Atlanta Falcons 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons had one of the best offenses in NFL history last season. They picked up first downs at a ridiculous 43.92% rate, significantly higher than 2nd place New Orleans (40.72%). In fact, the margin between 1st and 2nd was bigger than the margin between 2nd place New Orleans and 9th place San Diego. The Falcons were even better offensively in the playoffs, despite falling short in the Super Bowl, moving the chains at a 48.09% rate in their 3 playoff games, despite facing Seattle and New England, both of whom had strong defenses in 2017.

Their offense definitely bailed out their defense all year, as their defense ranked 27th in first down rate allowed and they still finished the regular season 3rd in first down rate differential. They had 12 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents in the regular season, 2nd best in the NFL. The Falcons finished the regular season 11-5 and with a first round bye, despite not having great luck in close games, going 4-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Falcons had just 1 loss by more than a touchdown all season, including the post-season, but 10 of their total 13 wins came by more than a touchdown.

Quarterback Matt Ryan led the way on this strong offense, en route to his first regular season MVP. He had one of the best regular seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, completing 69.9% of his passes for an average of 9.26 YPA, 36 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 117.1, 5th highest all-time in a single season. He finished 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus behind Tom Brady, but he arguably had a bigger impact on his team than Brady because he played all 16 games. His QB rating also exceeded Brady’s.

The concern is that last season was out of character for Ryan, who has always been a good quarterback, but not a great one. Prior to last season, his highest QB rating came in 2012 (99.1), when he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.67 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In his career, he’s completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 240 touchdowns, and 114 interceptions, for a QB rating of 93.6, over 23 points lower than his QB rating last season. Making matters even worse, Matt Ryan lost talented offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan this off-season when he was hired as head coach by the San Francisco 49ers. He’s been a top-10 quarterback on Pro Football Focus 6 times in 9 seasons, but I don’t expect him to be quite as good as he was in 2016 again in 2017.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The good news is their strong offense last season was not just the result of Matt Ryan, as they had a really strong supporting cast around him. They return all their key players from 2016, so they have a good chance to be one of the best offenses in the league again in 2017. Outside of Matt Ryan, the most important player to this offense is wide receiver Julio Jones, who is coming off of another incredible season. He finished last season 2nd in the NFL in receiving yards with 1409, despite only playing in 14 games and only receiving 129 targets (18th in the NFL). He averaged 16.98 yards per catch, 10.92 yards per target, and 2.94 yards per route run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver, his 3rd straight season in the top-6 at his position.

Jones’ numbers in 2016 were actually his lowest over that 3-year period, as he finished with a 104/1593/6 slash line in 2014 and a 136/1871/8 slash line in 2015. The Falcons will continue spreading the ball around, so he’s unlikely to top the 164 targets he had in 2014, let alone the 204 targets he had in 2015, but he has a good chance to improve on his 2016 numbers if he can stay healthier and stay on the field more. The Falcons may also pass more in 2017, after finishing with just 537 pass attempts in the regular season in 2016, 26th in the NFL. The most talented receiver in the league when healthy, Jones should be considered the favorite to lead the league in receiving in 2017.

Jones was one of six pass catchers on the team to average more than 10 yards per target last season. Reserve wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson posted slash lines of 35/579/6 and 20/323/2 respectively on 49 targets and 32 targets respectively. Tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo posted slash lines of 19/271/3 and 13/264/2 respectively on 27 targets and 19 targets respectively. And running back Tevin Coleman posted a slash line of 31/421/3 on 40 targets.

#2 wide receiver Mohamed Sanu was not one of those six pass catchers. In fact, he was pretty underwhelming in his first season in Atlanta, after signing a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Sanu’s slash line of 59/653/4 doesn’t look bad, but it is when you consider how good this passing offense was overall and that Sanu led the team with 480 routes run in the regular season. Sanu averaged just 8.06 yards per target on 81 targets and 1.36 yards per route run. The 2012 3rd round pick is a good run blocker, but has finished below average as a pass catcher in 4 of 5 seasons in the league.

