Atlanta Falcons 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons only declined by 1 win from 2016 to 2017, but they were not nearly as good last season as they were the season before. In 2016, the Falcons were an elite 11-5 team that finished 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.77% and then came up just short in their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. In 2017, the Falcons were a slightly above average 10-6 team that finished 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28% and lost in the second round to the Eagles.

The big difference was on offense. In 2016, the Falcons were one of the best offenses in recent memory, picking up first downs at a ridiculous 43.92% rate. For comparison, the Saints ranked 2nd in that metric that season at 40.72%. There was a bigger difference between the #1 and #2 ranked offense than there was between the #2 and #9 ranked offense. In 2017, they were still good, finishing 5th in first down rate, but “only” picked up first downs at a 36.89% rate. A year after totaling 379 first downs and 58 offensive touchdowns, the Falcons managed 330 first downs and just 33 offensive touchdowns.

Quarterback Matt Ryan had the biggest drop off. In 2016, he completed 69.9% of his passes for an average of 9.26 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, putting up the 5th best single-season quarterback rating in NFL history and winning MVP. In 2017, he completed just 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.74 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. It’s a huge difference, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ryan’s 2016 QB rating was 18 points higher than any other season in his career and will likely look like the outlier in Ryan’s career when all is said and done.

That’s not to say Ryan isn’t a good quarterback, as he’s a top-10 player at his position and has been a consistent starter for a while. The 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Ryan has completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 260 touchdowns, and 126 interceptions in his career. He’s finished in the top-11 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 8 seasons and has made all 128 starts over that time period.

He’s going into his age 33 season, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and should be able to play at a high level into his mid 30s and possibly later. With one year left on his contract, the Falcons made the only choice they really could make and signed him to an extension that made him the highest paid quarterback in NFL history. The extension has a total value of 150 million over 5 years with 94.5 million paid out in the first 3 years and 100 million total guaranteed. It all but ensures Ryan will be the Falcons quarterback through the next 5 seasons.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Matt Ryan and the rest of this offense also had to deal with a change in coordinator as well, as talented offensive mind Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers following the Super Bowl loss and was replaced by long-time college coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian got a lot of blame for an offensive decline that likely would have happened even without him, but his playcalling was unoriginal and he struggled to get the most out of a talented offense, especially around the goal line. As talented as this offense is, they didn’t even score a touchdown on 50% of red zone visits (49.18%, 23rd in the NFL).

No stat exemplifies their red zone issues more Julio Jones’ 5 receptions on 19 red zone targets. Jones is physically dominant at 6-3 223 and is one of the best wide receivers in the league, catching 88 passes for 1444 yards and finishing #1 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but the Falcons simply could not get the ball into his hands in the red zone. As a result, he managed just 3 touchdowns all season and just 1 of them came from within the red zone. The Falcons surprisingly decided to keep Sarkisian this off-season, so they’ll obviously be hoping that another year in the system will help work out some of the kinks and get more out of their offensive talent.

Jones is their biggest offensive talent around Matt Ryan. He’s topped 1400 receiving yards in each of the last 4 seasons and has finished in the top-7 on PFF at his position in all 4 of those seasons, including 3 straight finishes in the top-2. Over that 4-year stretch, he’s totaled 411 catches for 6,317 yards, both 2nd in the NFL over that time period behind Antonio Brown, but he also only has 23 touchdowns, so even before last season he’s never been a huge threat near the goal line. Shockingly he has just 43 career receiving touchdowns in 97 games. There may not be a better receiver outside of the 20 though and it’s hard to imagine him not scoring more than 3 touchdowns in 2018.

In addition to his red zone issues, the other concern with Jones is his durability. He’s only missed 3 games in the past 4 seasons and played in all 16 games in 2017, but he’s been limited by several nagging injuries and rotated in and out of the lineup far more frequently than other top receivers last season, playing just 74.7% of the snaps in the regular season. His 765 regular season snaps ranked just 34th among wide receivers. He’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and he was still one of the most productive receivers in the league last season thanks to a league leading 3.08 yards per route run, but it’s a bit concerning that he seems to basically be on a snap count.

