Three weeks into the 2015 season, the NFL’s undefeated club isn’t especially surprising: Five of its seven members1 finished with double-digit wins last season, and six qualified for the playoffs. The only real upstart in the bunch is the Atlanta Falcons, who went 6-10 last year. They preserved this year’s unexpected 3-0 start by overcoming a two-touchdown deficit against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
With Matt Ryan lobbing passes to the mind-blowingly great Julio Jones, and what might be a much-improved defense, the Falcons theoretically have the talent to sustain their early success. No team’s Elo rating (our pet system for estimating each NFL team’s strength at any given moment) has increased more since the preseason than the Falcons’; in the span of three weeks, Atlanta has risen from 24th in the league to 12th. But there are just as many reasons for skepticism. In addition to its poor record last year, Atlanta went 4-12 in 2013 and had the NFL’s sixth-worst record in the two seasons leading up to 2015. Between that non-pedigree and the fact that all three of Atlanta’s wins this season have required fourth-quarter comebacks, I wondered if the Falcons are due for a correction soon.
They probably aren’t, even though there isn’t much historical precedent for what the team is doing. The Falcons finished the 2012 season ranked seventh according to Elo, with a 1632 rating; they followed that with season-ending ratings of 1436 (25th) and 1441 (24th). Through the first three games of this season, the team’s Elo rating has risen to 1534. Only two other teams in modern NFL history2 (the 1996 Houston Oilers and 1972 New York Jets) have traced a similar path: going from a Super Bowl contender (1600+ Elo) to below-average (sub-1500) for two seasons and then surging back above average three games into the next season. Both finished precisely .500 by season’s end, with each plagued by uneven football after their solid starts.
The same fate could befall the Falcons, although a historical sample of two teams is hardly enough to draw any real conclusions from. (More than anything else, it speaks to the unique route Atlanta is trying to follow back to contention.) And in part because of an easy schedule, our Elo-based simulations call for the Falcons to win 8.1 of their remaining 13 games, fifth-best in the league. According to Elo, Atlanta has a 77 percent chance of completing its comeback journey and returning to the playoffs.
One quibble with Elo, though, is that it only uses final game scores to measure a team’s performance; as such, it doesn’t know how Atlanta has been winning. It’s blind to those fourth-quarter comebacks. Because clutch play isn’t a particularly consistent phenomenon, we might suspect a team that relies on a bunch of late-game comebacks to be especially primed for regression to the mean.
But the Falcons’ comebacks don’t suggest their record is hollow.
I turned to a metric3 called Game Scripts that attempts to measure whether a team’s final score is indicative of how it played over the entire game. The Falcons’ average end-of-game scoring margin this season has been +5.7 points, but because they’ve needed so much fourth-quarter heroics, Atlanta has actually trailed by an average of 0.7 points at any moment. If the latter is more relevant, we’d expect it to be a stronger predictor of a team’s wins over the remainder of the season.
However, it appears that how a team wins doesn’t matter — only the final score does. When predicting rest-of-season wins,4 a team’s end-of-game scoring margin is statistically significant, while its Game Script is not.
When it comes to predicting the Falcons, then, it’s fine that Elo doesn’t factor in a team’s tendency to come from behind. This, in turn, means that Atlanta’s Elo projections for the rest of the season shouldn’t be easily discounted — and that despite the franchise’s exceedingly strange path since 2012, things are finally looking up again for pro football in Atlanta.
Check out our NFL predictions for odds on every game this season.