Tag Archives: Atlanta Falcons

Miracle in Minnesota

Up until there were ten seconds left in the fourth and final playoff game last weekend, the New Orleans Saints were fashioning the greatest come-from-behind story in their history.

The first half couldn’t have been worse.  After allowing a touchdown to the Vikings on their opening drive, New Orleans cornerback Ken Crawley was flagged for two questionable pass interference penalties against the Vikings Stefon Diggs.  These penalties were part of a 6 penalty first half that cost the Saints 92 yards and handed Minnesota 4 first downs.  They led to a second-drive field goal and a 10-0 Viking lead.  Before the half would end, Minnesota would turn an interception into another short-field touchdown to give them 17 points.

Offensively, the first half had been just as disastrous.  The first quarter saw New Orleans run 12 plays for 33 yards.  They earned as many first downs (1) as they threw interceptions (also 1).  But the second quarter was even more frustrating.  Finally finding a little rhythm, the Saints put together to long drives.  In the two drives, the Saints combined to run 20 plays for 117 yards and 8 first downs.  And no points.  The drives ended with a red zone interception (off a deflection) and a missed field goal (the miss – it should be pointed out – was from 58-yards, so it was hardly automatic).

So, New Orleans went into the locker room at the half, trailing the best defense in football on their home field, 17-0.  Not terribly encouraging.

And then, in the second half, New Orleans erased the entire deficit.

Second Half Heroics

Star quarterback Drew Brees – who completed 72% of his passes this season and fashioned a 103.9 passer rating in 2017 – was dominated by the Viking defense through the first two quarters.  He was just 8 for 18 with 2 interceptions.  His passer rating for the half was a stunning 26.6.  In the second half, Drew was Drew again.  He completed 17 of his last 22 passes (77.3%) for 177 yards.  Against a Viking defense that had surrendered only 13 touchdown passes through 16 regular season games, Brees tossed three in his spectacular second half – leading to a passer rating of 139.6.

When Will Lutz drilled a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the game – putting New Orleans ahead 24-23 – it looked like the remarkable comeback was complete.  Fifteen second later, when Minnesota broke the huddle for the game’s last play, they faced third-and-ten, still about 25-yards away from field goal range.  At this point, a Viking win seemed remote.

Ten seconds later, Diggs was standing in the end zone holding the football.  There was no time left on the clock.  The Vikings had won the game 29-24 (gamebook).

Diggs spent the next five minutes or so striking his go-to pose – standing with his arms crossed in front of him with a god-like, worship-me look on his face – while thousands of cameras flashed in his direction.  Stefon had caught the desperation pass from Case Keenum and transported it over the goal line.  But the story of the last play belongs to New Orleans’ rookie defensive back Marcus Williams.  Coming off an impressive rookie season that included an interception of Keenum earlier in the game that provided a crucial turning point, Williams had the play in front of him.  He missed the tackle.  And that was it.  It handed Minnesota its only second-half touchdown – but it was enough to send the Vikings on and send the Saints home.

What Happed to New Orleans?

At their height, New Orleans was a dominant running team.  From Week Six through Week 13 (an eight-week span), the Saints averaged 166.9 yards on the ground.  Not co-incidentally, they averaged 32.5 points per game and won seven of the eight games.

Over their last six games – including their two playoff games this year – the running game struggled noticeably.  Over those games, they averaged just 80 rushing yards a game, and scored just 25 points per game.  They lost three of those six. As the season progressed, it became fairly evident that the dominant running game was the element that transformed New Orleans into one of the elite teams in football.  When the running game fell off, the Saints became merely a good team.

Atlanta Goes Down, Too

This dynamic was also generally true for Atlanta.  When they ran the ball effectively, they very much resembled the Atlanta team that marched to last year’s Super Bowl.  But when the running game stuck in neutral, the entire offense was beset with inconsistency.

Against Philadelphia, the Falcon running game was nearly thrown into reverse.  Running back Devonta Freeman – who scorched New England for 75 yards on only 11 carries in last year’s Super Bowl – was held to 7 yards on 10 carries.  His 4 second half carries netted a loss of one yard.

The Falcons finished with only 86 rushing yards in a game in which they were mostly dominated on offense.  Winners of 7 of their previous 9 games, Atlanta never did drive the field against Philadelphia.  Their lone touchdown came after an 18-yard drive set up by a muffed punt mid-way through the second quarter.  They finished with just 281-yards of total offense.  They had been held under 300 yards only twice through their first 17 games.

While Foles Leads the Offense

Meanwhile, Nick Foles – playing in the very large shadow of the injured Carson Wentz – kept on keeping on.  Nick threw the ball only 30 times in the victory – with only 3 of those passes travelling 15-or-more yards in the air.  He missed on all 3 of those passes.  But when throwing the shorter passes, Foles completed 23 of 27.  Throughout the second half, Foles completed 12 of 15 passes against the Falcons (a cool 80%).  It all added up to just enough to push Philly past the Falcons, 15-10 (gamebook).

All year (here for instance) I have been reminding you that Philadelphia was more than just Wentz.  I’ve documented the strong running game and top-shelf defense.  Both of those other aspects were very much in evidence in the win.  Even though the running game wasn’t remotely prolific (the Eagles averaged only 3.0 yards per rush), it was relentless.  Thirty-two times the Eagles ran the ball against the Falcons.  In the second half, their 16 rushes managed only 19 yards (1.2 yards per rush).  None of those second-half running plays gained more than 7 yards.  But they kept at it.

Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that Philadelphia was trying to – if not hide their quarterback, at least make sure they didn’t depend on Foles to win the game for them.

Minnesota in Philadelphia

So the NFC Championship is set for Sunday afternoon, as the Cinderella rides of Keenum and Foles continue on.  Midnight will strike for one of them in a few days, but one of these two unheralded and much-given-up-on quarterbacks will lead his team into the Super Bowl while fabled quarterbacks Brees and Matt Ryan will be home planning for next year.

Some years the NFL is an easy read.  Some years it seems that anything can happen.  This year is one of the latter.

No One Beats the South But the South

Five of the eight teams that took the field for Wildcard Weekend represented the southern divisions of their respective conferences.  The AFC South sent Jacksonville and Tennessee and the NFC South was represented by New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta.  Of the five, only Carolina will not be advancing to the Divisional round as they were the only Southern team to play another Southern team.  Their 31-26 loss in New Orleans marking the third time they had lost to the Saints this season.

But – from an array of compelling numbers coming out of these games, the most compelling just might be 88.  That was the number of rushing yards that Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles amassed.  Those 88 yards were the most by any player in the game.  In fact, the quarterbacks combined for 119 rushing yards on 18 attempts (6.6 yards per).  All of the running backs in the game combined for 166 yards on 48 carries (3.4 yards per carry).

But what makes that number 88 so compelling is that it is one yard more than his total passing yards for the game.  Blake finished the passing portion of his evening with 87 passing yards on 12 completions in 23 attempts.  He averaged just 3.78 yards per attempted pass, and just 7.25 per completion.

And won the game 10-3 (gamebook).

The Jaguars have been a team I have been reluctant to buy into all year – primarily because I wondered if they could muster a sufficient passing attack to win a game against a quality opponent on a day when their running game stalled and their defense gave up some points.  Sunday against Buffalo, Jacksonville held the ball for only 9:49 of the first half.  Their three leading receivers on the season (Keelan Cole, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns) had no pass receptions among them, and each had only one pass tossed in his direction.  In the game’s second half, Blake threw only 8 passes while running 7 times.

Of all the winners from the Wildcard Round, Jacksonville is clearly the least impressive.

They won because the defense smothered Tyrod Taylor’s passing attack.  Taylor finished with a 44.2 rating.  Of the 37 passes he threw, only 17 were completed – and that for just 134 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  His yards per pass attempted (3.62) and per completion (7.88) were very similar to Bortles.

Maybe we’ll just say it was excellent defense.  Sure, we’ll stick with that.

The Jaguars live to fight another round, but the looming challenge in Pittsburgh is much tougher than the one they’ve left behind.

More Defense in the Coliseum

The 2016 edition of the Atlanta Falcons was an offensive juggernaut.  In seemingly effortless fashion, they blazed their way to 504 regular season points (an impressive 31.5 points a game) and then added 108 more in three playoff games.  Along with their point total, they led the entire NFL in highest average per pass (8.2 yards).  They were second in total yards and touchdown passes.  They were third in both passing yards and rushing yards.

Quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a frightening 117.1 passer rating; top receiver Julio Jones missed two games, but still finished with 1409 receiving yards; and running back Devonta Freeman piled up 1079 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards a carry.

Very deep, very balanced, and very scary were the 2016 Falcons.  On offense.

The defense, however, lagged.  Their rankings were a much more modest twenty-seventh in points allowed and twenty-fifth in yards allowed.  They ranked seventeenth against the run and twenty-eighth against the pass.  Opposing passers threw almost as many touchdown passes against them (31) as Ryan tossed for them (38), contributing to an opponent’s passer rating of 92.5 – much higher than you would expect to see against a contending team.

At various points this season, we’ve discussed some of the Falcons’ offensive struggles.  Although with much the same personnel, nothing has come quite so easily for them this year.  They checked in with 151 fewer points this year (353) and Ryan’s passer rating sank to 91.4 – still excellent, but much more mortal than 2016.  In their first playoff game this year they scored 26 points on 322 yards – both fairly pedestrian totals – in their 26-13 victory (gamebook).

But, while the offense has been up-and-down, over the last two weeks a surprising development has taken place.  As the end of the regular season has bridged into the playoffs, the Falcon defense – especially their pass defense – has become Atlanta’s most noteworthy unit.

Two weeks ago, they smothered Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game.  They allowed just 14 of his 34 passes to be completed, while harvesting three interceptions.  Newton’s passer rating was a humbling 31.5.  Then last week against a high-flying Rams team (on the Rams’ home field no less) they shackled Jared Goff with a 77.9 rating as Goff completed only 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards.

Over the last two weeks, two very dangerous passing attacks have combined for 38 completions in 79 attempts (48.1%) for 439 yards (5.56 yards per attempt).  Newton and Goff combined to throw 2 touchdown passes against 3 interceptions for a combined passer rating of 57.9.

Against the Rams, they were everywhere – blanketing LA’s receivers like few teams have been able to all year.  If this is who the Falcons are now, they presents a strong challenge to their remaining opponents.  The offense has been sporadic, but that explosive team from 2016 is still in there somewhere.  If they can play elite pass defense, it significantly raises their stock.

Of all the teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Falcons looked most like the team that could force its way into the Championship Round or beyond.

I still think, though, that this is a team that could be handled by the team that is willing to keep running the ball against them.  A defense that values speed and quickness might struggle to hold up for four quarters against a team that keeps running at them.  The Rams finished with 115 rushing yards in a game where they only ran the ball 16 times.

With a backup quarterback running the offense, Philadelphia may not have a balanced enough offense to hurt Atlanta with their running game.  Should the Falcons make it past the Eagles, it will be interesting to see what challenge awaits them in the Championship Game.

More Misfires from Newton

Counting playoff games, last Sunday’s game was the 115th career start for Cam Newton – and, with the division title there for the taking – it was (statistically) his worst game.  The passer rating system is not perfect, but it does a reasonably good job of translating performance into an easily understood number.  It balances the value of high completion percentage (even though many of the completed passes may be very short) with the value of longer completions (although these may be offset by incompletions and interceptions).  It rewards touchdown passes and penalizes interceptions.  Whether the measurement is for a game or a season, if your score is over 100 your performance is usually superior.  Over 90 is also an excellent day (or year). At 80, you’ve average to good.  A score in the 70s is unremarkable, and lower than that is disappointing.

Until last Sunday, Newton’s poorest single game passer rating had come in a game against New Orleans in 2014.  After completing only 10 of his 28 passes for just 151 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, Cam walked off the field that day with a passer rating of 39.4.  Last Sunday, he left with an even more dismal 31.5 rating – courtesy of a 14 of 34 performance that saw him throw for 180 yards, his one touchdown pass offset by three interceptions.