Taylor Gabriel is just a slot receiver at 5-8 167 and Aldrick Robinson is just a situational deep threat that is no longer with the team, so the Falcons don’t really have another option other than Sanu to start outside opposite Jones. Gabriel should still have a role in this passing game as the 3rd receiver though. He role grew as last season went on, as he had 51 targets in his final 9 games of the season, including the playoffs. He’s unlikely to be as efficient as he was in 2016, when he averaged 2.30 yards per route run and 11.82 yards per target and finished 19th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he’s finished above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league and has developed into a dangerous weapon on the slot.

Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo both return at the tight end position and, with Jacob Tamme no longer in the mix, will both have big roles in 2017. Toilolo was efficient on limited targets in 2016, but primarily spent last season as a run blocker and has struggled as a receiver throughout his career. Toilolo has just 62 catches for 601 yards and 6 touchdowns in 4 seasons in the league, despite making 45 starts in 64 career games. 16 of those starts came in 2014, when he finished 64th among 67 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus. At best a capable blocker, Toilolo won’t be anything more than the #2 tight end in 2017.

That leaves Austin Hooper to have a big role as the starting tight end in his 2nd season in the league. The 2016 3rd round pick flashed on 404 snaps as a rookie and the Falcons are excited about his potential. He could easily break out as a solid starter in 2017. The Falcons also still have running back Tevin Coleman to catch passes, as well as running back Devonta Freeman. Freeman did not average more than 10 yards per target last season like Coleman did, but Freeman has been the Falcons’ starting running back over the past 2 seasons and has caught 127 passes over those 2 seasons, so he’ll have a big role again in 2017. Matt Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both weapons as runners too. The Falcons finished last season 5th in the NFL with an average of 4.58 yards per carry. Freeman has been the lead back for the past two seasons and will remain the lead back in 2017. A 2014 4th round pick, Freeman rushed for 1061 yards and 11 touchdowns on 264 carries (4.02 YPC) in his first season as a starter, but was more efficient in 2016 in a smaller role, rushing for 1079 yards and 11 touchdowns on 227 carries (4.75 YPC).

Coleman’s emergence was what allowed the Falcons to give Freeman more rest, as the 2015 3rd round pick had 118 carries in 2016, after getting just 87 as a rookie in 2015. He’s averaged 4.45 yards per carry in his career and finished last season 19th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, so he’ll obviously continue to have a role, but Freeman is too good to take off the field more than they do now, so Coleman’s role is capped as long as Freeman is healthy. Freeman has picked up 171 first downs in 2015 and 2016 combined, most by any running back, and has finished 14th and 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons respectively. He’s one of the best all-around backs in football and this is arguably the best running back duo in the entire NFL.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Falcons also got great play from the offensive line in 2016, which helped both their passing and running games tremendously. The Falcons return 4 of 5 starters from 2016, with the only exception being right guard Chris Chester, who was the lone weak point upfront. Chester finished last season 56th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. The Falcons don’t have an obvious replacement for him though and could get even worse play at the position in 2017. Wes Schweitzer is currently penciled into the starting job, even though the 2016 6th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie. His competition for the job will be 4th round rookie Sean Harlow, who would likely be overwhelmed as a rookie. Right guard is still a weak point.

Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. The big addition that took this line to the next level was the addition of ex-Browns center Alex Mack on a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal last off-season. That deal makes him the 2nd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, but he was worth it, as he finished 3rd among centers on Pro Football Focus. That was the highest ranked season of his career, but he’s finished in the top-13 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons in the league and has made all 16 starts in 7 of those 8 seasons. Going into his age 32 season, Mack could start to decline over the next couple of seasons, but should still be a solid starter at the very least in 2017.

