Atlanta Falcons (0-0) at New Orleans Saints (0-0)
I expect the 2013 Saints and Falcons to largely resemble the 2011 versions of their teams, when the Saints won 13 games and the Falcons 10 games. The Falcons’ 13 wins last year were done largely with smoke and mirrors and in a way that won’t be sustainable into 2013. 7 of those 13 wins came by a touchdown or less as they went 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, something that tends to even out in the long run.
While they did outscore opponents by a total of 120 points on the season (not unimpressive, though it was surpassed by San Francisco, Seattle, New England, and Denver), they actually outgained opponents by 57 yards total on the season. For example, while they ranked 5th in the NFL allowing 18.7 points per game, they were 20th in the NFL in YPA allowed, 29th in YPC allowed, and 24th in total yards allowed. On a per play basis, they were actually outgained on the season, allowing 5.9 yards per play, as opposed to just 5.8 yards per play gained.
A lot of this had to do with their superb turnover differential as they had 13 more takeaways than giveaways. That tends to be unsustainable on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.
Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). Just look at safety Thomas DeCoud, who led the Falcons with 6 interceptions last season. In his previous 3 seasons as a starter, he had 8 interceptions total. We’re talking about what players do on a tiny fraction of their snaps so it’s going to be inconsistent.
While I don’t expect Matt Ryan to see his interception total suddenly balloon, it’s very unlikely that the Falcons lose just 4 fumbles all season in 2012. It’s also unlikely that the Falcons recover 64.3% of fumbles that hit the ground next season. The Falcons also face a tougher schedule in 2013, which should help neutralize that turnover advantage. In 2012, the Falcons faced just 2 playoff teams in the regular season. The Falcons also lost a lot this off-season. They return just 2 starters in their original spot on an offensive line whose biggest strength was continuity, with the loss of right tackle Tyson Clabo being the biggest. They downgrade from John Abraham to Osi Umenyiora and also lost defensive tackle Vance Walker. The only real addition was the upgrade from the washed up Michael Turner to the almost washed up Steven Jackson at running back.
The Saints, meanwhile, should be heading in the opposite direction. Ordinarily, we can expect teams that have big win changes to have an opposite change of about half the following season, so a 6 win decrease is, on average, followed by a 3 win increase. This is because the NFL has such a short season that, when teams have big win changes, it has more to do with bad or good luck than an actual change in talent level. Sean Payton returns this season to help an offense that wasn’t actually that bad last season and they have a very good chance to get back over 30+ points per game. Defensively, they can’t possibly be as bad. They upgrade from Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan at defensive coordinator and switch to a defensive scheme that fits guys like Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Junior Galette, and Martez Wilson much better. Off-season additions of Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro should help their secondary.
I don’t think either of these teams will reach their 2011 win total because they’re both a little worse defensively and because the NFC, and particularly the NFC South, is so much tougher now than that. Once divisional doormats, Carolina and Tampa Bay will both be very tough wins at worst this season. However, they’ll both resemble their 2011 version much more than their 2012 version. In 2011, the Saints won both games in this matchup so that needs to be taken account, especially considering they delivered a 45-16 ass-whooping at home week 16. The Saints didn’t lose a game at home in 2011 as well, including post-season. For that reason, I like the Saints’ chances to win here, and cover as 3 point favorites. There will be a lot of points scored on each side, as neither of these teams plays good defense, and I would be shocked if either team won by 29 again, but I have some confidence in the Saints here.
Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.
New Orleans Saints 34 Atlanta Falcons 27
Pick against spread: New Orleans -3