Jones’ durability issues are likely part of the reason why the Falcons drafted Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th overall pick. The Falcons got good play from their depth receivers in 2016, with Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson, and Justin Hardy all making positive contributions, but that didn’t happen in 2017, as Jones and fellow starter Mohamed Sanu were the only Atlanta receivers to earn a positive grade from PFF. Ridley was expected to go higher in the draft early in the off-season, but he had an underwhelming combine and fell to the Falcons at 26, even in a weak wide receiver class. He’s NFL ready and should rotate with Jones and Sanu in two-wide receiver sets immediately. The Falcons also figure to run a lot of three-wide sets to get all three of them on the field at the same time.

Sanu is a capable #2 receiver, but should still be pushed for playing time by Ridley. The Falcons signed Sanu to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons, a surprise considering he struggled when counted upon for a larger role with the Bengals, but Sanu proved to be better with his 2nd team, earning above average marks in both seasons from PFF. He has posted 59/653/4 and 67/703/5 slash lines in those two seasons, while also providing value as a blocker in the run game. He may see his production drop a little bit with Ridley in the mix, but he should still play a valuable role for this offense.

The Falcons will also be hoping for more out of 3rd year tight end Austin Hooper, a 2016 3rd rounder. Hooper was actually on the field more than both Jones and Sanu last season, playing 788 snaps, but had an underwhelming 49/526/3 slash line on 391 routes run (1.31 yards per route run) and dropped 6 passes. He was a solid blocker, but finished 60th out of 71 eligible tight ends in pass catching grade on PFF. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

The Falcons released #2 tight end Levine Toilolo (421 snaps) this off-season and did not do anything to replace him other than sign veteran blocking specialist Logan Paulsen, who didn’t catch a pass on 144 snaps for the 49ers last season. Toilolo wasn’t a good player and won’t be hard to replace, but the fact that they did not add a true replacement seems like a sign of confidence in 2017 5th round pick Eric Saubert, who played just 30 snaps as a rookie. Saubert is a height/weight/speed athlete that dominated the FCS level at Drake University, but was considered very raw coming out. If he has developed, he could turn out to be a nice pass catching complement to Hooper. Even with an underwhelming tight end situation, this is still a solid receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also involved in the passing game, though both saw their receiving production drop off from 2016 to 2017. Freeman and Coleman put up slash lines of 54/462/2 and 31/421/3 respectively in 2016, but only managed 36/317/1 and 27/299/3 respectively in 2017. Freeman also saw his rushing production drop as well, as he had just 895 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns, both his fewest since he was a 4th round rookie in 2014. Freeman has seen his carries drop from 264 in 2015 to 227 in 2016 to 196 last season, while Coleman has seen his carries increase from 87 to 118 to 156 over that same time period.

Despite that, I still like Freeman a lot more than Coleman in 2018. For one, Freeman is still the better runner. He has averaged 4.40 yards per carry over the past 3 seasons, as opposed to 4.27 for Coleman, and had a carry success rate of 51% last season (9th in the NFL), as opposed to 40% for Coleman (39th in the NFL). On Pro Football Focus, Freeman finished 18th, 15th, and 10th in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively, while Coleman has earned middling grades in all 3 seasons of his career. Freeman also should be healthier this season, as he essentially missed 3 games with injury last season. He averaged 17.7 touches per game in 13 healthy games, actually higher than 2017, when he averaged 17.5 touches per game.