Left guard Andy Levitre is also getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season, but he too is coming off of a strong season, finishing 13th among guards on Pro Football Focus. A 2nd round pick in 2009 by the Bills, Levitre was once one of the best guards in the NFL and signed a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal with the Titans following the final season of his rookie deal in 2012. Levitre continued his strong play in 2013, finishing in the top-13 among guards for the 3rd straight season, but struggled in 2014 and was subsequently traded to the Falcons, where he took a pay cut. Levitre has bounced back over the past 2 seasons with the Falcons though, finishing 22nd among guards in 2015 and then 13th last season. His age is a bit of a concern, but he’s owed just 12.25 million over the next 2 seasons, so he should stay on the team as long as he plays well.

The Falcons are strong at the tackle positions as well. Left tackle Jake Matthews was the 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and has a huge upside, still only going into his age 25 season. He struggled as a rookie, finishing dead last among 84 eligible offensive tackles, but has been much better over the past 2 seasons, finishing 19th among offensive tackles in 2015 and 37th among offensive tackles in 2016. His best days could still be ahead of him and he could someday be one of the best offensive tackles in the league.

Even though Matthews was a high pick, he’s actually been outplayed by right tackle Ryan Schraeder, a 2013 undrafted free agent, over the past 3 seasons. Schraeder has made 42 starts over the those 3 seasons and has finished 22nd, 5th, and 13th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2014-2016 respectively. One of the best right tackles in the game, he was wisely kept on a 5-year, 31.5 million dollar extension this off-season. That extension still only makes him the 8th highest paid right tackle in the league. In his prime in his age 29 season, he should continue to play at a high level for another couple seasons at least. This is one of the better offensive lines in football, though their issues at right guard can’t be ignored.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Falcons more or less bring back their whole offense from 2016, but are unlikely to be quite as efficient offensively again in 2017, so they’ll need their defense to be improved. Fortunately, they have a young defense that played better down the stretch last season and, with no pressing needs on offense, they were able to spend most of their resources this off-season upgrading the defense. The area most in need of upgrade was the pass rush, as they finished just 27th in the NFL in sack rate with 34 sacks on 689 pass plays (4.93%). Vic Beasley almost had half of the Falcons’ sacks by himself, leading the league with 15.5.

Even Beasley didn’t rush the passer consistently though, as many players with fewer sacks got more quarterback hits and hurries and were overall more disruptive in the passing game. Beasley actually only finished just slightly above average on Pro Football Focus overall because he was horrendous against the run. Because of his lack of size, the 6-3 246 pound Beasley rarely plays defensive end in base packages in the Falcons’ 4-3.

Beasley he plays some outside linebacker in base packages, but isn’t very good in that role either. The 8th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Beasley has huge upside as a sub package pass rusher, even if he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested last season, but may never develop into a good base package player at any position. So far, he hasn’t shown the ability to hold up against the run on the defensive line or play run and chase linebacker on run plays. He’s still a valuable player though, especially given their lack of another edge rusher.

With no other player topping 4.5 sacks last season, the Falcons moved up in the first round to select UCLA edge rusher Takkarist McKinley with the 26th overall pick. McKinley is similar to Beasley in that he has great upside as a pass rusher, but needs to get better against the run. He’s raw, but should have an immediate role in sub packages opposite Beasley and could finish 2nd on the team in sacks. He fills a big need and was a smart selection.

In base packages, the Falcons have a variety of options at the defensive end position. Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn are probably their best base package defensive ends, but the Falcons have experienced backups in Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw, and Jack Crawford and like to rotate players on the defensive line. With Beasley playing linebacker part-time, Clayborn led the defensive line in snaps per game season last season with just 44.85 snaps per game (in 13 games).

Clayborn was brought back on a 2-year, 8.5 million dollar deal this off-season and could lead this defensive line in snaps per game again in 2017. His size at 6-3 280 makes him a good fit for base packages, but he isn’t a bad pass rusher either. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, but has missed 31 games in 6 seasons in the league with injuries and is now coming off of a biceps tear that ended his season in the playoffs. He also had a knee injury that cost him 3 games during the regular season.

