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Are The Falcons The Best Bad Team Ever?

If an NFL team is what its record says it is,1 the Atlanta Falcons aren’t bad. At 6-7, they’re tied for second place in the NFC South, one of five 6-7 teams vying for the seventh NFC playoff spot. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo predictions give the Falcons only a 12 percent chance of making the postseason, but stranger things have happened in the NFL.

Like, say, one of the league’s worst teams being 6-7 halfway through December.

If game results correlated perfectly with performance, we could skip analysis and just look at the standings. But in the NFL, the stronger team wins only about 64 percent of the time, adjusted for home-field advantage.2 That’s why we need more than just game scores to break down how and why teams are winning (or not), and whether or not they’ll keep winning.

The Falcons’ remaining schedule is one reason we give them only about a 1-in-8 chance of making the postseason. They’re projected as 8-point underdogs at San Francisco in Week 15 and 9.5-point underdogs at Buffalo two weeks later. Plugging losses into our scenario calculator for those two games drops Atlanta’s playoff chances down to just 0.3 percent.

But there’s another reason Atlanta’s odds are so low: The model doesn’t think they’re very good. Their quarterback-adjusted Elo rating is 1414, ranked 27th out of 32 teams. Traditional stats also put the Falcons in the bottom quarter of the league: Their offense is 26th in points scored per game and 24th in yards gained; their defense is 28th in per-game points allowed and 25th in yards allowed. Other team-strength models agree: Pro Football Focus’s point spread power rankings also slot the Falcons 26th, and so do the USA Today/Sagarin rankings. Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System slots them 28th, ahead of only the Detroit Lions in the NFC. Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ranks the Falcons dead last, at 34.4 percent less efficient than the average team.

But if the Falcons are so bad, how do they keep winning? And how can all these models based on head-to-head results rank them so poorly when they’ve won almost half of their head-to-head games?

Their first victory was a 3-point win over the New York Giants (who are now 4-9). Their next, a 7-point victory over the New York Jets (now 3-10). Then they edged the Miami Dolphins by 2 points, dropping the Dolphins to 1-6 (two games before the Dolphins got their act together and started their current five-game win streak). All told, the Falcons’ six victories have come against six teams with a collective winning percentage of just 0.333 — and by an average margin of just 4.8 points. Their average margin of defeat, meanwhile, has been 19.6 points.

By eking out wins against the NFL’s worst teams and getting bludgeoned by its best, Atlanta is on the verge of making history. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only four teams have won at least seven games with a scoring margin worse than the Falcons’ current -108. If Atlanta beats Detroit in Week 16, which our model gives a 76 percent chance of happening, poor showings in their other three games could make Atlanta the worst seven-win team ever:

Few teams have put together a season like this

NFL teams since 1970 with at least seven wins and a point differential worse than -108, plus the 2021 Atlanta Falcons

Season Team Games Record Win pct. point margin
2011 Kansas City Chiefs 16 7-9 .438 -126
2018 Miami Dolphins 16 7-9 .438 -114
2006 San Francisco 49ers 16 7-9 .438 -114
1995 St. Louis Rams 16 7-9 .438 -109
2021 Atlanta Falcons 13 6-7 .462 -108

Through Week 14 of the 2021 season.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

FiveThirtyEight’s model currently judges Atlanta’s season finale, a home game against New Orleans, as a toss-up. With two plausible-if-not-probable wins under their belt, and two potential blowouts against the 49ers and Bills, the Falcons could easily be the first eight-win team with a scoring margin in the negative triple digits.

But that’s not all: Plugging wins into our scenario calculator for the Lions and Saints games, along with the two likely losses, still gives the Falcons a 1 percent chance to make the playoffs at 8-9. If they do, they might also break the 2010 Seattle Seahawks’ record for the biggest scoring deficit of any modern-era NFL playoff team.

By any measure besides the win column, the 2021 Falcons are a bad team. But if they keep playing the way they’re playing, they just might finish this season as the best bad team in NFL history.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. And Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells insists it must be so.

  2. See this 2017 study by Michael Lopez, Gregory Matthews, and Benjamin Baumer in the Annals of Applied Statistics; their result dovetails with earlier work.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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