The Falcons also more or less already picked Freeman over Coleman when they gave him a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season that included a 15 million dollar signing bonus. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Coleman is going into the final year of his rookie deal, but an extension seems unlikely with Freeman already locked up on such a big contract. Coleman is unlikely to get the kind of money he could get on the open market from the Falcons, so this will likely be his final season in Atlanta. The Falcons prepared for his departure by using a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Southern Mississippi’s Ito Smith. Smith is unlikely to have much of a role in 2018, but he gives them good insurance behind a talented duo.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Despite the big drop off in performance, the Falcons offense was almost exactly the same personnel wise from 2016 to 2017, as they brought back 10 of 11 starters and all key reserves. The drop off was not as a result of personnel losses. They just fell victim to regression to the mean after their quarterback had a career best season in 2016. The only starter they lost was retired right guard Chris Chester. Chester made 16 starts in 2016, but struggled mightily, so he wasn’t exactly a huge loss.

His replacement wasn’t any better though, as first year starter Wes Schweitzer finished as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked guard out of 80 eligible, while making all 16 starts. Only a 6th round pick in 2016, Schweitzer is best as a reserve, so the Falcons signed veteran Brandon Fusco to replace him as the starting right guard. Fusco has made 80 starts in the past 6 seasons, with his best season coming with the Vikings in 2013, when he was PFF’s 9th ranked guard.

Fusco missed most of 2014 with injury and struggled in both 2015 and 2016, leading to his release from the Vikings, but he had a bit of a bounce back year in 16 starts with the 49ers in 2017. He’s still only going into his age 29 season and, at the very least, gives them an experienced starter who should be an upgrade over Schweitzer. If he plays like he did last season, he’ll be an obvious upgrade.

The Falcons could also get better play at the left guard position this season, as Andy Levitre is returning from injury. He was having a solid season, earning a positive grade from PFF for the 8th straight season, but injuries limited him to 15 snaps after week 12. Backup Ben Garland struggled in his absence, allowing 8 hits on Matt Ryan, 2nd most on the team, despite only playing 341 snaps. Levitre is going into his age 32 season, but is still a solid football player. He finished last season as PFF’s 17th ranked guard and was 13th in 2016 when he was healthy for the full season.

Right tackle Ryan Schraeder also missed time with injury, missing 2 games early in the season with a concussion. In his absence, backup Ty Sambrailo struggled mightily. When Schraeder returned, he struggled a little bit more than he’s used to, though he still finished 18th among offensive tackles on PFF. That’s a slight drop off when 2015 and 2016, when he finished 5th and 6th respectively. A 2013 undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State, Schraeder was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s made 60 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has developed into one of the best right tackles in the league. Since he was an older rookie, he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he should remain a solid starter for at least a couple more seasons.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack were the only two Falcon offensive lineman who lived up to their 2016 season, as both remained among the best players in the league at their position. Mack is the more dominant of the two, ranking 3rd on PFF among centers in 2017 and 1st in 2016. A first round pick by the Browns in 2009, Mack has been one of the best centers in the league over the past decade. He’s finished in the top-9 among centers in 7 of 9 seasons, making 133 starts over that time period. Going into his age 33 season, Mack may begin to decline soon, but he could easily still have another strong season at center. They have 2017 4th round pick Sean Harlow waiting in the wings behind him, but he’ll remain a reserve barring injury.

Matthews, on the other hand, is only going into his age 26 season, though the Falcons do need to re-sign him long-term, as he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. The 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Matthews has improved in every season in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle. Matthews’ cap hit for 2018 is currently 12.496 million on his 5th year option, so the Falcons may try to extend him before the season starts to lower his cap number. Now that Matt Ryan has gotten his extension, Matthews is expected to be the next priority. He may become the highest paid offensive lineman in the league (upwards of 15.5 million annually). This is a strong and experienced offensive line that could easily be one of the best in the NFL in 2018.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Falcons’ offense was significantly worse in 2017 than it was in 2016, the Falcons were actually slightly improved on the defensive side of the ball, though largely by default, as the Falcons struggled mightily on defense in 2016. They allowed opponents to move the chains at a 38.15% rate, 27th in the NFL. They were able to get away with it because of how efficient their offense was, but, in 2017, their offense was not as efficient and their slightly improved defense was not enough. They finished 25th with a 35.61% first down rate allowed.