Shelby is also on a decent sized contract, getting signed by the Falcons to a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season, after what seemed like a breakout 2015 season, when he finished 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Shelby lasted just 6 games in 2016 though, before going down for the season with a torn achilles, and he wasn’t that good in the limited action he did play. Only going into his age 28 season, the 2012 undrafted free agent has some bounce back potential, but is still a one-year wonder, finishing below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. Like Clayborn, Shelby has good size at 6-2 280.

Courtney Upshaw and Jack Crawford also have good size, at 6-2 272 and 6-6 288 respectively. Upshaw was brought back on a 1-year, 1.15 million dollar deal after playing 310 snaps last season, while Crawford was signed from Dallas on a 3-year, 8.8 million dollar deal. Neither player is that good though. Upshaw was a solid run stopping outside linebacker in a 4-3 in his first 4 seasons in the league with the Ravens prior to last season, but struggled in his first season as a 4-3 defensive end and has just 6 sacks in 5 seasons in the league. Crawford, meanwhile, finished last season 106th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 525 snaps.

The only defensive end they have that doesn’t have good size is converted linebacker Brooks Reed. The 6-3 254 pounder struggled in his first season with the Falcons in 2015, but played better last season at defensive end, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus and showing well as a pass rusher and against the run in limited action (425 snaps). He’s finished above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league and should have a similar role in 2017. With so many big defensive ends, the Falcons may line up 3 or 4 defensive ends at a time on the defensive line in sub packages, in an effort to get their best pass rushers on the field in obvious passing situations, with guys like Shelby, Clayborn, Upshaw, and Crawford capable of moving inside.

Another reason why that makes sense is because they’re pretty thin at defensive tackle and starters Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe are better run stoppers than pass rushers. A mere 5th round pick in 2015, Jarrett flashed on 268 snaps as a rookie and then broke out in his first full season as a starter in 2016, finishing 18th among defensive tackles on 630 snaps, most on the team by a defensive lineman. He isn’t a bad pass rusher and is capable of playing every down, but his strength is stopping the run at 6-0 305. He’ll be part of a rotation like the rest of the Falcons’ defensive linemen, but he could easily lead this defensive line in snaps played again in 2017.

Poe, meanwhile, was their big off-season signing, coming over from the Chiefs on a 1-year, 8 million deal (with incentives worth up to 10 million). The 11th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Poe has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons and has averaged 862 snaps per game in 5 seasons in the league, but he had to settle for a one-year prove it deal in free agency because he’s coming off of a down year and has back problems.

In an effort to keep him fresh, the Falcons figure to significantly cut Poe’s snaps from the amount he was seeing in Kansas City. The big 6-3 346 pounder was an every down player in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense, but figures to primarily be a base package player in the Falcons’ 4-3 defense, in rotation with other players. He’s also reportedly trying to drop down to 330 pounds for the scheme switch and has bonuses in his contract for weigh ins.

He might not play more than 600 snaps, but he’s still going into his age 27 season and was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2013, so he still has huge upside if he can stay healthy in a smaller role in Atlanta. Ra’Shede Hageman is listed as their primary reserve defensive tackle, but he’s averaged just 315 snaps per season in 3 seasons in the league and has been underwhelming, so the Falcons are likely to rotate some of their defensive ends inside in sub packages. With the additions of Poe and McKinley, the Falcons have improved their defensive line rotation, but they still have issues upfront.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As mentioned, Vic Beasley plays outside linebacker in some base packages, but isn’t very good in that spot. The Falcons used a 3rd round draft pick on an outside linebacker, taking LSU’s Duke Riley 75th overall, but he’s incredibly raw and is unlikely to do much beyond special teams as a rookie. Riley is a great athlete and has the tools to develop into a starter, but wasn’t even given a draftable grade from Pro Football Focus. At most, he’ll have a small base package role as a rookie.