A look inside the numbers is even more alarming.  At the end of the half, Newton led Carolina on its only touchdown drive of the day.  He completed all 7 passes during that drive for 66 yards and – of course – his only touchdown pass.  During the entire rest of the game, Cam struggled to complete just 7 of his other 27 passes (25.9%) for 114 yards (just 4.22 yards per attempted pass – although a healthy 16.29 average per completion). These yards came, however, with no touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

His passer rating for the entire rest of the game (other than the touchdown drive) was an amazing 5.1.

Beyond the statistics, the viewers of the game were also left with the impression that this was at least one of the worst games – if not the worst – of his career.  The tale of the tape points to all of the things he has struggled with for most of his career.

Receiver’s Getting Open

A fair portion of the blame can be laid at the feet of his receivers.  Atlanta’s defensive approach in this game was telling.  They blitzed rarely and seldom played man coverages against Newton’s receivers.  They stayed mostly in basic zone coverages and challenged the Panther receivers to get open and challenged Newton to read the coverage and throw the ball into very small windows.  The coverage wasn’t flawless at all as Atlanta is still better at man coverage than zone.  But several of Newton’s misses were throw-aways because there were no open receivers.  Newton’s rough night also included a drop of a screen pass by Christian McCaffrey.

Deciding Too Quickly

But most of Cam’s issues last Sunday were his own.  This includes his inclination to decide too early where he is going with the ball.  I am convinced that at least half of the time, he makes his mind up in the pre-snap who is going to be open and who will get the ball.  Of his 19 true incompletions (one was a spike to stop the clock) I counted six in which he made the wrong decision.  Let me mention two.

With 4:15 left in the first quarter, Newton noticed the Falcons were in a rare man coverage.  Wide left, he had Devin Funchess with Robert Alford aligned over him.  From the snap of the ball, Alford ran Funchess’ route with him step for step.  But Newton never looked anywhere else and threw the ball to Funchess anyway.  Alford reached back and deflected the pass.  Had Brian Poole been a step closer, Cam would have endured a 4-interception game.

Now there is 10:42 left in the game.  The Panthers trail 16-7, and have third-and-6 on the Falcon 24-yard line.  Atlanta is in man again (Newton is most susceptible to making his mind up before the snap when he sees man coverage).  This time he has Greg Olsen wide right, with Poole in coverage.

Close to the left side of the formation was fourth receiver Kaelin Clay (playing for his second team this season and the third in his three-year career).  After the snap, Clay broke open over the deep middle – deep enough to have given Carolina a first-and-goal.  But Newton never saw him – he never even looked in his direction.  Cam watched Olsen all the way off the line of scrimmage as he ran his go route up the sideline, with Poole in coverage step for step.

Anticipating that Olsen would break his route to the sidelines, Newton fired the ball where he thought Greg would be.  But Olsen kept motoring up the sidelines and the ball sailed harmlessly out of bounds.

Carolina kicked the field goal that would be their last points of the night.

Inaccuracy

But the thing that everyone who watched this game remembers are the high throws.  Newton’s mechanics have never been consistent, and he is given to frequent inaccuracy.  In this game he threw a bevy of high passes.  I counted 5 of them – throws that were completely over the receiver’s head or so high that he couldn’t pull the ball in.  I also counted 3 other inaccurate throws to open receivers.  Fully 40% of his incomplete passes were simply the result of poor throws to open receivers.  Again a couple of examples.

There is 6:37 left in the game, Panthers trailing 19-10.  They are first-and-10 on their own 25 yards line.  Olsen (lined up to the right) and Brenton Bersin (lined up to the left) ran shallow crosses (again against man coverage).  As they crossed each other’s path, their respective defenders got tangled up with the linebacker who was spying Newton.  Bersin broke into clear, running wide open toward the sideline as fast as he could – but not fast enough to catch Newton’s throw that led him much too far.

Two minutes later, Carolina is back in almost that same situation.  It is first-and-10 on their own 25.  They still trail 19-10.  Now there is 4:20 left.

This time the Falcons are in zone, and Cam throws over the middle for Olsen, defended by linebacker Deion Jones.  But the throw is high.  Olsen leaps for it, but can only get the tips of his fingers on it – deflecting it perfectly in the air for Keanu Neal to make the interception.

The Falcons, who themselves were only 1-for-5 in the red zone and scored just one touchdown on the game, kicked the field goal that provided the final points in their 22-10 victory (gamebook).

A few weeks ago – I think it was after their Week 14 victory over Minnesota – Cam Newton informed the writers in the post-game press conference that he had broken all of the “rules” of quarterback play (like throwing back across his body).  He finished the statement by smugly noting that “sometimes you have to overcome coaching.”

The sobering fact is that even after games like this, I’m sure Newton still feels that way.

Adventures in Officiating

Officials – as you may have heard – are human, too.  Even the good ones make mistakes.  In the replay era, many of those mistakes can be caught, but not all.  When an officiating crew has a rough afternoon it’s bad enough.  When their bad day seems to tilt in favor of one of the teams, it can lead to significant frustration.

Unfortunately, three of Week Sixteen’s most important games were marred – to a greater or lesser degree – by curious officiating.

Kelvin Benjamin’s Touchdown that Wasn’t

Apparently the weekend’s most controversial call was the replay that overturned a touchdown that Buffalo’s Kelvin Benjamin seemed to score against New England.  Buffalo, here, is fighting for its playoff life and the Patriots are trying to tighten their grip on the number one seed in the AFC.

There are 6 seconds left in the first half, and New England is clinging to a 13-10 lead.  But the Bills have third-and-goal from the Patriot 4 yard line.

The Bills line up with three receivers bunched to quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s left, and Benjamin split out all by himself to the right, where he would be singled up against Patriot corner Stephon Gilmore.  Just before the snap, Gilmore backed up into the end zone in a position to hem Benjamin against the sideline.  Taylor lofted the ball to the very back right corner of the end zone, where Benjamin looked for all the world like he caught the pass that would give Buffalo the lead at the half.  Field Judge Steven Zimmer – with the play in front of him – was convinced enough to raise his arms for the touchdown.

Moments later – when the touchdown was reversed – there was consternation on the Buffalo sideline.  Yet, watching the replay, Kelvin didn’t catch the ball cleanly.  He reached with his right hand and batted the ball back toward him.  He did drag the left foot along the turf. But only while the ball was fluttering back toward his chest.  Once he secured the ball, Benjamin tried again to drag the toe.  But it hit against the heel of his right foot instead.

A lot of people in the NFL fandom get quite exercised when calls like this go New England’s way – and I get that.  Hating New England is a trendy position to take.  And this touchdown certainly could have stood.  It was exceedingly close.

But there was sufficient evidence for an overturn – and Buffalo settled for the field goal and the halftime tie.

Patriot quarterback Tom Brady threw only 9 passes in the second half – completing all of them for 105 yards and another touchdown.  He finished the game completing 21 of 28 passes (75%).  Meanwhile, the Patriot running attack ground away at the Bills.  Running back Dion Lewis rolled up 83 yards in the second half on his way to a 129-yard afternoon, and the Patriots finished with 193 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns to finish off Buffalo 37-16 (gamebook).  The Bills finished 0-for-4 in the red zone, and scored no offensive touchdowns on the day.  Even if the replay had upheld the Benjamin touchdown, it’s exceedingly hard to beat the Patriots scoring just one offensive touchdown.

Merry Christmas to the Los Angeles Rams

In Tennessee the fading Titans spent Christmas Eve struggling for their playoff lives matched against a Rams team that is right in the thick of the NFC playoff picture.  In fact, a victory in this contest would punch the Rams’ playoff ticket for the first time since 2004.  The officials (it was Walt Anderson’s crew) didn’t do the home team any favors.

At the center of the controversy was a handful of penalties that should have been called, but weren’t.  Two of them came on Titan punts.  Twice in the second half, Rams special team players pummeled Tennessee punter Brett Kern.  Both times Anderson claimed the kicks were partially blocked.  It is unlikely the first one was.  It is clear the second one was not.

That second missed roughing-the-kicker penalty was probably the more costly of the two.  There was 7:31 left in the game and Tennessee trailed by four.  They had fourth-and-ten at midfield.  The call there gives them a first down on the Ram 35-yard line.

If there was a call more galling to the Titan faithful than either of the missed roughing-the-kicker penalties, it could well have been the missed false start.

There is 7:13 left in the third quarter, with the game tied at 13.  The Rams are on the Tennessee 13-yard line, and have decided to go for it on fourth-and-one.  As they lined up to run the play, tight-end Tyler Higbee – lined up to the left side – flinched.  All of the Titan defenders on that side of the field started pointing and leaping desperately – trying to will the officials to throw a flag.

But they missed it.  False starts are almost never missed.  I don’t actually remember the last time I saw an offensive lineman get away with a false start.  But this one they missed.

Adding injury to insult, instead of being fourth-and-six (forcing a field goal try), the Rams ran the ball right into the area where the Tennessee defenders were flipping somersaults to draw the flag.  Ram running back Todd Gurley burst through the distracted defenders for a ten-yard gain.  On the next play, Jared Goff tossed the touchdown pass that gave Los Angeles the lead.

Sometimes It’s Best to Just Play

So.  Yes, it was an egregious error by the officials.  They should have stopped the play and assessed the penalty.  But increasingly the players are trying to officiate their games as well as playing them.  They spend endless energy reaching for their imaginary flags, as though they had some secret power over the officiating crew.  Usually it’s just harmless posing.  On this occasion, the Tennessee Titans would have been better served if they had just focused on stopping the play.  Had they stopped the Rams there, not only would Los Angeles not have scored the touchdown, but (since it was fourth down) they would not even have had the opportunity to kick the field goal.  That one stop – had Tennessee focused on it – may well have won them the game in spite of the officiating.

Sometimes, it’s best to just play.

There is one noteworthy exception to this rule, and that is the case of pass interference.  I like to believe this isn’t true, but I swear there are times when the official waits to see if the receiver complains before he throws the flag.

Of course, we can’t let this game pass without mention of the onside kick that wasn’t.

Immediately after Tennessee had tied the score at 20, they ran a hurry-up onside kick.  As soon as the official made it to the sideline after marking the ball for play – and while the Rams were still congregating on their sideline – the Titans rushed to the field and bounced an undefended on-side kick that they recovered around the fifty.

Unfortunately, they caught not only the Rams, but the officiating crew off-guard.  A flag was thrown.  A conference was held, and Walt and his crew decided that the play didn’t count because the Rams had called a time out.  Of course, they hadn’t – and after some further discussion the time out was restored to Los Angeles, but the play still never happened.  And this is probably just as well for the Titans, as one member of the kickoff team was certainly off-sides, at least half never set, and a couple were running forward with the kicker.

Still in all of this, Anderson and his crew seemed to be several ticks behind.  To some degree, they seemed that way the entire game.

Gurley’s Big Day

Of course, Tennessee might have won anyway if they had found an answer for running back Todd Gurley.  His 22 rushes for 118 yards added to his 10 catches for 158 yards.  He scored two touchdowns, one of them an 80-yard scoring play off of a screen pass.  It works out to 276 yards from scrimmage on 32 catches.  He was the driving force in Los Angeles’ 27-23 victory (gamebook).

Early Presents for the Saints

But of all the teams saddled with a lump of coal on Christmas Eve, the most frustrated may have been the Atlanta Falcons.  They spent the afternoon in New Orleans.

As the game began, Atlanta found itself trailing the Saints for the division lead by one game, and – since they had beaten the Saints two weeks earlier – a win here would give them the tie-breaker.  So they were playing Sunday afternoon for no less stakes than the division title.

This game came with an extra-helping of irony.  The Falcon win two weeks earlier came with the Saints being flagged 11 times for 87 yards (against only 4 penalties called against Atlanta), and ended with a frustrated coach Sean Payton rushing onto the field to try to get a time out called.  The Falcons had been given 9 first downs off Saint penalties that day.

