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The 2016 Falcons Haven’t Magically Reappeared

At the start of the second half of the wild-card game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Los Angeles Rams, the Falcons received the kickoff and set off on a 16-play drive that lasted more than eight minutes and included 11 rushing attempts. It ended with a field goal. To hear many observers tell it, this was a turning point, a moment in which the Falcons finally asserted their commitment to running the ball, finally protecting a lead the way they ought to have in last season’s Super Bowl, when they squandered a 28-3 lead. Fair enough. But it was also indicative of a season-long trend for Atlanta: These Falcons aren’t built to run away with the game, so they may be best served running out the clock.

The decline in the Atlanta offense after former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left in the offseason is well-documented. New coordinator Steve Sarkisian has been under fire seemingly from jump, accused of running a less ambitious version of the Atlanta offense under Shanahan, sending players in motion less often and under-utilizing star wideout Julio Jones.

The declines have come across the board but have been most glaring in scoring, especially in the red zone. The Falcons dipped from first in points scored in 2016 (540) to 15th in 2017 (353), and from eighth in red-zone touchdown percentage to 23rd. The offense has fared better when it simply has to gain yardage (it ranked third in yards per drive), but the scoring offense has not improved. And if the Falcons can’t be trusted to score, the strategies teams employ against them probably shouldn’t assume they will.

Atlanta’s offense isn’t as explosive anymore

Team stats between the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons

2016 2017 Change
Yards per game on plays of 20+ yards 170 119 -51
Double-digit wins 7 4 -3
30-point games 11 4 -7
Red-zone TD percentage 62 50 -12

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Atlanta finished the game against Los Angeles with 124 rushing yards on 39 carries (3.2 yards per carry) — or a slightly more respectable 119 yards on 33 carries by players other than Matt Ryan — against a Rams defense that finished 30th in the league in that category, giving up 4.7 rushing yards per attempt. This was possible because the Rams committed a lot of resources to stopping the run, but Atlanta never took advantage.

The Rams didn’t need to panic. Even though the Falcons forced them to stack the box, Atlanta never looked like a threat to capitalize on that and break the game open. Yet after that 16-play drive to open the second half, Rams running back Todd Gurley had just six carries for the remainder of the game and caught only a few short passes. The Rams trailed for most of the game but racked up 7.2 yards per carry when they ran it, including 101 yards on 14 carries by Gurley. Against a Falcons team with just four double-digit wins this season (against seven in the 2016 regular season), and which saw steep declines in big plays, L.A. limited the most effective part of its offense in a game that was going to remain close no matter what.

The Falcons get the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round, and with Nick Foles under center for Philly, Atlanta may run out to another early lead. If that happens, the Eagles would be well-served to treat the Falcons’ offense as it exists this season, not worry about it magically ramping up to last season’s levels — Atlanta hasn’t cracked 30 points since November. On offense, the Eagles are fourth in yards per rushing attempt this season, and they aren’t a huge risk to go pass-heavy with Foles at quarterback anyway. But Philadelphia not only has a solid ground game, it also has a defense that limits big plays, ranking 10th in the league in yardage gained on plays of 20 yards or more despite playing with a lead for most of the season.

Further reason for Philadelphia to play within itself: Even if the 2016 Falcons’ offense does materialize, the Eagles were one of the only teams to slow Atlanta last season, holding the offense to its second lowest yardage output of the year and its lowest points total. So worst case, the Eagles’ defense can punch its weight with theoretical max. But we haven’t seen much, if anything, to suggest that the Falcons offense of old will line up this weekend.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Kyle Wagner is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.