The Falcons started a pair of rookies at linebacker last season, with 2nd round pick Deion Jones making 13 starts at middle linebacker and 4th round pick De’Vondre Campbell making 10 starts at outside linebacker. Both should be locked into every down roles in 2017. Jones was easily the better of the two, finishing 13th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, while Campbell finished well below average, 60th out of 87 eligible linebackers.

Jones could be even better in his 2nd season in the league, although he’s still a one-year wonder and a sophomore slump is a possibility. Campbell, meanwhile, could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a starter. There’s a reason he fell to the 4th round of the draft. The Falcons have some young talent at linebacker, but this is still a below average group overall.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Falcons were one of the healthier teams in the league last season, finishing with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury. The one key player who they lost for an extended period of time was cornerback Desmond Trufant, who missed the final 7 regular season games and the post-season with a torn pectoral. However, the defense actually played better down the stretch without him. In 9 games with him, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 40.06% rate. In 10 games with him, including the post-season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.37% rate.

It’s not that Trufant wasn’t having a good season, but the young players on this defense played their best football down the stretch, especially at the cornerback position. 2015 2nd round pick Jalen Mills, who became the #3 cornerback down the stretch in Trufant’s absence, finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback. He actually finished higher than Trufant, who finished just 30th at the position. That made 2016 a career worst season for Trufant, even before the injury.

The 2013 1st round pick finished in the top-13 among cornerbacks in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, prior to last season, and made 57 consecutive starts to begin his career, prior to the injury. The Falcons seem to think he’ll bounce back, extending him for 68.75 million over 5 years this off-season, making him the 5th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Given that he’s only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason why he wouldn’t bounce back.

Undrafted rookie Brian Poole fared well as a starter in Trufant’s absence last season, finishing 43rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 834 snaps, but the Falcons paid 38 million over 4 years to re-sign Robert Alford, so Alford will start and Poole will compete with Mills for the slot job. Mills was a higher pick and played better last season, but Poole is a more natural fit on the slot at 5-10 211, so Mills could open the season as the #4 cornerback. The Falcons are deep at the cornerback position.

Given all of their cornerback depth, it’s a surprise they were willing to pay so much to keep Alford. He was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked cornerback last season, but that was the best finish of his career and he’s the 15th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. He should be a remain solid, but overpaid #2 cornerback. The 2013 2nd round pick has made 45 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished above average in each of the last 2 seasons (31 starts).

The Falcons are solid at the safety position too. Keanu Neal had a strong rookie season, finishing 32nd among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 14 starts, but he was actually outplayed by 3rd year safety Ricardo Allen. A 5th round pick in 2014, Allen didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 30 starts in 2 seasons since and finished last season 23rd among safeties. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being as good as he was last season, but he could easily have another solid season. He and Neal are a talented young safety duo. The Falcons’ secondary is their best defensive unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

It’s going to be tough for the Falcons to be as efficient offensively as they were last season, especially with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan no longer with the team, but they return all of the players who matters from last season’s offense, so they should be among the best, if not the best offenses in the league again in 2017 and their defense should be better. A young unit that played better down the stretch even without top cornerback Desmond Trufant, they get Trufant back and added a pair of much needed contributors on the defensive line in Takkarist McKinley and Dontari Poe.

The one key for them will be staying healthy. Aside from Trufant, they barely had any injuries last season, but that’s tough to do twice in a row and they aren’t as deep everywhere as they are in the secondary. They should be in the mix to go back to the Super Bowl, but chances like they had last season are not easy to come by and the history of teams after losing the Super Bowl isn’t pretty. \

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in NFC South

Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots: Super Bowl LI Pick

Atlanta Falcons (13-5) vs. New England Patriots (16-2) in Super Bowl LI

There are distinct differences between these two teams, but they have one impressive similarity: both teams have lost key players and played as well or better without them. On New England’s side, one of their losses was a self-inflicted one if you can even call it a loss, as the Patriots “lost” linebacker Jamie Collins in a midseason trade. Collins, one of the Patriots’ best defensive players and one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball in the entire league, was stunningly sent to the last place Browns for a mere 3rd round compensatory pick during the Patriots week 9 bye. The 3rd round compensatory pick they got from the Browns is what they would have gotten in 2018’s draft if they simply let Collins walk at the end of the off-season, so they essentially got no compensation. Despite Collins’ obvious talent, Bill Belichick didn’t like Collins’ tendency to freestyle and simply thought his defense would be better without him.