From the very beginning, it was evident that things would be much different in this game.  The Falcons drew three penalties in their first two offensive series – including a phantom unnecessary roughness penalty against Devonta Freeman.  They were subsequently penalized 3 more times in their next offensive series.  Over those first three series, Atlanta pushed for 89 yards of offense, but gave back 59 of them in penalties.

For the game, Atlanta ended up with 10 penalties for 91 yards, while the Saints were only flagged 3 times for 30 yards.  But this wasn’t to say that the Saints played a clean game.  Notable among the plays the Saints got away with were two fairly obvious pass interferences against Julio Jones.  Julio was also involved in the most head-shaking play of the day.

On the very last snap of the third quarter, Atlanta – trailing 20-3 at the time – had third and goal on the New Orleans 6-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan tolled to his right and rifled the ball to Jones, standing a yard deep in the end zone.  Just behind Jones was Saint cornerback Marshon Lattimore.  As the pass arrived in Jones’ hands, Lattimore pushed him out of the end zone.  Jones made the catch, but Down Judge Steve Stelljes called him down at the half-yard line.

A myriad of replays from all angles seemed to show that Julio had caught the ball with at least half of the ball over the line.  But it wasn’t convincing enough for the replay official to overturn.

As with many other opportunities presented to Atlanta that afternoon, the damage could have been mitigated if they could have pressed their advantage.  Facing fourth-and-inches for the touchdown that would put them back in the game, Freeman was buried in the backfield and the ball went over on downs.  Devonta Freeman was in the eye of the storm the entire game.  He had fumbled away an earlier chance at the one-yard line (in addition to getting called for the phantom penalty).

For the game, Atlanta scored just one red-zone touchdown in four such opportunities.  In half of their trips to the red zone – and both of their goal-to-go opportunities – Atlanta came away with no points at all.  Additionally, the aroused New Orleans defense sacked Ryan 5 times and held Atlanta to just 2 of 13 on third down.  That – in combination with the inconsistent performance of Peter Morelli’s crew – pushed the Saints to a 23-13 victory (gamebook).

Summary

My belief going into the weekend was that the teams that ended up winning these games were the teams that I thought were the better teams, so part of me wants to suppose that the Patriots, Rams and Saints would have found ways to win anyway.  It’s easy to say that about New England, as they dominated the second half of their game.  But the other two contests were quite a bit closer – ten points in the case of the Atlanta game, and Tennessee fell just four points short of their upset.  Close enough that a reversal of any of those calls would certainly have profoundly affected the game.

With one game left in the season, Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta all still have playoff chances.  Tennessee and Atlanta both face significant challenges (Jacksonville and Carolina, respectively).  The Bills immediate task (beat Miami) is easier, but they will be playing on the road and will need substantial help (beginning with Cincinnati beating Baltimore).

In all cases, these teams will be hoping for more consistency from the officiating crew.

Are the Falcons Really the Falcons Again?

Perhaps your memory of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons is similar to mine.  As they hit their peak last year, they came out of the locker room ready to play.  On their playoff run, they developed a “shock-and-awe” meme that served them very well.

On the final game of the regular season (January 1 of this year), Matt Ryan tossed 4 touchdown passes, and the running game provided 88 yards and another touchdown.  And that was just the first half, as the Falcons jumped to a 35-13 lead (scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions) on their way to a 38-32 conquest of New Orleans.

Against Seattle, in the Divisional Round, it did take them a few possessions to solve the league’s third-ranked scoring defense, but the Falcons punched through with 19 second-quarter points, on their way to a 36-20 win.  In the Championship Game against the Packers, they were ahead 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-0 at the half, scoring touchdowns after both Green Bay turnovers.  They eventually built a 37-7 lead, and went on to win that one 44-21.

And then in the Super Bowl, Atlanta raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead.  Halfway through the third quarter, they led 28-3 – again scoring two touchdowns on turnovers.  In all three phases (as the familiar cliché goes), the Falcons put you on the defensive from the very beginning.  It almost gave them an aura of invincibility.

This Year’s Falcons a Work in Progress

For a variety of reasons, that aspect of the Falcons has been kind of hit and miss this season.  Even during their 3-0 start, they were sometimes that team and sometimes not.  Some of this has been due to stubbornness on offense.

Last year’s passing attack was uncommonly explosive.  Trigger man Matt Ryan tossed 38 touchdown passes and averaged a league-best 13.3 yards per completed pass.  Un-coverable receiver Julio Jones was a huge cog in the machine.  He finished 2016 with 1409 yards on 83 catches even though he missed two games.

For most of the season, the Falcons have been struggling to regain that trademark deep strike attack against defenses geared to prevent just that sort of thing.

Over the last two games, though, Atlanta has started to adjust.  Their last two games (a 27-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago and last week’s 34-31 victory over Seattle in Seattle – gamebook) showed a similar pattern.

Crucial Wins

Both games played closely for a half.  The Falcons led Dallas 10-7 after thirty minutes, and then went into the locker room ahead of Seattle 24-17.

Both games saw a resurgence of the running game in the second half.  In the Dallas game, Atlanta managed 41 first half rushing yards (just 3.2 yards per carry).  The first half running was even worse against Seattle – 12 yards on 14 carries.  But 16 second half carries against the Seahawks produced 77 yards (4.8 per), one week after the Falcons racked up 91 yards on 21 second half carries against the Cowboys (4.3 yards per).  So, over the last two games, Atlanta is a combined 27 rushes for 53 yards in the first halves of those games (1.96 yards per), and a combined 37 rushes for 168 yards (4.5 per) in the two second halves.

Off of that resurgent running game, Ryan and the Falcons have layered a more patient passing attack – one less reliant on big plays and more willing to take what the defense is offering.  Against Dallas, Ryan began 11 of 17 for just 94 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  After the half, he riddled the Cowboy pass defense to the tune of 11 of 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Similarly, he went into halftime against Seattle just 9 of 15 for 98 yards and 1 touchdown.  Thereafter, he was 10 of 12 for 97 yards and another touchdown.

So – again combining the halves of the two games – Matty is 20 of 32 (62.5%) for 192 yards (6.00 per attempt and 9.60 per completion) with 1 touchdown pass and 1 interception in the two first halves – a very pedestrian 76.6 passer rating.  In his last two second halves, Ryan is 21 for 24 (87.5%) for 218 yards (9.08 yards per pass and 10.4 per completion), with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This adds up to a passer rating of 144.1.

Looking Like Last Year’s Falcons

Against the Seahawks, Atlanta took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards for a touchdown.  The defense contributed a quick interception, setting the offense up again for a short-field touchdown.  It was 14-0 Falcons after just 7 minutes of play.  When the Falcons returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the second quarter, their lead swelled to 21-3 after less than 16 minutes of play – very reminiscent of the shock-and-awe Falcons at the end of the 2016 season.

With these two crucial victories, the Falcons have pushed their way – temporarily – into the playoff picture.  But it will be an almost weekly grind for this Atlanta team.  Now 6-4, their last 6 games will feature two games against the 4-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The rest of the schedule will be two games against the 8-2 New Orleans Saints, and games against the 9-2 Minnesota Viking and the 7-3 Carolina Panthers.

The up-and-down Falcons cannot afford to take any more weeks off – even against Tampa Bay.  The path before them is very daunting.

Seattle Footnote

The Seahawks have now lost two consecutive home games and barely survived Houston the game before.  None of these teams seemed overly disturbed by the intense noise generated by the crowd.  This was especially true of the Falcons – who have now been exposed to it several times over the last few years.

Don’t Look Now

The Falcon’s opponents in that last Super Bowl have been on a roll of their own.  After losing two of their first four games, the New England Patriot’s secured their sixth straight victory with a 33-8 domination of the Oakland Raiders (gamebook).

Part of this was fairly expected.  Pass defense has been an inviting Raider weakness all season.  They entered the game allowing opposing passer’s a devastating 110.5 rating against them.  Not an encouraging situation when facing Tom Brady and the heralded Patriot passing attack.  Brady flayed them to the tune of 30 of 37 for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Of course, he threw no interceptions – leading to a 131.9 passer rating.  New England started the game 5 of 6 on third down, and then averaged 8 yards per offensive play in the second half.

The Patriots’ Pass Defense is a Thing

But the thing to take strong notice of with the Patriots is the defense – especially the pass defense.  Mostly disorganized and something of a mess early in the season, New England’s first four opponents exploited the Patriots’ re-constructed pass defense.  They completed 69.7% of their passes against them, averaging 13.5 yards per completed pass.  In those first four, New England allowed 11 touchdown passed while intercepting just 3 passes.  It all added up to a distressing 116.5 passer rating against.

Over the next three games, the pass defense started to show improvement.  The completion percentage dropped to 63.5%.  The yards per catch also diminished to 11.5.  Over those next three games, New England allowed just 4 touchdown passes, with their 2 interceptions bringing them to a more normal 89.4 passer rating against.  (NFL averages are currently 62.5% completions, 11.3 yards per completion, and an 88.2 passer rating.)

Over their last three games, Patriot opponents have now completed just 56.3% of their passes, gaining just 10.6 yards per completion.  The touchdowns and interceptions have been equal at 3 each.  The passer rating against them over those games has been just 71.7.  While one of those contests was against Brock Osweiler and the struggling Denver offense, the other two have been against the Chargers and Raiders with dangerous quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Derek Carr.  Rivers entered that game with an 89.9 passer rating.  Carr’s was 91.8.  They combined for a 71.1 rating in their games against New England.

Especially in these last three games, the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders played very well for most of the game.  But every time they had a little lapse, they paid for it.  And every one who plays New England understands that this is how it is when you play the Patriots.  They will make you pay for all of your mistakes.

Just like last year.

The AFC Playoff Picture

With Kansas City’s surprising loss, the Chiefs – once 5-0 on the season – are starting to slip behind the crowd fighting for the number one seed.  The Week 15 contest between New England and Pittsburgh still looks like it will decide the AFC’s top seed.  Jacksonville now pushes ahead of the Chiefs for the number 3 spot.  Tennessee currently leads Baltimore for the fifth wildcard spot, but as the teams come down the stretch, I’m expecting the Ravens to swap places with the Titans.  Baltimore still looks out of sync on offense, but Tennessee has three road games in their next four, and when they finally come home they will have the Rams and the Jaguars to face them – too tough for a team that I don’t really believe in yet.

Speaking of the Rams

In one of the season’s more anticipated games, the Los Angeles Rams (then 7-2) visited the Minnesota Vikings (then also 7-2).  Most anticipated was the clash between the Ram offense – leading the NFL in scoring at 296 points, while ranking third in total offense, fifth in rushing (128.8 yards per game) and sixth in passing (led by hot second-year quarterback Jared Goff and his 101.5 rating) – and the Minnesota defense – ranked third against the run (just 81.3 yards per game), fifth in total yardage, and tenth in allowing fewest points (just 165).  Opposing passers struggled to an 80.8 rating against Minnesota – the eighth lowest rating in the NFL.

For as anticipated as the matchup was, the result was disappointingly one-sided.  The impressive Viking defense smothered the Rams’ running game.  Todd Gurley ended the day with just 37 yards on 15 carries, never gaining more than 8 yards on any run.  They also eliminated the big-play passing attack.  The Rams had no completion over 23 yards.  In the game’s second half, they had no play longer than 15 yards.  Goff completed 12 second half passes for only 107 yards (8.92 per completion).  He finished the game with a very modest 79.2 rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings capably exploited Los Angeles’ defensive weakness against the run.  The Rams came in allowing 118 rushing yards a game (ranked twenty-fourth).  Minnesota pounded then to the tune of 171 yards – running the clock for 20:06 of the second half – on their way to a convincing 24-7 win (gamebook).

More about Minnesota next week.