The Falcons did finish with the 8th fewest points allowed last season, but that was largely because of their #2 ranked red zone defense. If that regresses to the mean in 2018 (or worse, if they finish 32nd in red zone defense like in 2016), the Falcons are going to allow a lot more points. Much like the Falcons should be more efficient on offense in the red zone this season, the Falcons are unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone on defense this season.

On top of that, the Falcons are missing two of their best defensive linemen from last season, with Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn signing with the Panthers and Patriots respectively, and they’re unlikely to have as few injuries on defense as they did in 2017, when they only had about 5 adjusted games lost to injury. Fortunately for the Falcons, their top defensive lineman Grady Jarrett remains with the team, though they will need to give the 2015 5th round pick an extension at some point, as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal.

Jarrett may be looking to get paid among the highest paid defensive tackles in the game ($15 – $17 million annually) and it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. After flashing in limited action as a rookie in 2015, Jarrett developed into an above average starter in 2016 and then had his best year yet in 2017, finishing 9th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Built like a thicker Aaron Donald at 6-0 305, Jarrett fell in the draft because he was undersized, but he gets great leverage against the run and is sneaky quick as a pass rusher. Only going into his age 25 season, he could easily continue to get better.

Poe had a strong season in 2017 too though and he’s no longer with the team, after finishing 21st among defensive tackles on PFF. The Falcons didn’t really do much to replace him, signing veteran journeyman Terrell McClain and using a 3rd round draft pick on South Florida’s Deadrin Senat. McClain was PFF’s worst ranked 3-4 defensive end on 328 snaps with the Redskins last season and has been an underwhelming player in 7 seasons in the league. Senat has some upside and is built like Jarrett at 6-0 314, but he’s not nearly as athletic or refined as a pass rusher.

Both Senat and McClain are only base package options, so interior pass rushers Jack Crawford and Derrick Shelby will be counted on for pass rush snaps in sub packages. Crawford, a 6-5 288 pound converted defensive end, played about 30 snaps per game in that role in the first 3 weeks of the season last year before going down for the year with a torn biceps in week 4. He rushed the passer on 72.3% of his snaps. He hasn’t gotten a positive grade for a season from PFF since 2012 though and, in his last healthy season in 2016, he finished 49th among 53 eligible 4-3 defensive ends with the Cowboys. Now going into his age 30 season coming off of a major injury, he’s unlikely to be much better.

Shelby played all 16 games last season, but was limited to 397 snaps in primarily a base package defensive end role in his first season back from a torn achilles that ended his 2016 prematurely. He played well in that role though and he has some pass rush ability as well, with his best season coming in 2015 with the Dolphins when he finished as PFF’s 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He played 862 snaps that season, earning positive grades against the run and as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 31 hurries.

Going into his age 29 season, Shelby has some bounce back potential and could fill a much needed role for this team as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. He has good size at 6-2 280 and lined up on the interior on 105 of his 183 pass rush snaps in 2017. He had just 1 sack on the season, but he did hurry the quarterback 15 times and he could easily be better another year removed from that injury. With Poe out of the picture, the Falcons are going to need him to be.

Shelby could also see some snaps at his natural defensive end position. Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, and Brooks Reed are locked in as the top-3 defensive ends, but depth is needed. The 8th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Beasley led the league with 16 sacks in 2016, which led to him being prematurely anointed as a top level defensive player. The sack number was impressive, but he struggled mightily against the run and had just 4 hits, 36 hurries, and 1 batted pass, so he wasn’t actually as efficient of a pass rusher as his sack total suggested. He finished just above average overall on PFF.

In 2017, his sack total dropped all the way to 6 and his peripheral stats were not any better, as he had just 22 hurries and 2 batted passes, while not getting a single additional quarterback hit all season. As a result, he earned a below average grade from PFF for the season. He won’t play linebacker anymore in 2018, but considering 67.1% of his snaps over the past 2 seasons have come off the edge as a pass rusher, him playing some linebacker in base packages wasn’t really the problem last season. He only dropped into coverage 32 times last season.