That seemed like an absurd idea at the time, even giving Belichick the benefit of the doubt as much as he deserves, but, if the numbers are to be believed, the Patriots have been a lot better without him, with young role players like Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts filling in well for Collins. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.54% rate, as opposed to 29.49% in 10 games without him, a substantial difference. To put that into perspective, the figure with Collins is around where the Seattle Seahawks finished the regular season in first down rate (19th). The figure without Collins would have been lower than every offense in the league this year except for the Rams’ offense. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed 166 first downs and 15 touchdowns. They allowed the same amount of touchdowns and two fewer first downs in 10 games without him.

The numbers don’t give the full context, as the Patriots played an easier schedule in the second half of the season. 7 of the 10 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other three were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, Seattle (19th) who beat them, and Pittsburgh last week, in a game in which the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell with an injury early in the game. Their schedule wasn’t that hard in the first half of the season either, but it was definitely easier after losing Collins, so that probably played a role in the significant statistical improvement. It might not be fair to say their defense is definitely better without Collins, but at the very least the trade has not backfired in any way. Their defense is untested, but it’s still one of the better stop units in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, it’s definitely not fair to say the Patriots have been better offensively without Gronkowski. Gronkowski was fully healthy for 5 games this season, not counting the 2 games he played as a decoy with a 3rd string quarterback under center in week 3 and week 4 or the game in which he hurt his back in and left the game in the first quarter in week 12. In those 5 games, the Patriots picked up first downs at a 43.35% rate. The only team that picked up first downs at a better rate than that this season is their opponent this week, the Atlanta Falcons (more on them later obviously). In the 9 games since Gronkowski last caught a pass, the Patriots have picked up first downs at a 37.06% rate, good, but significantly down from the 5 games in which Brady and Gronkowski tore apart the NFL (they averaged a ridiculous 14.0 yards per target). That first down rate is most equivalent to the Detroit Lions, who finished just 12th.

The Patriots’ offense hasn’t been derailed by the absence of the Gronkowski this season, as it has been in years past, thanks to a deeper than usual receiving corps, a great #2 tight end in Martellus Bennett, a much improved running game and offensive line, and, of course, Tom Brady somehow arguably having the best season of his career at age 39. It’s a myth that they don’t need Gronkowski and should sell low and trade him this off-season, ahead of just his age 28 season. They just aren’t screwed in the playoffs without him like they have been in recent years because the rest of the team is better on both sides of the ball.

Without Gronkowski, it’s very hard to argue that the Patriots have the better offense in this game, an unfamiliar position for a New England team that is used to having the better offense in the Super Bowl. Matchup wise, the Falcons most resemble the Patriots’ first Super Bowl opponent, against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. The Falcons finished the regular season with easily the best first down rate in the NFL, picking up first downs at a 43.92% rate. The next best team was the Saints, who picked up first downs at “just” a 40.72% rate in the regular season. In fact, there was a bigger gap between 1st and 2nd in first down rate than there was between 2nd and 9th. That number has actually jumped after two playoff games and they’ve picked up first downs at a 44.61% rate between 16 regular season games and 2 postseason games.