Next Up New Orleans

For the Rams, this is a sobering dash of cold water one week before one of the defining games in the NFC this season.  The Rams have some issues to address before facing the New Orleans Saints – currently riding an eight-game winning streak and boasting the top offense (by yards) in the NFL and the third best running attack (144 yards per game).  At 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Saints have the most explosive running game in the league.  After last week’s pounding, the Rams are now twenty-seventh in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3).

In a contest that will significantly impact home field advantage in the playoffs, the Rams have this game at home.  But they will have to find some way of stopping the New Orleans running attack without leaving themselves too vulnerable to Drew Brees and that passing attack.

It will be a tall order.

Second Half Quarterbacks

In their last game in New England, the Los Angeles Chargers looked like they finally had found their running game.  They lost, but rung up 157 rushing yards, with feature back Melvin Gordon accounting for 132 of them on just 14 carries (9.4 per carry).  Gordon had gained 997 yards the previous year, in spite of playing in only 13 games (starting 11).  The re-discovered running game would be important going forward.

On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars were welcoming back rookie running sensation Leonard Fournette after a one-game suspension.  Leonard had amassed 596 rushing yards in six games, including 311 in his previous two games.  With the running game being the foundation of the Jaguars’ offense, his return was welcomed.

At the half of last Sunday’s game between the Chargers and the Jaguars, Los Angeles held a 7-6 lead.  Gordon had managed just 16 yards on 8 carries.  Fournette was held to 21 on 9 carries.  By game’s end – after more than 71 minutes of football – these two premier backs had accounted for 60 combined yards on 33 combined rushes – less than two yards a carry.

With the running games unable to get untracked, the contest hinged on the two passing games.

Rivers vs Bortles

For their part, Los Angeles had veteran Philip Rivers.  Going head to head against the number one pass defense in the NFL (and also the defense with the lowest passer rating against – 63.5), Rivers held his own. Philip finished 21 of 37 for 235 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.  Without much of a running game, and with consistent up the middle pressure, Rivers and the Chargers fought their way to 17 points – about as much as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

The curiosity in this game was the other quarterback – Jacksonville’s much discussed Blake Bortles.

The quarterback who earlier this year threw only one pass in the second half of the Pittsburgh game, now held Jacksonville’s fate in his hands.

Throughout the first half, Jacksonville maintained admirable balance.  Their 27 plays were 14 runs and 13 mostly safe passes.  Bortles took one downfield shot, overthrowing Keelan Cole.  But Blake was 11-for-11 throwing underneath against the Chargers.  However, the short passes only accounted for 75 yards, and the only time that Jacksonville found the end zone was on a spectacular fake punt.  Other than Corey Grant’s 56-yard explosion, the running game had contributed just 33 yards.

So, the wraps came off Bortles in the games second half (which ended up being almost three full quarters).  And with decidedly mixed results.

After throwing 12 times in the first half, Blake threw 39 times in the second.  But his 11 first half completions were answered by only 17 in the second half.  His completion percentage fell from 91.7% through the first 30 minutes to just 43.6% thereafter.  After managing just 75 passing yards early, Blake threw for 198 thereafter, but for only a 5.08 yard average per pass, after averaging 6.25 in the first half.

As the focus was decidedly more downfield, his average per completion rose sharply from 6.82 to 11.65, and he threw for his only touchdown of the day.  He also threw two bad-decision interceptions that nearly cost Jacksonville the game.

The Jags held on for a 20-17 victory (gamebook), but the questions continue.  If Jacksonville needs Blake to throw the team to victory against a top opponent (perhaps in a playoff situation), could he do it?

Sunday’s second half against Los Angeles casts some doubt.

Second-Half Jared

Facing a team that had rolled up more than fifty point in its previous game, the Houston defense held the Texans in the game for the first 35 minutes or so.  The Los Angeles Rams had gone in at halftime with just 3 field goals and a 9-7 lead.  As in the Jacksonville game, the Rams’ premier running back Todd Gurley was a non-factor (as a runner).  He rushed for 19 first-half yards.  Meanwhile, Jared Goff and the passing attack weren’t re-writing history either.  Jared went into the locker room with only 104 passing yards on 11 of 20 passing.  Of the 131 total yards LA had to show for the first 30 minutes, 43 came on a short catch and run by Gurley.  Had the Houston offense been able to take advantage, the story of the second half might have been much different.

But the Texans let the Rams hang around and then watched as LA pulled away with 24 unanswered second-half points – on their way to a 33-7 victory (gamebook).  There were a couple of quarterbacks who had brilliant second halves last week.  Arguably Jared Goff’s was the best.

A little bit rushed and flustered through the game’s first thirty minutes, Goff returned for the second half on fire.  Beginning with a perfectly-thrown, 94-yard touchdown strike to Robert Woods, Goff went on to complete 14 of his last 17 passes (82.4%) for an astonishing 254 yards (an average of 17.93 yards per completion) with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  On the receiving end, Woods caught all 6 second-half passes thrown to him for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns. Coming one week after his third-and-33 touchdown catch, Woods is, perhaps, forcing his way into a bigger role on this offense.

And, yes, that is the Rams now 7-2.  The intensity of the stretch drive and of the playoffs may catch up to this young team at some point, but nine games into the season they look like more than just a September illusion.

What to Make of the Atlanta-Dallas Game

If Jared Goff’s second half was better than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan’s, it was only marginally so.  Like Goff, Ryan started out a little average.  He completed 11 of 17 first half passes, but for only 94 yards, with no touchdowns and 1 interception.  But coming out of halftime and holding to just a 10-7 lead, Ryan and the Falcon offense finally found their groove.  Matty finished his game completing 11 of his last 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Perhaps the great awakening in the Atlanta offense was nothing more than patience and a little dose of humility.  Instead of stubbornly trying to throw up the field to Julio Jones against coverages overloaded to stop that very strategy, Ryan and the Falcons spent the second half of last Sunday’s game peppering the Cowboys with underneath routes.  For the game, Ryan completed only one throw of over 20 yards (a 24-yarder to Jones early in the second half).  All of his other completions exploited Dallas’ focus on Jones and the deep passing game.

Equally important, the Atlanta running game emerged in the second half, gaining 91 yards on 21 carries and the Falcons walked away with a 27-7 win (gamebook).  One of the things the first half of the season has taught us is that the more balanced the Falcon offense is, the more explosive it is.

The Zeke Factor

The tempting thing here, of course, is to say “well, Dallas was without premier back Ezekiel Elliott, so . . .” But I’m not sure that effectively accounts for the outcome.

Elliott, famously, has been fighting a suspension for the entire year – a suspension that finally began with this game.  Would he have made a difference?  Of course.  But to say he would have propelled Dallas to victory not only slights the Atlanta Falcons and Alfred Morris (who replaced Elliott), but grossly over-values Elliott’s contributions.

The truth is that running the football was probably the best thing that Dallas did on Sunday. They finished with 107 rushing yards, and Morris had 53 of those on 11 carries (4.8 yards per).  The failure to truly establish the run game had more to do with the defense’s inability to contain the Falcon offense – allowing the score to get out of hand – and the struggles of the Cowboy passing game.

With tackle Tyron Smith nursing injuries, Dallas turned to Chaz Green to man that all-important left tackle spot.  To say that he was overmatched by Falcon rush end Adrian Clayborn would be a sizeable understatement.

Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott finished the game completing 20 of 30 passes – but for only 176 yards.  Prescott began the game having been sacked only 10 times all season.  In this game alone, he went down 8 times (for 50 yards) – 6 of them credited to Clayborn (a game he will remember for a while).

In general, I’m inclined to think this game was more about the Falcons re-discovering themselves than it was conclusive evidence that the Cowboys are rudderless without Elliott.  Next up for Dallas is a crucial division matchup against Philadelphia.  Atlanta journeys to Seattle to play the damaged but dangerous Seahawks.  We will probably know more about both these teams by this time next week.

Playoff Implications

The game was billed as a must win for the Falcons – and that is true enough.  At 4-4, Atlanta’s position was certainly precarious.  Even with the win, though, the Falcons chances still aren’t great.  They currently sit one game behind the Seahawks for the last spot, so a win Monday night could thrust them momentarily into that playoff spot.  The Falcons also have a very tough closing schedule.  After Seattle in Seattle, they will still have Minnesota and Carolina on their schedule, as well as high-flying New Orleans twice.

If Atlanta is going to fight its way in, they will have to earn it.

In the long run, the loss may hurt Dallas more than the win will help Atlanta.  Considering how much harder Dallas’ remaining schedule is than Carolina’s (the team they will likely be battling for that playoff spot) this loss was very damaging to the Cowboys.  They still have two games against Philadelphia, as well as Washington, Oakland and Seattle on their list.  Carolina will have challenges – they have New Orleans, Minnesota and Atlanta left – but clearly not as many.  With Dallas needing to make up a game and a half on the Panthers, facing a tougher schedule, and now without their best linebacker (Sean Lee) for a while, Dallas’ playoff hopes are suddenly looking pretty bleak.

And the Panthers (who looked ripe for the plucking last week) have seen their playoff conditions notably improved with the Dallas loss.  A Week 14 win against the Vikings (and that game is at home) could easily propel Carolina into the fifth seed, leaving Minnesota as the sixth.

Raiders Save Season with Wild Finish

Week Seven began with one of the season’s wildest and most enjoyable games as the Raiders – trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter – salvaged their season (for the moment, anyway) by rallying for a 31-30 victory over Kansas City (gamebook).  The win improves them to 3-4 and keeps them two games behind the Chiefs in the division (a loss would have spilled them four game behind).

As the score suggests, this was an offensive fireworks display.  The two quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Derek Carr) combined for 422 passing yards.  And that was just the first half.  By game’s end, the two teams had combined for 930 total yards (748 of them passing yards) and 7 touchdowns.  They also combined to go 14 for 28 on third down, and 1-for-1 on fourth down.

The teams combined for 8 plays over 30 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown pass to from Carr to Amari Cooper (Cooper finished with 11 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns) off a “flea-flicker,” and a deflected almost-interception that landed right in the arms of the Chiefs’ Albert Wilson for a 63-yard touchdown.  It also featured one of the wildest finishes that I’ve seen lately – so the enjoyment factor of this game was pretty substantial.

Derek Carr has now started 53 NFL games, and led his team to fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories in 13 of them.  Slightly more than half of his 25 career wins have been in this kind of game.

Kudos for the Raiders’ Defense?

By game’s end, Kansas City had put up 30 points, scored 3 touchdowns, racked up 425 yards, and averaged 7.1 yards per play.  Not necessarily a defensive performance that you would be inclined to celebrate.  Yet the Raider defense did prevent the Chiefs offense from controlling the game on the ground.

Boasting the fourth ranked running offense in the NFL (at 134.8 yards per game), and facing a Raider defense that was struggling to stop the run (they entered ranked twenty-first allowing 117.2 yards per game), the Chiefs wanted very much to run some clock and keep Carr’s explosive offense on the sidelines.

They opened the game with four straight running plays (gaining only 10 yards) and ran five times (for 12 yards in their opening drive), but never were able to establish their ground game. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt broke off one run of 34 yards, but managed just 54 yards on his other 17 carries.  The talented running back – who has already picked up more than 100 yards in the second half alone of a couple games this season – carried 11 times in the second half of this game for just 39 yards (3.5 per carry).  KC finished the game with just 94 rushing yards, and only controlled the clock for 30:36.  They scored points, but kept leaving Oakland time to answer.

The Longest Eight Seconds

But all of that was just prologue.

The game had 23 seconds left, and Oakland was still down 30-24.  They faced a third-and-10 on the Kansas City 29.  Carr slid slightly to his left in the pocket and launched a pass toward the pylon at the left corner of the end zone.  For the second straight play, the Raiders had two receivers in the area of the pass.  But his time the deeper receiver (Jared Cook) was far enough behind the other receiver (Seth Roberts) that the two didn’t collide.  Cook elevated, made the catch, and tumbled into the end zone.  Touchdown.  The game – for the moment – was tied, and there was much rejoicing in the stadium as everyone awaited the extra-point.

As it turned out, the celebrating was a might premature.  There was actually a lot of football left on this night.