Beasley also lacks the size to hold up against the run as a defensive end at 6-3 246 and may just be a sub package edge rusher. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have a strong season in that role. Beasley went 8th overall for a reason and has obvious pass rush upside, still only going into his age 26 season. An early season hamstring injury may have limited him throughout 2017. He only missed 2 games, but was not the same player upon his return and only played 482 snaps on the season, part of the reason why his pass rush stats dropped.

Now healthy, Beasley could easily have a bounce back year getting after the quarterback, even if he’s never been as good as the 16 sacks he had in 2016 would suggest. With Adrian Clayborn (10 sacks, 8 hits, 37 hurries, 9th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF) no longer on the team, they’ll need him to do that. The Falcons clearly still believe in him, picking up his 5th year option for 2019, which will be worth an estimated 12.81 million.

Takkarist McKinley is also a first round pick defensive end, going 26th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. McKinley is very much a Vic Beasley type player at 6-2 250 and played just 112 run snaps out of 401 total snaps as a rookie. He impressed as a pass rusher and will have a bigger pass rush role in his 2nd season in the league with Clayborn gone and he also held up against the run pretty well, so he may play more of an every down role. A breakout year for him would be a big boost for this defensive line, but that’s far from a guarantee.

One of Beasley or McKinley will have to play more base package snaps because Brooks Reed is their only true base defensive end, aside from Derrick Shelby. Reed isn’t big at 6-3 254, but has a good motor and a knack for setting the edge. Of his 413 snaps last season, 212 of them came on run snaps, but he also impressed with 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 15 hurries on 198 pass rush snaps. On the season, he actually finished 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF. The 7-year veteran has never been that good before and is going into his age 30 season, but he’s a useful role player who should have another solid season. Even so, this is not the same defensive line as it was last season, as they lost a pair of key contributors and did not really replace them.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

With Vic Beasley moving to defensive end full-time, 2nd year linebacker Duke Riley is locked in as the 3rd linebacker with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Riley only played 224 snaps as a rookie, but wasn’t bad in the limited role and the 3rd round pick has good upside. The 3rd linebacker role is only a base package role anyway, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so Riley should be able to do a good job in it. Riley is undersized at 6-1 218, but has good sideline to sideline speed.

That’s true of all three of the Falcons’ starting linebackers, as Jones and Campbell are 6-1 222 and 6-4 232 respectively. Both are also young, going into only their 3rd year in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones was a capable starter from the word go (29 starts in 2 seasons) and had a breakout 2017, finishing 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, including 2nd in coverage grade. Still only going into his age 23 season, Jones has a sky high upside.

Campbell also was a starter as a rookie and has 26 starts in 2 seasons, but the 4th round pick took his rookie year lumps, finishing 28th among 31st eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He was better in 2017, grading about league average. He’s not as naturally talented as Jones is, but he’s a capable all-around linebacker that could easily have another solid season in 2018. This is a solid young linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons return all of their key players in the secondary as well, led by #1 cornerback Desmond Trufant. Trufant was injured during the Falcons’ playoff run in 2016, tearing his pectoral muscle 9 games into the season and getting placed on injured reserve, but rebounded to finish as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback in 2017. A first round pick in 2013, Trufant has made 72 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-20 at his position in all 5 seasons. The Falcons locked him up long-term last off-season with a 5-year, 68.75 million dollar extension.

Safety Keanu Neal is another former first round pick that has developed into a great starter in the secondary. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Neal flashed in 14 starts as a rookie and then broke out as PFF’s 5th ranked safety in 16 starts in 2017. Like so many of the Falcons’ defensive starters, Neal is still very young and has a high upside. He could continue to improve in 2018 and beyond.