Basically, as good as the Patriots were offensively for 5 games with Gronkowski, the Falcons have been better than that all year for 18 games on the offensive side of the ball. Led by their version of the triplets (Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones), along with one of the best offensive lines in football, the Falcons have been so good offensively that they lead the NFL in first down rate differential, despite a defense that has allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 38.23% rate, more or less equivalent to the Colts’ 7th ranked offense in terms of first down rate. They’re not a balanced team, but they still rank #1 in that in first down differential, just ahead of the Patriots.

The good news for Atlanta is, like the Patriots’ defense, the Falcons’ defense has statistically been significantly better down the stretch, despite losing one of their best defensive players, cornerback Desmond Trufant, for the season. In 9 games with Trufant, the Falcons allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 40.06% rate, most equivalent to Dallas’ 3rd ranked offense. In 9 games without him, they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.27% rate, most equivalent to Oakland’s 15th ranked offense. Part of that could be that they faced weak offenses like San Francisco and Los Angeles during that time period, but their defense has held up much better without their best defensive back than you’d expect.

Young cornerbacks Brian Poole and Jalen Collins have played well in his absence and overall a very young defense has gotten better as the season has gone on. The Falcons are starting 4 rookies (2nd round and 4th round linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, 1st round safety Keanu Neal, and Poole, an undrafted free agent), 3 second year players (first round edge rusher Vic Beasley, Collins, a 2nd rounder, and 5th round defensive tackle Grady Jarrett), and a third year player (safety Ricardo Allen, a former 5th round pick). They aren’t a great defense by any stretch of the imagination, especially after losing starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn with an injury a few weeks back, but Dan Quinn has done a good job developing young defensive talent in 2 years on the job and this defense is definitely better than it was earlier in the season, even without Trufant or Clayborn.

It’s definitely fair to wonder if their young defense has much of a shot to stop Tom Brady and company though, especially since they don’t consistently pressure the passer. The Falcons enter this game with the better offense, but the Patriots have easily the better defense and probably have a better chance of slowing down the Falcons’ offense than Atlanta’s defense has of slowing down the Patriots. One thing that could be very important in a close game is the fact that Atlanta All-Pro center Alex Mack is playing hurt and reportedly might not be able to last the whole game. It’s tough to wager on this game with the line at 3 though because I think this has a very good chance to be a 3 point game. At the very least, I see this game being decided by a touchdown or less, a shootout where the team who has the ball last likely wins the game. New England is my pick, but it figures to be a great game either way. Unfortunately though, this game is a non-bet.

New England Patriots 38 Atlanta Falcons 34

Pick against the spread: New England -3

Confidence: Low

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Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are red hot right now and understandably getting a lot of attention. Since an unimpressive 4-6 start, the Packers have won 8 straight games to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record and to win two playoff games and advance to the NFC Championship game. If you watch sports talk shows this week, you’d think it was the Packers favored by 4 points and the presumptive favorite to move on to the Super Bowl, but instead it’s the other way around, with the higher seeded Falcons favored by 4 points at home.

There’s a reason for that. As much attention as the Packers’ offense is getting, the Falcons’ offense is still significantly better and is statistically one of the top offenses in NFL history. Including last week’s win over the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons have picked up a first down or touchdown on 43.92% of offensive snaps this season, more than 3% higher than the next best team, the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers, meanwhile, have moved the chains at a “mere” 38.94% rate this season, including playoffs, almost 5% lower than the Falcons.

Even if you just look at their 8 game winning streak, the Packers are only moving the chains at a 41.60% rate, meaning, as red hot as they are right now offensively, the Falcons have still been better than them offensively all season. If you look at just the last 8 weeks, the Falcons are actually even better, moving the chains at a 47.19% rate over that time period. As good as the Packers are offensively, the Falcons are simply better. They run the ball better and with more consistency. They have a better overall offensive line. And they also have healthier wide receivers.

Atlanta’s top receiver Julio Jones has been limited by a toe injury in recent weeks, but, as you can see, it hasn’t hurt their ability to move the ball. On the Green Bay side, #1 receiver Jordy Nelson could miss his 2nd straight game with broken ribs, while fellow starter Davante Adams and #4 receiver Geronimo Allison are expected to be gametime calls. Even if all 3 of them play, they all figure to be limited, as head coach Mike McCarthy admitted that none of them would play if this wasn’t a playoff game.