As they kept watching the replay, it became apparent that Cook’s rear end had plopped to the turf while the football was still on the half-yard line.  There were eight seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal.

Michael Crabtree would get the first opportunity.  Lined up wide right, Crabtree raced into the end zone where he was met by KC defensive back Marcus Peters.  Carr delivered the ball, and Crabtree gave Peters a gentle push that sent Peters’ legs out from under him.  Crabtree caught the pass, but flags flew immediately.  Offensive pass interference.  Now there were three seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal from the 10.

Was it a penalty?  Well, it was a push.  Crabtree did extended his arms to gain separation.  In honesty, you frequently see worse than that get ignored.  But there was a push, so the call was mostly legit.

Before Carr even delivered the next pass (which was high and off the fingertips of Cook in the end zone) there was already a flag in the end zone.  Ron Parker had been called for holding Cook.  There were all zeros on the scoreboard clock, but the Raiders would get one un-timed down (since a game can’t end on a defensive penalty).  First and goal from the five.

Was it a penalty?  Well, Parker didn’t truly impede Cook, but he did latch on and go for a bit of a ride.  Frankly, he was more staggering and holding on for balance than trying to keep Cook out of the end zone.  Not the worst hold I’ve ever seen, but yes.  A penalty.

Now it would be Cordarrelle Patterson – lined up in the slot to the left – working against Eric Murray.  As Patterson streaked past, Murray latched on to him and hung with him to the back of the end zone, where he pushed Patterson over the line as the ball was arriving.  Some of the Chiefs were starting to celebrate, but most saw the flag on the ground.

That holding call brought the ball back to about the two yard line – almost exactly where it was ten minutes ago after Cook’s first catch – where Oakland would have yet another untimed down.

Now they would go back to Crabtree – lined wide left this time.  Derek rolled to his left and delivered a strike to Crabtree just a step beyond the same pylon that Cook had fallen in front of.  He collected the pass, and the game (finally) was over.

The win broke a four-game Raider losing streak, during which they had not scored more than 17 points.  It was the first time since Week Two that the Raiders had looked like the Raiders.  They have put themselves a bit behind in the playoff chase, but there is still a lot of football to be played.

Rematch in the Fog

Last February, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons got together in Houston for that Super Bowl thing.  In a game for the ages (discussed here), the Patriots trailed 21-3 at the half, and 28-9 through three quarters before rallying to a 34-28 overtime win.

Last Sunday night, they re-convened in Foxborough for a regular season re-match.  The story-lines this time, though, were slightly different.  The defending champion Patriots began the season with their re-built defense not really ready for prime time.  In a 2-2 start, the Patriots allowed 32 points and 456.8 yards per game (132.8 of them rushing yards).  In their previous two previous games, they had held Tampa Bay and the Jets to 14 and 17 points respectively.  Progress, yes, but against two fairly middling offenses.

The Atlanta narrative was more concerning.  After a 3-0 start, the Falcon’s had lost their two previous games at home against Buffalo and Miami, scoring just 17 points in each.  So they hit the turf as a team searching – a little bit, anyway – for answers.  They wouldn’t find any that night.  At least not early.

Fixing the Falcons

Thirty minutes into the game, the teams headed for the locker rooms with the Patriots holding a 17-0 lead.  The once dominant Falcon offense had managed just 130 yards and 7 first downs.  Quarterback Matt Ryan had completed just 9 of his first 16 passes – only 2 of them to All-World receiver Julio Jones for 30 yards.

This offensive brown out had many people scratching their heads.  The answer proved to be fairly fundamental.  The Falcons’ difficulties traced to a struggling running game.

People may not remember that during the Super Bowl, the Falcon’s set the tone with their running game.  Five of their first nine offensive plays were runs – gaining 56 yards.  They hit the halfway mark of that game with 86 rushing yards.  They were especially effective getting around the corner.  Nine times they tested the edge of New England’s run defense in Super Bowl LI, averaging 7.6 yards per.

Anyone who remembers the Falcon offense from the end of last season, will remember the great energy that surrounded it.  That energy came from the very aggressive, explosive running game.  As good as Ryan and Jones are – and they are both plenty good – the key to the Atlanta offense is their running game.  When it misfires, the whole Falcon offense looks out of sync.  That was the story of the first half.

Even though Atlanta finished the game scoring just 7 points in a 23-7 loss (gamebook), the second half proved much, much better – and it began with the running game.

After their initial first down of the third quarter, the Falcons ran on four consecutive plays for 34 yards.  Atlanta pushed on for 90 rushing yards in the second half – 56 by Devonta Freeman – and the passing game responded with Ryan hitting 14 of his last 17 passes.  Even though only 7 points came from them, all three of Atlanta’s second half drives lasted at least 10 plays, all gained at least 55 yards, and all ended in the red zone.  They missed a 36-yard field goal when Matt Bryant hit the left upright.  Another drive fizzled when the Falcons failed on fourth-and-goal from the one – so things could have been much better.  Now 3-3, the Falcons trail 4-2 New Orleans by one game in their division. They are still very much in the discussion.

Coming Together in New England

As for the Patriots, they are now suddenly 5-2 and a half-game ahead of Buffalo in their division.  Their victory depended on two significant achievements.

First, the new-look defense was surprisingly successful in eliminating the big play from the Atlanta offense.  Even in the second half the Falcons managed only two plays of more than 20 yards – and they were just barely over 20 yards.  One of Freeman’s runs gained 21 yards in the third, and one of Ryan’s fourth-quarter completions went for 22 yards to Justin Hardy.  Ryan’s 14 second half completions totaled just 123 yards.  Jones finished the game with 9 catches, but none of them for more than 16 yards.

The other important thing they did was run the ball.  Thirty six times they probed the Falcon run defense, racking up 162 rushing yards.  This is becoming a growing concern for the Falcons.  After holding the Packers to just 59 rushing yards in Week Two, their rushing yards allowed has risen every game since.

New England finished with 34 minutes and 5 seconds of ball control.  For all of their early season vulnerability, the Patriots seem to have figured some things out.

And the Fog

What ended up being a very well-played, informative game was played against the strange backdrop of an intense fog that rolled in from the bay.  It was thick enough to make punts and arching passes something of an adventure.  The players were mostly unaffected, but the fog took its toll on the spectators.  TV audiences – thanks to the crawling spidercams – were treated to what was undoubtedly the first broadcast in NFL history that showed almost the entire game from the quarterback’s perspective.

An interesting view for anyone who ever wanted to read coverage.

The Final Report on Super Bowl LI

I sometimes think most teams that play the New England Patriots are beaten before they step onto the field.  Imagine a speech that most head coaches might make to their team on Tuesday morning of Patriot week:

“Men, this week we play the Patriots.  Can we beat them?  Absolutely.  But only if we put together our most complete game of the season.  We can’t make mistakes, because this team will make you pay for each and every one of them.  So this will be our challenge this week – to play our most perfect game of the season.”

I don’t know how a team plays this game afraid of what will happen if they make a mistake.  But I have seen a lot of teams play New England with that kind of temerity.

Facing New England in the Super Bowl

Exactly what Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said to his team the week leading up to the Super Bowl I – of course – don’t know.  But I strongly doubt it bore any resemblance to the statement above.  From the game’s opening series this brash young team walked up to the four-time champion Patriots and punched them right in the mouth.  For two-and-a-half quarters the underdog Falcons treated the team from New England to a football version of “shock and awe” that featured explosive running, circus catches and eleven defenders who seemed to be everywhere on the field at once.  As the first half drew to a close, two shocking story lines were unfolding before the stunned Patriot team and dumfounded crowd of almost 71,000 at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

First, unbelievably, the Falcons were blowing out the Patriots.  The Falcons are a good team and – everyone conceded – a team that could well beat New England (if they played a perfect game).  But no impartial analyst that I know of would have predicted a blow-out victory.  But that was exactly what was happening, and there seemed nothing that New England could do about it.  For the first 36 minutes and 29 seconds of the game, New England was hopelessly outmatched on both offense and defense.

But even that might not have been as stunning as the second unexpected development.  The New England Patriots – the model franchise of the NFL – was melting down on the sport’s biggest stage.  After the game, they said there was no panic.  But those of us who watched the game know differently.

New England is Melting?

Over a 27:13 span that began at the 14:19 mark of the second period and extended through the 2:06 mark of the third period, almost every single one of the Patriot stalwarts failed to execute in opportunities to halt Atlanta’s momentum.  The skid began with the fumble by 1000-yard running back LeGarrette Blount.  Atlanta quickly turned that into a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.  Moments later a tight-end named Austin Hooper beat safety Patrick Chung on a deep post pattern for the score that made it 14-0.

Then it was Tom Brady’s turn.

With 2:36 left in the first half, and the Patriots holding the ball at the Atlanta 23, Danny Amendola beat cornerback Brian Poole to the inside and Brady threw him the ball.  But cornerback Robert Alford – who began the play trailing Julian Edelman – broke off his coverage and settled right in front of Amendola.  His interception and subsequent 82-yard touchdown return pushed the Atlanta lead to 21-0.

Before the half would end, Brady – rattled by the heavy pressure he had been under to that point in the game – would badly miss two open receivers (Edelman streaking past Alford over the deep middle of the field with 1:43 left in the half, and Chris Hogan in the right flat with 33 seconds left), and throw the ball just enough behind another receiver (Edelman again) open on a short crossing route, that the defender (Alford, again) could make a play on the ball.

They settled for a field goal, cutting the deficit to 21-3 at the half.

The Second Half

With the Falcons up by 18 and getting the ball to open the second half, it was widely conceded that the first two possessions of the third quarter would be critical to New England’s ability to stay competitive in this game.  First, they would need a defensive stop.

They got one.

After running back Devonta Freeman was dropped in the backfield for a three-yard loss on first down, he took a short pass for a seven-yard gain.  Then, on third-and-six, cornerback Eric Rowe defended a pass into the left flat to Taylor Gabriel (at that point, just Matt Ryan’s second incompletion of the game).  Atlanta punted.  When Julian Edelman brought the kick back to the Patriot 47 yard line, the stage seemed to be set.

But now it was Chris Hogan’s turn.  The 9-catch, 180-yard hero of the Championship Game, Hogan flew up the left sideline, gaining separation from cornerback Jalen Collins.  Brady’s throw was right to the outside shoulder where only Hogan could get it.  And it clunked off his hands.

A second-down screen-pass lost two yards, bringing up third and twelve.  Julian Edelman lined up to the right and ran another short crossing pattern with Alford again in trailing position.  This time Brady’s throw hit Julian perfectly in the hands.  But now it was Edelman who watched the ball slide through his fingers.

With the momentum quashed, the Patriots punted.  The Falcon’s would not go three-and-out again.  Eight plays later, Atlanta had covered 85 yards and opened a 28-3 lead.  That – for all practical purposes – seemed to clinch the title for the Falcons.

That the Patriots went on to mount the most remarkable comeback in Super Bowl history doesn’t diminish all that the Falcons achieved to that point of the game.  In the aftermath, individuals have surfaced who have wanted to criticize how the Falcons handled the rest of the game (play-calling, etc.).  While I’m sure that – if they had it to do over – they might make some different choices, what happened over the game’s last 27 minutes is more a credit to the New England Patriots than it is the fault of the Falcons.  If there were a few things Atlanta might have done differently or better, there were a myriad of things that New England needed to do almost perfectly to make the comeback happen.

That they were able to do that adds to the legendary status of some of the Patriot stars.  But even in defeat, there were several reputations either made or solidified on the Atlanta sideline.

Matt Ryan

Let’s start first with quarterback Matt Ryan.  Everyone knew the backstory.  Five years into his career as a much-hyped franchise quarterback, Ryan had led his team to a 56-22 record with a 90.9 passer rating.  But he was just 1-4 in the playoffs.  Everyone heard the whisper.  Matty Ice (as he is called) is not a big game quarterback.  If there is one misperception that should be laid to rest after this year’s playoff tournament, it should be that.