Fellow starting safety Ricardo Allen is a relative veteran, as he was drafted in the 5th round back in 2014. Allen didn’t play a snap as a rookie and remains under contract inexpensively with the Falcons for one more year as a restricted free agent, but he’s earned a bigger contract, making 45 starts in the past 3 seasons and earning a positive grade from PFF in both 2016 and 2017. With the Falcons now committed to Matt Ryan at 30 million annually for the foreseeable future and other young players’ contracts coming up soon, Allen may not get the money he wants in Atlanta and could depart as a free agent next off-season. 2017 5th round pick Damontae Kazee waits in the wings and flashed on 164 snaps as a rookie.

Robert Alford is locked in as the #2 cornerback opposite Trufant. A 2nd round pick in the same draft as Trufant (2013), Alford has not had the same career Trufant has, but he’s developed into a starting caliber player. He’s made 61 starts in 5 seasons in the league, including 47 of 48 starts in the past 3 seasons. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s earned positive grades from PFF twice. An older rookie, Alford is already going into his age 30 season and also has a pretty expensive contract, as he’s owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in both 2019 and 2020. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver in this past draft, so maybe they will cut ties with Alford for cap reasons in next off-season or two.

In the meantime, Oliver will compete with slot cornerback Brian Poole for the only unsettled role in the secondary. Poole went undrafted in 2016 and was mediocre on 630 snaps last season, but he’s a more natural fit on the slot than Oliver at 5-10 211 and he was better as a rookie in 2016, earning a positive grade from PFF on 833 snaps. He’s likely the favorite for the slot job, leaving Oliver as valuable depth. It’s an above average secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Falcons will likely never be as good offensively as they were in 2016 again, but they still have one of the most talented offenses in the league and they should be more efficient in the red zone. Defensively, they’re unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone and they lost a pair of key defensive linemen without really replacing them, but their young defense could easily continue developing and end the season as a serviceable unit.

On paper this is one of the more talented teams in the league and they should compete for the NFC South title. Unfortunately, they play in the loaded NFC in arguably the toughest division in football, so they’re far from a guarantee to win the NFC South or even grab one of the two wild card spots, as talented as they are. The key for them will be remaining healthy, as they’ve had among the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the past 2 seasons. They may not be as fortunate in 2018. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Atlanta Falcons (11-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)

I’ve gone back and forth on this one all week and I have good arguments for both sides. On one hand, while the Eagles are obviously not the same team without Carson Wentz, they still have a strong supporting cast, including a top level defense, and they are at home, where they’ve had a ton of success this season, especially defensively (13.4 points per game allowed at home). Because of their supporting cast, I picked the Eagles to get a first round bye before the season started and I wasn’t even completely sold on Wentz at the time.

They have a ton of talent on this roster and are above average at every position except quarterback. Casual bettors and fans get fixated on the quarterback position and don’t think Foles has a shot to win a playoff game, betting the Falcons heavily as 3-point road favorites, but even worse quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and TJ Yates have won home playoff games in recent years and they did so with less of a supporting cast than Foles has.

The Eagles also get a fairly easy matchup in this playoff game, as the Falcons finished the regular season 11th in point differential at +38 and 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28%, both of which are 7th among the 8 remaining playoff teams, only ahead of the Titans. The Falcons actually have just 3 road wins by more than a field goal this season, beating the Bears, Lions, and Jets by 6 points, 4 points, and 5 points respectively and in all 3 games the opposing team had the ball with an opportunity to win on their final drive, including drives that went down to the goal line against the Bears and Lions. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, so the Eagles have a decent chance to cover or push even if they can’t win outright.

On the other hand, the Falcons are significantly more talented than they’ve played this season. They’ve underperformed and they are not nearly as well coached as they were last season with Kyle Shanahan as their offensive coordinator, but they still have the same core as last season’s Super Bowl team and they may have turned a corner following their 26-13 win in Los Angeles over the Rams last week, even if the Falcons did get some help from fluky special teams fumbles.

