Unless you are a believer in the statistically unsound theory that a team is always as good or bad as their record, the Falcons' 12-2 mark flatters them. If you prefer to go by points, then Jeff Sagarin's ratings have the Falcons sixth, while SRS has them fifth. The picture gets worse when you get more granular with the numbers. Football Outsiders' drive-based numbers had the Falcons eleventh in the NFL going into last week. After smashing the Giants, the Falcons are going to rise in the DVOA rankings when they come out this week, but they still are not going to be in the top few spots as their record would suggest. Even with the victory over the Giants, the Falcons are only tenth in the NFL in yards per game margin.
More worrisome is that even after the win over the Giants, the Falcons have still been outgained on a per-play basis. Atlanta gains 5.8 yards per play and allows 5.9. I am a believer in yards per play for two reasons. First, that stat makes intuitive sense because it controls for pace. If we've learned that we should judge running backs on yards per carry as opposed to total yards because the former stat accounts for the number of times that a runner carries the ball, then why wouldn't we make the same adjustment for offenses? Second, most Vegas sharps use yards per play as the basis for their team ratings, although they all make adjustments in various ways to account for turnovers, special teams, etc. As a general rule, it's better to trust the judgment of people who have actual skin in the game, as opposed to someone who gets paid for voicing opinions behind a desk that the masses find palatable (read: every talking head on an NFL pregame show).
Two years ago, I wrote a post when the Falcons were 12-2 in which I noted that the Falcons had been outgained by 0.6 yards per play, which was worse than every other team that had made the Super Bowl in the Aughts. Only one of the last twenty conference champions - the 2001 Patriots - had a negative yards per play margin. Since I wrote the post, two things happened. First, the Falcons got roasted by the Packers in their first playoff game, which provided some credence to the idea that the Dirty Birds were not nearly as good as their record. Second, four teams have made the Super Bowl and all four had positive yards per play margins. The 2010 Super Bowl was an endorsement of the stat, as it featured the Steelers (+1.1) and the Packers (+0.6), both of whom were strong in that department. The 2011 Super Bowl pitted the Giants (+0.4) and the Patriots (+0.1), who were positive in yards per play margin, but not too far from the mean.
On the one hand, we could say that the Falcons have a negative yards per play margin and only one of the last 24 teams to make the Super Bowl have been negative in that department. On the other hand, if the Patriots could make the Super Bowl at +0.1, then is it a major stretch to say that the Falcons could make it at -0.1? Also, the Patriots and Giants were third and ninth respectively in the NFL last year in yards per play gained; they were 30th and 22nd respectively in yards per play allowed. The Falcons are currently eighth in yards per play and 28th in yards per play allowed, so they look quite a bit like the two Super Bowl participants from last year. In an passing-friendly era in the NFL, it might be the case that a team with a great aerial attack can make up for other weaknesses. And what is the strength of this Falcons team? An elite passing offense.
However, the fallacy of the last four paragraphs is the assumption that success in the NFL playoffs is a question of merit. In a world where the 13-6 Giants can beat the 18-0 Patriots, where four years later the 9-7 Giants can win the Super Bowl, and where the 9-7 Cardinals - a team that put up a mediocre record in the worst division in football and lost a game by forty points in the penultimate week of the season - can make the Super Bowl and come literally inches from winning it, we are probably not well-served spending our time parsing out statistical differences between playoff teams because truly, anything can happen.* William Munny had it right all along. If the '07 Giants, '08 Cardinals, and '11 Giants can win the NFC, then why not us?
* - The 2011 Giants were 12th in DVOA. The 2008 Cardinals were 21st. The 2007 Giants were 14th. These teams were not just ones with underwhelming records. The more advanced statistical measures were also harsh in grading their performances.
I've had a good time reading and listening to Bill Simmons and Aaron Schatz try to process this Falcons team. Despite the fact that they are both Patriots fans, I like their columns. Schatz has made a major contribution to the experience of being a football fan by coming up with an empirically tested way of measuring success and failure. Simmons often uses good statistical analysis to make points, certainly moreso than other mass media columnists. (Whether Simmons deserves credit for moving in a numbers-driven direction or he is just a reflection of the evolution of sports culture is a separate, interesting question. Do you believe that history is shaped by great men or social/economic forces?) As New England fans, they should be well aware of the fact that a team's record can flatter it and yet that team can still win the Lombardi Trophy. However, they go right on their merry way, dismissing the Falcons and expecting that they will get exposed in January. Schatz used the term "poleaxed" on Twitter to describe his expectations for the Falcons in January and the Falcons were the object of the sentence, not the subject.
I would like to attribute their attitudes to being subjective Northeasterners. I like a good accusation of regional bias and thus, I can imagine an argument that they will describe traditional NFL teams from the Northeast and Midwest as clutch when they win a bevy of close games, whereas a non-traditional power like the Falcons is just lucky. It doesn't offend their sensibilities for the Patriots or Giants to benefit from good fortune, but it does strike them funny for Atlanta to do the same. And I'd like that. But that s*** ain't the truth. No, what's really going on here is that Simmons and Schatz are data-driven people in a world where the data are not reliable. They want to believe that after a 16-game schedule, we can make solid predictions about which teams are better than others. The two-time Super Bowl champion Giants mock that belief.
The Falcons just clobbered those Giants 34-0 in a validating, emotionally satisfying, "here I am" performance. Atlanta did so one week after getting humiliated by the 3-9 Panthers. If you need a better illustration of the futility of trying to get a read on an NFL team, this was it. The Falcons are capable of hitting the highest highs and plumbing the deepest depths. We would all like to tell ourselves that the team that beat the Giants is the real version of the Falcons, but what evidence do we have for that? We would like to tell ourselves that the Falcons defense that picked off Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning a combined ten times in three games at the Georgia Dome is the real Falcons defense instead of the one that gave up 475 yards to the Panthers and 474 to the Raiders. But in reality, all we know is that this team is capable of wide variance, like just about every other team in the NFL.*
* - Here is what I will be telling myself when quaffing beers at Der Biergarten before heading to the Dome for the divisional round game in a few weeks: "Mike Nolan can confuse a great quarterback, but he has a finite supply of wildfire. Thus, he saves his best stuff for the biggest games and we can expect a top-end performance in the playoffs." These are the sorts of thoughts that cause sports fans to drive themselves crazy.
This is what is most frustrating about the narrative surrounding the 2012 Falcons season. The mantra has been repeated over and over again that the Falcons will be judged based on what happens in January. After four years of regular season success and postseason frustration, the team is not going to get credit for another year in which they win games from September through December. A 13-3 regular season will not matter if the Falcons lose their first playoff game again. Mike Smith and Matt Ryan will get raked over the coals for months if that happens. The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that what happens in the playoffs is a true reflection of a team's merit when in reality, it is just one small snapshot in a game where teams are very different from week to week. The game against the Giants reminded us of what the Falcons look like when they hit fifth gear, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that Atlanta (or any NFL team, for that matter) controls the shifter.