On the heels of a season where he scorched defenses to the tune of a 117.1 passer rating, Ryan spent the playoffs slicing up opponents like Japanese knives slice through tomatoes on TV.  Up to the point where his 6-yard touchdown toss to Tevin Coleman pushed the Falcon lead to 28-3, Ryan had racked up the defenses of the Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers and the Patriots to the combined totals of 65 completions in 89 attempts (73%) for 923 yards (10.37 yards per attempt and 14.2 yards per completion).  Fifty-one of his 65 completions had achieved first downs – including 9 that resulted in touchdowns with no interceptions.  This all adds up to a 139.9 passer rating.  There are a lot of descriptors that could be applied to that performance.  Choking is not one of them.

Against the Packers and the Patriots he completed 7 of 10 deep passes for 171 yards.  His passer rating on throws of more than twenty yards in the two biggest games of his season was 145.8.

Matt Ryan is pretty good (this just in).

Julio Jones

And then there is uber receiver Julio Jones.  The Super Bowl concluded Julio’s sixth season in the NFL.  He has already caught more than 100 passes in a season twice (and has 497 for his young career).  He has also been over 1000 yards four times (twice over 1500 yards) and has averaged 15.3 yards per reception for his career.  Over the last three seasons alone, Julio has caught 323 passes for 4873 yards and 20 touchdowns.  If there is a better receiver and more dangerous weapon out there than Julio, I have yet to see him.

His status in the Falcon offense set up one of the most intriguing matchups of the game.  How would Bill Belichick’s defense deal with Jones.  One of the trademarks of the New England defense is their ability to mostly neutralize their opponent’s most dangerous offensive weapon.  But is it possible to neutralize Jones?  If so, how would they go about it?

As I speculated about this a couple of weeks ago, the concept was exceedingly simple.  They double teamed him with a cornerback and a safety over the top.  I guessed that it would be Malcom Butler, but in the first half the defender on the spot was Ryan Logan.  Eric Rowe got that opportunity later.  Jones wasn’t exactly neutralized, but his four catches for 87 yards were well below the 180 yards he had accounted for against Green Bay.

On the one hand, you could call that “contained.”  On the other hand, remember that Atlanta only ran 46 offensive plays the entire evening and threw only 23 passes.  Had Ryan tossed up the 40 or so passes that he usually does, Julio’s numbers are probably more in line with the Green Bay game.

But even that is not the story.

Behind his 4 for 87 line are three highlight reel catches – a 19-yard over-the-middle catch that he pulled out of the hands of the defender (Logan Ryan), and two sideline catches that were varying degrees of impossible.  Anyone less than Julio Jones finishes the night with one catch for 23 yards.  The New England defense did what they came to do.  They forced Julio to play like the best receiver in football and kept him from hurting them at the key moments of the game.

Devonta Freeman

After surpassing 1000 rushing yards for the second straight season, Freeman dazzled under the bright lights of the Super Bowl.  At just 5-8 and 206 pounds, Freeman will never get the 25-30 carries a game that more durable backs (like Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas) might get.  But on a field littered with offensive talent, Freeman ended the day with the game’s longest run (a 37-yard sprint around left end) and the game’s longest pass reception (a 39-yard sprint with a dump pass into the left flat).  Davonta ended the day with 121 scrimmage yards and showcased his blazing speed and elite cutback ability.

Freeman also committed one of the most telling errors of the night.  It was Freeman in pass protection who was caught by surprise on the Dont’a Hightower blitz that produced the fumble that set the Patriot comeback in full motion.

Robert Alford

In spite of their early success, by the time the Super Bowl ended there wasn’t much cheering for the Atlanta defense.  But one highlight was Alford.  His was the signature defensive play of the night (the 82-yard interception return).  He also recovered a fumble and made 9 tackles on the night.

It was also Alford who was the key to the defensive strategy.  It was Alford who would be asked to cover New England’s top receiver (Julian Edelman) all over the field.  This would prove to be one of the most enjoyable and competitive contests-within-the-contest of the night.

Edelman was targeted 13 times in Super Bowl LI.  On 9 of those targets he was working against Alford in man coverage.  Alford won 5 of the 9 battles.  Edelman turned his 4 catches against Alford into 78 yards – including the pivotal 23-yard impossible catch of a pass that Alford had deflected with just slightly over two minutes left in regulation and New England still down by eight.

Julian caught his third pass of the Super Bowl on the very first play of the second quarter.  He would not catch another until that catch – the much replayed juggling catch of the deflected pass – with 2:28 left in regulation broke a streak of seven straight incompletions on throws in his direction.

Head Coach Dan Quinn and his Coordinators, Kyle Shanahan and Richard Smith

Not only did the Falcons play the game with fearless abandon, but the game plan was exceedingly well conceived and crisply executed.

Offensively, riding the hot quarterback was the easy part.  New England played a little bit of zone against Ryan, and watched him complete 7 of 8 passes for 93 yards.  Mostly they played man and saw Matty rip them to the tune of 10 of 14 for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns.  The passer rating for Ryan when throwing against New England’s man coverage was 153.3.  Of course, the Patriots also accumulated 4 of their 5 sacks when in man coverage – 3 of them with the aid of their frequent blitzes.  Nine of Ryan’s 28 drop-backs featured Patriots blitzes.

In addition to the hot passing hand, Atlanta found unexpected success running on the perimeter.  They rarely challenged Alan Branch and the other big boys in the middle of the line.  Of their 18 running plays, only two were designed to go inside the tackles – and those two runs lost two yards.  But the perimeter attack featured several quick pitches and some better than expected blocking by the wide receivers sealing the edge.  Notable in this effort was Mohamed Sanu, who mixed it up pretty well with the big boys.

New England – whether by design or not – was singularly unable to diffuse the big play nature of the Atlanta offense.  As opposed to New England’s grinding offense, the Falcons averaged 7.5 yards per offensive play.  Six of their 46 plays broke for at least 20 yards.  Atlanta’s scoring drives took 1:53 (71 yards in 5 plays), 1:49 (62 yards in 5 plays), and 4:14 (82 yards in 8 plays).

New England triumphed, though, because its defense never allowed Atlanta anything sustained.  The Falcons ended Super Bowl LI just 1 for 8 on third down (Ryan’s second-quarter, 19-yard touchdown pass to Hooper came on a third-and-nine play.  Ryan was just 1 of 4 on third down with his other four passing attempts ending in sacks.  Of all the necessary pieces of the Patriot comeback, perhaps this uncanny success on third down was the most improbable.

About the Falcon Play-Calling

Why didn’t Atlanta run more in the second half?  Nine first-half running plays (out of 19 total plays) earned them 86 yards and a touchdown.  Of their 27 second half plays, only 9 of them were runs.  Especially as New England was mounting their comeback, you would think the Falcons would see the benefit of controlling the game with the run.  There were, I think, two probable influences.

First, when they did run the effectiveness of the attack dried up.  Of their 9 second half running plays, only 3 gained more than three yards.  Three other runners were tackled for losses.

Second, when your offense doesn’t see the field for over an hour (which happened to Atlanta as the second quarter ran into halftime), you can’t have your MVP quarterback hand off three times and punt.  If you have Matt Ryan in your backfield with thirty minutes to win the Super Bowl, you have to put the ball in his hands.  And blocking for him would be a good idea, too.

Really, if you only have 46 offensive snaps, you just don’t have enough plays to run your offense.  I’m sure there were a lot of things Atlanta wanted to get back to, but never had that chance.

The Defensive Challenge

On the defensive side, the game belonged to the linemen – especially the ageless Dwight Freeney and the surprising Grady Jarrett (who matched his season sack total of 3 in the Super Bowl).  For two and a half quarters, the unheralded Falcon defense frustrated the high-flying Patriot offense.  They snuffed out the Patriot running game and hang with the Patriots in man coverage long enough to let the pass rush disrupt Tom Brady.

Their speed and aggressiveness took away the Patriot screen game (Brady’s five screen passes gained a total of 3 yards).  They also consistently dropped defenders into the short middle area that Brady loves to exploit.  Against the Steelers, Brady was 8 for 11 for 91 yards throwing into the short middle.  He was only 11 of 16 for 98 yards and an interception in that same area in Super Bowl LI.

At the point where Atlanta led 28-3, Brady had completed just 17 of 29 passes (58.6%) for 182 yards (6.28 per attempt and 10.7 per completion) with no touchdowns (to his own team, anyway) and one big interception.  His passer rating at that point was just 62.7.

The problem with the Atlanta game-plan, though, was that it was unsustainable.  As the Falcon defense remained on the field for a soul-sapping 99 snaps (including penalties and two-point conversions), the pass rush slowed and came to an almost complete halt.  As his time in the pocket increased, Brady’s comfort level and confidence both rose.  He completed 26 of his last 33 passes (78.8%) for 284 yards (8.61 per attempt, but still just 10.9 per completion) and the two touchdowns.  He closed with a 122.7 passer rating during the comeback.

Along the way, the Patriots exploited quite a few matchups.  Jalen Collins was a particular target.  With 14 targets, Collins was the most thrown at defender in the Super Bowl.  Those 14 throws resulted in 12 completions for 116 yards and both touchdowns.  But Collins was at least as much a liability in zone coverage as he was in man.  In man coverage, Brady completed 5 of 7 against Jalen for 58 yards.  In zone, Brady was 7-for-7 against Collins for another 58 yards and both touchdowns.

Collins also gave up 3 of the 5 catches that Patriot receiver Malcom Mitchell made in the fourth quarter alone.  Mitchell’s 63 fourth-quarter receiving yards were the most by any of the receivers from either in team in any quarter of the Super Bowl.

Other Issues

There were two other man-to-man matchups that the Patriots returned to with great frequency.  One was Danny Amendola working against Brian Poole.  Seven times Brady threw to Amendola with Poole working against him.  Danny caught five of those passes for 62 yards and 4 first downs.

The Falcons biggest matchup problem, though, wasn’t with any of the wide receivers.  In the middle of the comeback was running back James White.  Mostly, James drew the attention of middle linebacker Deion Jones.  Of his game-high 16 targets in Super Bowl LI, 8 came while covered by Jones in man coverage.  He caught 6 of those for 46 yards and caught 2 more against Jones in zone coverage for another 20 yards.

After watching Pittsburgh’s zone defenses struggle against the Patriot offense, Atlanta decided to rely on man coverages.  Of Brady’s 67 drop-backs, he saw some form of man coverage 44 times.  Brady completed 28 of 42 throws (with two sacks) for 355 yards.  All of his big passes came against man coverages.  When Atlanta dropped into zones, Tom completed 15 of 20 (75%) but for only 111 yards (5.55 per attempt and 7.4 per completion).

Would Atlanta have won the Super Bowl if they had run the ball more and played more zone defenses?  It’s impossible to say for sure, but my gut feeling is that I don’t think they would.  I don’t believe that hanging on and hoping the clock runs out wins this kind of game against this team.  Atlanta could have iced the game at any number of points in the second half.  They just needed to make one more play.

How to Make a 25-Point Comeback

One last remarkable aspect of this comeback was the Patriot approach.  For 23 of their 93 plays, New England trailed by more than 20 points.  Trailing by 20 points in the Super Bowl is a big deal.  But the Patriots showed admirable restraint, calling 6 runs among those 23 plays and only throwing two deep passes (both incomplete).  During this stretch, Brady nursed his team back into contention.  He completed 11 of 15 passes (73.3%) for just 97 yards (only 8.82 yards per completion).  But Atlanta did not sack him during any of those attempts. Those passes included a short touchdown toss to White.  His passer rating during the plays when he trailed by 20 points was 112.4.

Throughout the long, impossible road back from a 25-point deficit, the Patriots resisted the urge to get ahead of themselves.  Instead of the eye-catching, 30-yard up-field passing that Atlanta featured, New England played within themselves and ground down the young Falcon defense.

Emotion is a two-edged sword in the NFL.  Atlanta left the tunnel wound up almost to the snapping point.  They fell on the Patriots with an energy and passion that took New England by complete surprise.  But emotion is like a sugar rush.  There is almost always a crash at the end of it.