The Eagles had a relatively easy regular season schedule and didn’t play a single game against any of the remaining other 7 playoff teams, so, if the Falcons can play like they can, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to win by at least a field goal in this one, but that’s far from a sure thing. I’m actually taking the Eagles, mostly to be contrarian and fade the public, but this is a no confidence pick. In fact, I think this one has a very good chance to be a push.

Atlanta Falcons 23 Philadelphia Eagles 20

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5)

This would be a tough game to pick against the spread in the regular season. This line has the Rams favored by 6 points and I have this line calculated at 5.5, so we aren’t getting much line value with the Falcons at all. However, in the post-season, the Falcons make more sense for pick ‘em purposes because of how much more experienced they are than the Rams. The Rams not only have one of the youngest rosters in the post-season, but their quarterback Jared Goff has never started a post-season game, while head coach Sean McVay has coached in just 2 post-season games, first as a tight ends coach and then as an offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins in 2012 and 2015.

The Falcons, meanwhile, have a quarterback with 8 post-season games under his belt in Matt Ryan and a head coach in Dan Quinn that has been on the sidelines for 14 post-season games, including 3 as the Falcons’ head coach in 2016 and 6 as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. That alone isn’t enough to bet on the Falcons, but, between that and the minimal line value we are getting with them, they should be the right choice for in pick ‘em pools. This should be a close game.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +6

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (11-4) at Atlanta Falcons (9-6)

This is a big game for both teams. The Falcons can clinch a playoff spot with a win, but if they lose then they would need the Seahawks to lose at home to the Cardinals to remain in the playoff picture. The Panthers, meanwhile, have a playoff spot locked up already and are also still in the NFC South race. If they win this week and the Saints lose in Tampa Bay, they will win the division. This line (Atlanta -4) suggests that the Falcons are the better of these two teams, but I think that’s backwards.

In addition to having a better record, the Panthers are slightly better in both point differential (+48 vs. +26) and first down rate differential (+2.04% vs. +1.31%). The injury situations of these two teams also has to be taken into account. The Panthers are arguably as healthy as they’ve been all season right now. Tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil returned a few weeks back after missing most of the season and right guard Trai Turner is expected back this week after missing the last 2 games with a concussion. On top of that, outside linebacker Thomas Davis returns from a one-game suspension.

On the other hand, the Falcons have been one of the healthiest teams in the league this season, but they could be without center Alex Mack in this one, as he hurt his calf in practice and has not practiced since. The Falcons have not ruled him out, but it seems unlikely that he plays and, even if he does, he won’t be at 100%. Outside of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, Mack is their most valuable offensive player, so that’s a big blow to this team. Given that, I have this line calculated at Atlanta -1.5, so we’re getting good line value with the Panthers at +4. Even if the Falcons win, about 30% of games are decided by 4 points or less and about 25% of games are decided by 3 points or less, so we’re getting a good cushion with the Panthers. They are worth a bet as long as this line stays above 3.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Carolina Panthers 23

Pick against the spread: Carolina +4

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at New Orleans Saints (10-4)

This is one of the tougher games of the week for me. We are getting some line value with the Falcons, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -4 rather than New Orleans -5.5. However, that’s not a substantial amount of line value, given how few games are actually decided by 4-5 points (about 9%). On top of that, the Saints are in a better spot. While the Falcons have another tough game on deck against the Panthers that will have major playoff implications for both teams, the Saints only have a trip to Tampa Bay to face the 4-10 Buccaneers on deck.

It’s not that the Falcons won’t be focused for this key divisional game, but they could have a little bit of split focus this week with another tough game on deck, whereas the Saints can be completely focused for this game. Teams are 45-25 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites of 7+ and the early line has the Saints at -8.5 in Tampa Bay next week. At -5.5, I am picking the Saints, but I would probably change this pick to Atlanta at 6. That’s how close this one is for me.

