again, finishing 8-8 despite the strong starts. Two others — the Washington Franchise in 1979 and the Miami Dolphins in 1994 — held onto their early-season gains the second time around; both finished 10-6, with Miami returning to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. And one of the teams — the St. Louis Rams in 2001 — added a lot more to their Elo rating from Week 5 onward, en route to a Super Bowl appearance.

(Indeed, the turn-of-the-century Rams had a pattern of extreme early-season Elo gains over three consecutive seasons. In 1999, St. Louis came out of nowhere to gain a post-1978 record 168 Elo points through five games; in 2000, it tacked 55 points onto its preseason Elo through five games; and in 2001, the team gained 92 Elo points through five games, the 28th-biggest early-season gain since 1978.4)

So why should this year be any different from the last for Atlanta? On the positive side, the Falcons have the best offense in the league according to expected points added, which measures how efficiently a team’s offensive plays improve its chances of scoring. The Falcons’ Matt Ryan leads all passers in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR),5 and the team boasts three of the league’s top 12 players in yards from scrimmage in Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones and Tevin Coleman. Thanks to those great performances, the Falcons have scored 2.6 more points per game through five games this season than they did a year ago.

But the 2015 Falcons’ hot start was also powered by offense — they ranked third in offensive EPA through five games last season — and it proved to be fleeting. From Week 6 onward, Atlanta ranked 20th in offensive EPA; when the offense dried up, those Falcons were left with little to offset a weak defense. And this year’s Falcons have played even worse defensively than they did through five games last year.

This means that even more is riding on Ryan and the Atlanta offense to prevent another collapse. Last season was one of the worst of the veteran QB’s career, so you could say he was due for a better performance this year just by virtue of regression to the mean. But he’s also never had a season anywhere near as good as the one he’s having right now, and it seems unlikely that age 31, he has transformed into Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. He might have to do his best impression of those two, however, for the Falcons to stay hot and avoid last season’s fate.

Footnotes

  1. The NFC South’s .412 winning percentage is the worst aggregate mark of any division in football, and that includes Atlanta’s 4-1 record.

  2. Excluding the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons.

  3. Roughly enough to turn a moderately below-average team into a decent one.

  4. Just to close the loop, the Rams would then lose 130 Elo points through five games of the 2002 season, the fourth-biggest loss to start a season since 1978.

  5. A passing metric derived in part from EPA.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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