Maybe the single most impressive aspect of the Patriot comeback was the discipline of it.  It wasn’t at all unemotional.  But it was a clinical – almost surgical – exposure of the Falcon defense.  In a way, the comeback was an act of faith.  It was the response of a team that believed completely in its process.

It was the response of a team that didn’t believe it could be beaten.

The NFL GameBook for Super Bowl LI is here, and the Football reference Summary is here.

What’s Next?

With the Super Bowl now in the rear-view mirror and baseball still a few months away (yes I know pitchers and catchers are reporting already), it’s time for me to take a short vacation.  After 189 posts and many hundreds of thousands of words since last April, I intend to take a few weeks of to re-charge for the long season ahead.  Look for my posting again in early March as we start preparing for the 2017 campaign.

See you then.

The Atlanta Falcons Soar Into Super Bowl LI

In the moments before their game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers won the coin toss and elected to defer.  The afternoon was all downhill for them from there.

The Falcons took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards in 13 plays in a drive that consumed the first 6:36 of the game to take a 7-0 lead.

The next time they got their hands on the ball (starting on their own 31), they moved the ball 59 yards in 12 plays consuming five more minutes (and 21 seconds).  By the time Matt Bryant added the field goal, there were just 14 seconds left in the first quarter, and the Packers already trailed 10-0.

The second quarter would prove similar. Another 80-yard drive on their first possession of that quarter pushed the Falcon lead to 17-0.  They went into the locker room at half-time leading 24-0 after a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones with just three seconds left capped a quick 68 yard drive.

The Packers made a little second half noise, but they were never truly in this one, falling by a final score of 44-21.  The Atlanta Falcons (who only attempted 6 passes in the second half) will now advance to their second ever Super Bowl to face New England on Sunday.

So, How Good is the Falcon’s Offense?

Pretty darn good.

They finished the regular season as one of the top scoring offenses in NFL history, racking up 540 points (an average of 33.8 per game).  They then put up 36 points against Seattle in their first playoff game, before hanging 44 on the Packers.  By yardage they finished second in the league this year (third in passing yards and fifth in rushing yards).  Quarterback Ryan finished completing 69.9% of his passes for almost 5,000 yards.  He averaged 9.26 yards for every pass attempted, and 13.3 for every pass he completed.  His regular season touchdown-to-interception ratio was 38-7.

Prominent on the receiving end is record-setting wide receiver Julio Jones, who stormed through the regular season hauling in 83 passes for 1409 yards.  In the signature moment of the Championship Game, he beat cornerback Ladarious Gunter to the inside for a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown that pushed the score to 31-0.  Julio would finish the afternoon with 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns.

But the game – like the season – belonged to Ryan.  At 27 of 38 for 392 yards and 4 touchdowns, Matt picked the Packer defense clean.  A predominantly man coverage team, the Packers lined up in man coverage against Jones and the Falcon receivers for 26 of the 38 passes (68.4%).  They didn’t come close to slowing them down.  Ryan sliced their man coverages for 16 completions in those 26 attempts (61.5%).  Fifteen of those 16 completions earned first downs as Ryan totaled 269 yards with those passes (10.35 per attempt and 16.8 per completion).  Three of his four TD passes came with the Packers in man coverages.

Gunter was supposed to have help with Jones, but it never materialized.  Slightly more than one third of the time the Packers were in man, Ryan looked for Jones, throwing 9 of the 26 passes in his direction.  Julio finished catching seven of them for 140 yards and both of his touchdowns.  The Packer man coverage schemes clearly didn’t work.

But neither did their zones.  Ryan and the Falcon passing game were equally proficient when Green Bay dropped into zone coverage.  Matty completed 11 of 12 (91.7%) of his passes against the zone defenses for 123 yards and his initial touchdown pass.

In their own evaluation of the execution of their strategy, the Packers will probably concede that they knew they were asking, perhaps, too much of a somewhat banged up secondary.  But they were counting on getting enough pressure on Ryan to give their secondary a chance to compete.  Indeed, when Ryan did face significant pressure (and I grant this is a small sample size), he was a fairly mortal 4 for 7 for 57 yards and no touchdowns.  But the Packer pressure was sporadic and all too often the Green Bay secondary was hung out to dry.  Top pass rusher Clay Matthews was mostly a non-factor.  He finished with one tackle, no sacks and three pressures.  He spent 90% of his evening lining up opposite of Falcon left tackle Jake Matthews.  While Jake effectively eliminated Clay, it should also be pointed out that Clay has been battling a fairly serious shoulder injury all year.  Whether it was the Falcon offensive lineman or the limits of his health – or some combination of the two – the absence of Clay’s outside pressure was a critical blow to the Green Bay defensive scheme.

A couple of numbers that more fully illustrate the dominance of the Falcon passing game:

Ryan threw 15 passes from his own side of the 50-yard line.  He completed 14 of those passes (93.3%) for 231 yards.  His passer rating from his side of the field was 141.0.  For the game, seven of their nine possessions ended in Green Bay territory, and they ran 44 of their 68 plays (64.7%) on the Green Bay side of the field.

Additionally, the more balanced Atlanta offense adds to the effectiveness of Ryan’s play-action passing game – something they should, perhaps, do more of.  Ryan only went play-action seven times, but completed six of those passes for 179 yards and the 73-yard touchdown to Jones.  Jones, in fact, was the target of 4 of those 7 play-action passes, and accounted for 4 completions and 133 yards. Julio is very dangerous all the time – but especially when the Falcons run play-action.

And then, there was third down.  The Falcons finished the game a devastating 10 for 13 in third down situations, including 6 of 9 when the third down was six yards or more.  Ryan was 10 for 11 (90.9%) passing on third down for 101 yards.  Nine of his ten completions went for first downs.  Three of his touchdown passes came on third-down throws.  It all adds up to a 144.5 rating on third down.

But with all the positives of the un-stoppable passing game, there are a few cautionary observations to make.  First, it can’t be forgotten that the Packers finished the season ranked thirty-first out of thirty-two teams in pass defense.  That was by yardage allowed.  But the passer rating against them was a troubling 95.9 (ranking them twenty-sixth in the league).  The New England team that they are set to face on Sunday allowed opposing passers an 84.4 rating (they finished eighth).  In addition, the Patriots allowed the fewest points of any team in the league.  Ryan-to-Jones is a devastating combination, and it’s unlikely that New England will be able to shut them down completely.  But it’s not unreasonable to think that they will be able to slow them more than Green Bay could.

If all Atlanta has on Sunday evening in Houston is Ryan-to-Jones, I don’t think it will be enough.  Which brings me to the Falcon running game.

After a season of accolades, the Atlanta Falcon running game continued a pattern of fading against the league’s better run defenses.  Including their two playoff games, Atlanta has played 5 games against defenses ranked eighth or better at stopping the run.  In those games, the Falcons have averaged 86.4 yards.  The only time in any of those games that they cracked 100 yards was the Championship Game against Green Bay.  They managed 101 yards on 30 carries in that game.  Leading by 24 at the half, the Falcons went into the second half with the goal of establishing their running game. They focused to the extent that 16 of their 22 second half plays were runs.  They managed just 47 yards on those carries (2.9 per).  These struggles continued even after Green Bay lost starting inside linebacker Jake Ryan to injury about midway through the third quarter.  Additionally, 23 of the yards they did get came on scrambles from Ryan and 7 more were the result of a direct snap to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu out of the Wildcat formation.  As far as running backs taking handoffs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (who combined for 1599 yards this season), combined for only 71 yards on 25 carries during the game.

Much of the yardage that they did get came as a result of Green Bay defenders over-running the play and leaving the talented Falcon running backs open cutback lanes – something the disciplined Patriot linebackers are unlikely to do.

New England finished the season allowing just 88.6 rushing yards per game – the third-best total in the NFL this year.  If Atlanta is unable to run the ball against the Patriots, I expect that Ryan and the passing game will have a much more difficult evening than they did last Sunday.

This, I feel, is all the more likely after getting a close look at the Falcon offensive line.  In the aftermath of a 44-21 blowout, you would expect to see domination on the part of the winning team’s offensive line.  To state it directly, I was unimpressed.  Matthews (as mentioned) did a nice job pass blocking against Matthews. I’m not completely sure if that was due to great blocking or injury on the part of Green Bay’s Matthews.  Left guard Andy Levitre had some very good moments, throwing some excellent blocks, but also had very bad moments where he was beaten quickly both in pass blocking and run blocking.  Center Alex Mack and right guard Chris Chester mostly failed to defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion (Daniels, in particular, had a very strong game against all of Atlanta’s interior linemen), allowing the Packer linebackers to mostly flow freely to the point of attack.  And right tackle Ryan Schraeder – although a four-year veteran and two-year starter seemed to struggle most, seeming slow to react.

I don’t expect this team to run the ball against the Patriots.  Matt Ryan and his passing game will gain yards and put up points, but not as many as they have been wont to score throughout the year.  Which leads to what I consider to be the most important question regarding this year’s Super Bowl.

How Good is the Falcon Defense?

As the Packers began the season, their backfield featured Eddie Lacy as the main running threat.  He lasted five weeks before succumbing to a lingering ankle injury.  Later on James Starks resurfaced for a few games before he also landed on the injured reserve list.  A running back named Don Jackson played in three games, starting one, before his season ended with an undisclosed injury after Week Nine.

By the time the Green Bay offense took the field for the first time in the Championship Game, their running game was reduced to a converted wide receiver (Ty Montgomery), a Seattle castoff (Christine Michael) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski.

The Packers opened the playoffs running just 25 times for 75 yards against the Giants.  They followed that up running just 17 times against Dallas for 87 yards.  Last Sunday, they came into Atlanta with no intention of running at all. After Montgomery gained four yards on Green Bay’s very first play, the Pack threw on their next eight plays.

Midway through the second quarter, when Ripkowski burst over left guard for a 12-yard run, it was only the third Packer running play in their first 13 plays.  And, after Ripkowski fumbled the ball away at the end of that run, it would be the last Packer running play until they trailed 31-0 and there was 13:46 left in the third quarter. (Montgomery would take the Packers’ fourth running play of the day on their twenty-sixth offensive snap.)  Fifty-five offensive plays into their afternoon, Green Bay had all of ten running plays, and two of them were scrambles by their quarterback.

With the game well out of reach late in the fourth quarter, the Packers ended their season running on 7 of the last 9 plays.  They ended the game with 99 yards on 17 rushes.  Subtract the three scrambles from QB Aaron Rodgers and two designed QB runs, and the actual yardage gained by running backs taking handoffs was 39 yards on 12 carries – most of them late.

Sometimes defenses have to work to make teams one dimensional.  The Packers were one dimensional coming off the bus.  Even though the Falcon defense has been vulnerable to the run all year (allowing 104.5 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry) and even though Atlanta had at least five defensive backs on the field for every defensive snap of the game, Green Bay never tried to exploit this opportunity.  So dormant was the Packer running attack, that in 50 called passing plays, Rodgers threw just one play-action pass.

Instead, the Packers attempted to answer the Falcons’ high-efficiency offense with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball to Jordy Nelson (playing with cracked ribs), Davante Adams (trying to stay on the field after spraining his ankle last week), Jared Cook (who dropped two more passes) and Randall Cobb.  Factor in the loss of three more offensive starters to injury as the game progressed (the Packers lost Montgomery and two offensive linemen: Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang), plus the fact that Atlanta was up 17-0 almost before anyone could blink, and things seemed to tilt decidedly to the advantage of the Atlanta defense.  (In fact, the Packers put the ball into play trailing by twenty or more points on 43 of their 64 offensive snaps).

Yet, by game’s end, this limping, one-dimensional Packer offense had scuffled for 21 points and 367 yards, gaining 5.7 yards per offensive play.  In fact, take back Mason Crosby’s miss of a 41-yard field goal on Atlanta’s first possession and Ripkowski’s fumble at the Falcon 11-yard line on their second possession, and the Packers could easily have put up 31 or so points against this Atlanta defense that finished twenty-fifth in the league in yards allowed and twenty-seventh in points allowed.