New Orleans Saints 30 Atlanta Falcons 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9) at Atlanta Falcons (8-5)

The Buccaneers have been better than their 4-9 record suggests, as they enter this game 15th in first down rate differential at 0.59%, with 17 more first downs gained than allowed this season. They are just 2-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less and could easily be 6-7 had a couple things gone their way. Their losses to the Patriots, Packers, and Lions (by a combined 14 points) all came in games in which they won the first down battle, but came up just short on the scoreboard.

However, the Buccaneers also enter this game incredibly banged up. Jameis Winston returned at quarterback a few weeks ago, but hasn’t looked quite right with an injury to his throwing shoulder. He is also missing his top-2 offensive linemen, center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson, who are out for the season. On defense, the Buccaneers are missing arguably their best two players, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David, as well as defensive end Noah Spence and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who have been out for weeks.

This line has moved from Atlanta -3.5 on the early line to -6 this week, but, with McCoy and David both going down, I think that’s fair. The Falcons have a top-5 roster on paper and are relatively healthy and finally playing more like they did last season. I can’t be confident in the Falcons though. We’ve seen the Steelers and Patriots both have flat games on Monday Night Football in tough situations against divisional opponents in the past two weeks and we could see something similar this week, as this game is sandwiched between a pair of games against the division leading Saints on Atlanta’s schedule. The Falcons are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes as long as this line is less than 7.

Atlanta Falcons 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -6

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-3) at Atlanta Falcons (7-5)

Two weeks ago, I bet on the Falcons -9.5 at home against the Buccaneers in an eventual 14-point win. My argument was that, even though they had been underwhelming at times this season, the Falcons still were healthy and had a top-5 team on paper, returning essentially the entire core of the team that made the Super Bowl in February. On top of that, they’ve played a tough schedule and have played relatively well against playoff caliber teams. They have home wins over the Cowboys and the Aaron Rodgers led Packers and a road win at night in Seattle, the same circumstances in which the Eagles just lost. The Falcons have lost in Carolina and New England, but they nearly won in Carolina and their 16-point loss in New England was closer than the final score. Even in last week’s home loss to the Vikings, they kept it close in a 14-9 loss, despite tough circumstances.

Those tough circumstances are the reason I did not bet them last week, as the Falcons were missing top cornerback Desmond Trufant and had to play again in 4 days in this game on Thursday Night Football. The Falcons lost left guard Andy Levitre with injury last week and he’s been having a solid season, but they get Trufant back, which is more important. I still think they are a smart bet moving forward, especially since this line has shifted from Atlanta -2.5 to New Orleans -1.5 in the last week. That’s relatively insignificant line movement in between the field goals, but I still have this line calculated at -3, as I have these two teams about even.

The Saints had some tough circumstances last week too, with top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, left tackle Terron Armstead, and safety Marcus Williams all sitting that game out with minor injuries to prepare for this Thursday Night game. Despite that, they were able to beat the Panthers 31-21, but that game was closer than the final score, as the Panthers botched a punt in their own territory and then extended a New Orleans drive with a personal foul penalty 3 plays later. Had that not happened, the Panthers might have been able to kick a field goal early in the 4th quarter, rather than going for it on 4th and 6 down 14. The Saints only ended up winning the first down rate battle by +0.09%, despite the 10 point win. I think the Falcons are a slight step up in class from the Panthers anyway, especially in Atlanta. The Falcons are worth a bet both against the spread and on the money line.

Also, by request, I’m going to be posting lines I lock in early in the week during my Thursday Night writeups this season, so readers can lock them in before they move. These are not all my picks for the week, just picks where I think the line may move in an unfavorable direction (usually underdogs). The rest of the writeups will continue to be posted over the weekend as normal.

OAK +4 @ KC

SF +3 @ HOU

CAR +3 vs. MIN

CLE +3.5 vs. GB (I’d also take +3)

JAX -2.5 vs. SEA

Atlanta Falcons 27 New Orleans Saints 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +1.5

Confidence: Medium