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The Falcons Are In Trouble, But The Saints Might Be Back

The NFC South has sent a team to each of the past two Super Bowls, making it one of the NFL’s most successful divisions by this metric. The Carolina Panthers — who lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 — followed up by winning just six games the next season and falling well short of making the playoffs. After losing in historic fashion to the New England Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons are in danger of turning in a similarly lackluster post-Super Bowl season. The Falcons now have a 47 percent chance of making the playoffs, the lowest that number has been so far this season, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Predictions.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what has gone wrong for the Falcons this season. While Atlanta’s defense has improved from last year — 22 points allowed per game through six games this season compared with 25.4 points per game for the whole of last season — someone needs to issue an APB for the team’s offense. Because Matt Ryan’s MVP season last year was so good — the Falcons ranked in the top two on offense last year for points and total yards — anything short of another spectacular offensive season would be a setback. Part of the problem has been Ryan’s inability to connect with his receivers on deep throws: In 2016, Ryan completed an NFL-best 57 percent of throws that went 15+ yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group, but that has dropped to 37 percent in 2017. This year’s offense still ranks seventh in total yards per game, but the drop-off in points per game has been historic.

The Falcons’ offensive decline is on track to be historic

Largest changes in points per game between seasons, since 1970

RK TEAM SEASON POINTS PER GAME SEASON POINTS PER GAME DIFF. YEAR 2 RECORD
1 Atlanta 1973 22.7 1974 7.9 -14.8 3-11
2 Buffalo 1975 30.0 1976 17.5 -12.5 2-12
2 Atlanta* 2016 33.8 2017 21.3 -12.5 ?
4 Dallas 2014 29.2 2015 17.2 -12.0 4-12
4 Indianapolis 2010 27.2 2011 15.2 -12.0 2-14

* Through first six games

Source: ESPN STATS & INFO

According to ESPN Stats & Info, only one team has suffered a worse offensive drop-off — another version of the Falcons, back in 1973 — and only two other teams have undergone a similar decline in offensive potency in the past 40 years: the 2015 Dallas Cowboys and the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, both of which scored a dozen fewer points per game than they had the year prior. Those two teams had something in common: The Colts (2-14) lost franchise quarterback Peyton Manning for the entire year when he was forced to have (another) neck surgery prior to the start of season. Likewise, the 2015 Cowboys (4-12) suffered their worst season since 1989, mostly due to multiple severe injuries to their signal caller, Tony Romo, who started just four games. But while those teams spent the majority of the year toiling under the likes of Curtis Painter and Brandon Weeden, the Falcons have no such excuse. (It should be noted that the 2011 Colts would earn the right to draft Andrew Luck No.1, while the poor showing of the 2015 Cowboys paved the way to the team picking Ezekiel Elliott — but the Falcons aren’t in that much trouble yet.)

The NFL is unforgiving, and every team’s misfortune creates an opportunity for someone else. Atlanta and Carolina’s inconsistencies this year have allowed a familiar division foe to become relevant again: the New Orleans Saints. After a spell of mediocrity that saw the Saints finish with a 7-9 record in each of the past three seasons, Sean Payton’s team appear to be on the rise, for now. The Saints have climbed to sixth in our NFL Rankings, with an Elo rating of 1589.1 At 4-2 and atop the NFC South, the Saints now have a 73 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 56 percent chance of winning the division — both of which are the best chances New Orleans has seen this season.

We wrote at the start of the season that the Saints’ lack of success was not the fault of quarterback Drew Brees; if he benefited from even average defense — New Orleans ranked 28th, 32nd and 31st in points allowed per game from 2014 through 2016 — the team could likely get back to winning games. And lo and behold, that appears to be exactly what’s happening so far this season. New Orleans’ defense is hardly one of the best, but because it has improved to being simply OK — it ranks 16th in points allowed per game this year — Brees and the offense have had more room to breathe.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Though the readers registered a net loss of 14.2 points in Week 7 of our NFL prediction game — in which we invite readers to try to outsmart our Elo algorithm — they tied for their most successful week to date this season. The biggest net win of the week for readers, which also happens to be readers’ biggest net win of the season so far, came in the Saints’ 26-17 win on the road over the Packers. The readers took advantage of Elo’s inability to account for teams’ injuries in its predictions and selected a surging Saints team over an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team, gaining 20.4 points over Elo on that game.

The other double-digit net win for the readers came in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ shutout victory over the Indianapolis Colts. That means the Jaguars continued to haunt Elo for another week: Our algorithm now has a 1-6 record when predicting the outcome of games involving the Jags (that’ll teach us for joking about Jacksonville every week).

It’s not too late to try your luck against Elo, so make sure you make your Week 8 predictions.

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 7

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 7 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. RESULT READERS’ NET PTS
GB 63% NO 60% NO 26, GB 17 +20.4
IND 55 JAX 58 JAX 27, IND 0 +10.8
SEA 54 SEA 64 SEA 24, NYG 7 +6.1
ARI 53 LAR 55 ARI 0, LAR 33 +5.1
TEN 68 TEN 74 TEN 12, CLE 9 +1.2
DAL 73 DAL 74 DAL 40, SF 10 -1.7
PHI 69 PHI 69 WSH 24, PHI 34 -2.9
PIT 72 PIT 70 CIN 14, PIT 29 -3.4
MIN 68 MIN 66 BAL 16, MIN 24 -3.6
DEN 55 DEN 58 DEN 0, LAC 21 -5.7
BUF 67 BUF 61 TB 27, BUF 30 -6.3
KC 67 KC 70 KC 30, OAK 31 -6.7
NE 68 NE 60 ATL 7, NE 23 -8.8
MIA 65 MIA 57 NYJ 28, MIA 31 -9.0
CAR 61 CAR 67 CAR 3, CHI 17 -9.7

Footnotes

  1. Elo is a metric that estimates each team’s skill level using only the final scores and locations of each game. An Elo rating of roughly 1500 is considered average.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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