The television crew that broadcast this game went to great lengths to praise the Atlanta defense.  I’m not sure I’m convinced.

The Falcons also played decidedly more man coverages than they did zone, and showed weaknesses in both.  Rodgers was 12 for 19 against the Falcon zones (63.2%) for 147 yards (an average of 12.25 yards per completion).  The Falcon linebackers – and specifically middle linebacker Deion Jones – frequently got lost in zone coverages.  Randall Cobb – whose quickness is reminiscent of Patriot receivers like Julian Edelman – caught four of the five passes thrown to him in zone coverage for 78 yards and four first downs.

Even more telling, in the man coverages that the Falcons prefer, they had noted difficulty finding someone who could cover Jared Cook, the Packer tight end.  Cook finished with 7 catches for 78 yards.  He also had the two drops that would have accounted for at least 13 more yards.  Particularly ineffective against the Packer TE was safety Keanu Neal who was completely manhandled in his attempts to cover him.  If covering Cook is a challenge, how much more difficult will an accomplished tight end like the Patriots Martellus Bennett be.

When playing Green Bay, most teams focus on keeping Rodgers in the pocket.  Atlanta managed that for the most part by blitzing him.  On almost 47% of the Packer pass plays (22 of 47), they sent five pass rushers his way.  None of these were exotic, overload blitzes designed to bring a free rusher.  Instead, the purpose of these blitzes was as much to keep Rodgers in the pocket as it was to hurry his process.  And in this, it was largely successful.  The blitz got to Aaron once, and Rodgers scrambled out of pressure three other times.  But he only threw from outside of the pocket 7 times, and completed only 3 of those passes (albeit for 82 yards).  His lone interception was thrown after he rolled out of the pocket and heaved a long pass downfield on third-and-21.

While there were some holes, there were a lot of things the Falcon defense did quite well.

In the wake of the Falcon’s victory, many of the commentators suggested that New England’s defense would be facing a unique challenge in the Atlanta offense.  They neglected to mention that Atlanta’s defense would be similarly challenged.  In New England, they will be facing a more balanced offense with another elite quarterback and receivers who aren’t battling injuries.

The Atlanta Falcons are an impressive team and they have made great strides over the last few years.  They have become an elite offensive team, but their defense still lags behind.  Far enough behind to be a liability against the Patriots.

The NFL Gamebook for this game can be found here.  The Pro Football Reference summary is here.

What Comes Next?

Ideally, I would like to get one more post written before Sunday, taking a closer look at the AFC Championship Game.  I am a little behind and facing a busy week, so I make no promises.

And then, some time after the Super Bowl – hopefully not too long – we will do a little analysis on the last game of the season.

NFL Profiles as a Quarterback Driven League

And now, there are four left.  This Sunday, the Green Bay Packers will battle the Atlanta Falcons for supremacy in the NFC.  A few hours later, the Pittsburgh Steelers will oppose the New England Patriots for the AFC title.  If these are the final four teams standing – the only ones still eligible to claim the trophy – what does that tell us about the NFL in 2016?  What is the profile of the league?

You have heard many insiders state that the NFL is a quarterback driven league.  Nothing bears that out better than the composition of the final four teams.  All four teams are among the top ten scoring teams in the league, including three of the top four.  In order of points scored, they are Atlanta (first at 540), New England (third with 441), Green Bay (fourth with 432) and Pittsburgh (tenth at 399).

In terms of yardage, all four of these teams rank in the top eight in the NFL – Atlanta (2), New England (4), Pittsburgh (7), and Green Bay (8), and they have done so without overwhelming contributions from the running game.  Only two of the top ten running attacks are still in the mix – Atlanta (which ranked fifth with 120.5 yards a game) and New England (which finished seventh with 117 yards a game); while Green Bay finished twentieth running the ball at 106.3 yards per game.

The passing offenses ranked third (Atlanta behind Matt Ryan), fourth (New England and Tom Brady), fifth (Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger), and seventh (Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers).

Interestingly, defense – which has long been perceived as necessary for winning championships – is under-represented in the final four.  Only one top ten defense – New England finished eighth – is still alive, while the NCF Championship Game will feature two of the poorest defenses (by yards allowed) in the NFL.  Green Bay finished twenty-second in overall defense, and Atlanta finished twenty-fifth.

Compellingly, none of these defenses has been bad at stopping the run.  Of the final four, Atlanta surrenders the most rush yardage at 104.5, which is still below the NFL average of 108.9.  Two other defenses ranked in the top ten against the run.  Green Bay – number 22 overall – finished eighth at stopping the run (94.7 yards per game) and New England finished third, allowing just 88.6 rushing yards per game.  There are no top ten pass defenses (by yards allowed) still playing, but the Falcons (#28) and Green Bay (#31) will square off in the early game.

As far as allowing points, the four finalists are evenly divided.  Two are top ten scoring defenses, and the other two finished in the bottom eleven.  The Patriots (as pointed out in an earlier post) are the NFL’s top scoring defense – allowing 250 points, and Pittsburgh gave up 327 points (good for tenth).  But 388 regular season points were scored against Green Bay (they ranked twenty-first), and 406 points scored against Atlanta (they ranked twenty-seventh).

To be clear about all of this, running the ball and playing good defense doesn’t diminish your chances.  Those are both great assets.  But the testimony of this season’s conference championships is that your competing franchise needs to have that franchise quarterback at its center.  The four that will suit up on Sunday (Rodgers, Ryan, Roethlisberger and Brady) all rank among the very best in the league.

If we accept this as gospel (and I admit that focusing on the final four for just one season may lead to a slanted conclusion), then where does that leave the other eight playoff teams that have already seen their seasons ended?  Do they have the man back there that can take them where they need to go?  Let’s first consider the teams that were bounced out in the Divisional Round:

The Seattle Seahawks (11-6-1, NFC West Champions)

Seattle was hammered pretty convincingly in Atlanta.  The culprits here were an under-performing offensive line (a year-long concern) and a defense that couldn’t compete with the Falcons’ offense without Earl Thomas in the secondary.  I don’t know anyone who isn’t convinced that their QB – Russell Wilson – doesn’t belong among the league’s top signal callers.  In his five seasons leading the Seahawks, he has fashioned a 56-23-1 record and led them to five straight playoff berths, two Super Bowl appearances and one World Championship.  His passer rating has been over 100 in three of those seasons, and for his career stands at 99.6.  But even beyond Wilson’s elite decision making and plus accuracy lie his off-the-chart leadership abilities.  Russell Wilson can quarterback for me any day.  They are in good hands.

Houston Texans (10-8, AFC South Division Champs)

What is there to say about Brock Osweiler?  Thinking back on it, the New England game was a kind of microcosm of his season.  There were some excellent moments – moments that showcased the talent that made him desirable to the Texans.  Brock takes an infectious energy with him onto the field.  Against the Patriots, he made a couple of clutch runs and – at times – threw bullet passes into small windows.  In one of the game’s pivotal moments, he dropped a perfect touchdown pass over the outstretched arms a defender and right into the arms of Will Fuller – who, of course, dropped it.  It’s hard to say how that game progresses if Fuller holds on to that pass.

At the same time, there was a lot of bad Brock on display as well.  Many ill-advised passes, many throws that were wildly inaccurate, many times that Brock played too fast.

Much of this could be just a young player going through his growing pains.  It’s possible that Osweiler may yet develop into the franchise QB that Houston hopes he is.  But for now, Brock has a lot of proving to do.  Houston will have to wait and see if they have their guy.

Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, AFC West Division Champs)

Again, the spotlight falls on Alex Smith.  The Pittsburgh Steelers (his opponents in the Divisional Round) have a good, but not great defense.  Last Sunday night, playing at home and with his defense holding the dynamic Steeler offense to just 18 points (all field goals), Alex finished his evening just 20 of 34 for just 172 yards.  He threw for one touchdown and one interception.  This year he even had more offensive weapons – especially receivers – than he has had in any of his previous seasons in Kansas City.

Yes, he came one two-point conversion short of tying the game, but even at that, KC would have only finished with 18 points.  However you slice it, it was another opportunity for Alex Smith to show that world that he could rise to the moment in the bright lights of the NFL playoffs.  It was another opportunity that passed him by.  As the season’s roll on, I am more and more of the opinion that Smith is not that franchise quarterback.

Dallas Cowboys (13-4, NFC East Division Champs)

Even in a losing effort, the Cowboys’ ability to come from 18 points behind to tie the game twice in the fourth quarter was one of the most impressive efforts I’ve seen in the NFL in a long time.  Everything I’ve seen from rookie Dak Prescott indicates that he is the real deal.  He stood toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers and very nearly sent his team into the conference championship.  My gut feeling is that Dallas has their man.

And the WildCard losers?

Oakland Raiders (12-5)

The Raiders, of course, were down to their third-string QB when they opened the playoffs with a loss in Houston.  I would have loved to see Derek Carr have his first opportunity in the playoffs.  Carr looks like the future in Oakland (or wherever the Raiders end up).  The Raiders look like they’ve got a good one.

Detroit Lions (9-8)

Matthew Stafford isn’t a quarterback that I’ve been overly impressed with in past years, but my opinion may be changing.  As a younger QB, he seemed a little soft.  He was a guy that I wouldn’t have trusted to lead my team from behind in the fourth quarter of a tough game.

Of course, over the last three seasons, Matthew has made that into a kind of specialty.  Stafford has led the Lions to 27 regular season wins over the last three years, with 16 of them coming on fourth-quarter scoring drives.  Matthew has grown up a lot in the last few years.

Is he a franchise quarterback?  Maybe.  His one-game appearance in this year’s playoffs was not – I don’t think – an accurate reflection of his abilities.  He was – as everyone knows – playing with a splint on the middle finger of his throwing hand.  Matthew downplayed it, but there is no question the injury seriously affected his accuracy.  Stafford has suffered through some lean years in Detroit.  He deserves the chance to show his city (and the NFL) that he can be an elite QB.

Miami Dolphins (10-7)

Even though backup QB Matt Moore performed more than admirably in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, Miami may be the team most damaged by not having its starting quarterback available for the playoffs.  I’m not suggesting that Ryan Tannehill would have led them to victory, or would have them playing this Sunday.  But of all the teams in this year’s playoffs, Miami is the only one that has never seen their quarterback play in a big game.

With Miami mostly a non-factor during Tannehill’s first four seasons, Ryan never really had an opportunity to play in any kind of important game.  After the Dolphins lost four of their first five games this season, it looked like 2016 was going to be a replay of his previous seasons.

Tannehill then brought them into playoff consideration by taking his team on a 6-game winning streak.  That was certainly encouraging, but not quite defining as almost all of those games were played against teams that struggled – to some degree or other.  The best of those wins was the first one against Pittsburgh.  At that point Miami was still 1-4 and still hadn’t taken the wraps off running back Jay Ajayi.  It’s easy to think that Pittsburgh – which hadn’t really found itself yet – was caught by surprise.

The other wins: they won by three points at home against Buffalo (finished the season 7-9); they won by four at home against the NY Jets (5-11); they won by seven in San Diego (5-11); they beat the Rams (4-12) in LA by four points; and they beat San Francisco (2-14) at home by seven.

Hardly the Murderers Row of the NFL.

So, is Ryan Tannehill that franchise quarterback?  I don’t know.  And neither, really, do the Dolphins.  Until he plays in at least one playoff game, there isn’t any way to know.

New York Giants (11-6)

Some day we will have to have the Eli Manning discussion.  There isn’t time for that today.  Yes, I know he has two rings – more than the combined total of the two QBs who will be playing for the NFC title.  But he is still – in my mind – one of football’s most over-rated quarterbacks.

Again – a discussion for another time.  But if I’m the Giants, I would have my eye out for the guy who will eventually take the reins from Eli.