Defensively, these two teams are comparable. The Packers have a little better defense overall (37.34% first down rate vs. 38.01% first down rate allowed), but the Falcons have been better than the Packers if we just look at the last 8 weeks (36.94% first down rate vs. 35.51% first down rate allowed), even with the Packers being 8-0 over that time period. The Falcons aren’t undefeated over that time period, but they’re pretty close, going 6-1 with their one loss coming by 1 point against a Kansas City team that scored 9 points off returns and won despite losing the first down battle 32 to 17.

On the season, the Falcons have won 8 of 12 games by more than a touchdown, with just 1 loss coming by more than a touchdown (9 points in Philadelphia), and have they the NFC’s best point differential at +150, along with the NFC’s best first down rate differential at +6.07% (vs. +2.15% for the Packers). The public seems to be eating up the sports talk media idea that the Packers are the better team here, as more than ⅔ rds of the action is on Green Bay. I disagree, which is probably a good thing, considering the public always loses money in the long run. I think this line should be around 6 in favor of the Falcons, so we’re getting good line value with them at 4. They’re worth a bet if you can get that number, though this line is 4.5 or 5 in some places.

Atlanta Falcons 38 Green Bay Packers 31

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4

Confidence: Medium

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Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

This might sound weird considering they finished with the 2nd best record in the NFC and secured a first round bye, but I think the Falcons are an underrated team. In a year with so few top level teams, I don’t understand why the Falcons are not regularly mentioned among the best teams in the league. A lot of the attention fell on the Cowboys in the NFC, and rightfully so as they ran away with the conference’s top seed early in the season, and now the Packers are the hot team in the NFC, but the Falcons actually finished the season with a better point differential than Dallas (+134 vs. 115) and ranked higher in first down rate differential. The Falcons’ offensive line and running game are almost as good as Dallas’ and the Cowboys don’t have anything like the combination of Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. As much attention as Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got leading the Cowboys’ offense as rookies this year, the Falcons scored 119 more points than the Cowboys this season. Their defense doesn’t match up, but this is overall one of the top few teams in the league.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, have probably their worst team going into the playoffs in the Russell Wilson era. That’s not necessarily saying much because of how good the Seahawks typically are, but they finished the regular season with a much less impressive +62 and rank 6th among the 8th remaining playoff teams in first down rate differential, only ahead of Houston and Kansas City. They looked good last week in a victory over a weak Detroit team, but their offensive line and running game have been miserable for most of the season and their defense isn’t quite the same unit with safety Earl Thomas out for the season. This line should be about 6 or 7, but instead this line has fluctuated between 4 and 5 all week. I would take them at 5 if I had to, but 4 and 4.5 are obviously better numbers if you can get them.

Atlanta Falcons 27 Seattle Seahawks 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4

Confidence: Medium

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New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (7-8) at Atlanta Falcons (10-5)

In a league with so few top level teams, it’s surprising that the Falcons aren’t getting more Super Bowl hype. They rank 3rd in the NFL in point differential and 2nd in first down rate differential and are 10-5 despite a 3-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their defense has major problems, especially with top cornerback Desmond Trufant out for the season, but their offense has been far and away the best in the league this season, even ahead of the Dallas Cowboys.

They’ve picked up a first down or a touchdown on an outstanding 43.48% of snaps this season, while the Cowboys, who are 2nd best in that metric, have done so on “just” 40.86% of snaps. For comparison, there’s a bigger gap between the #1 ranked team in first down rate and the #2 ranked team than there is between the #2 and #6 ranked teams. The Falcons are not a well-rounded team, but their offense is so dominant that it might not matter, especially in a year where few teams are standing out.

That being said, the Saints are also an underrated team and I think we’re getting good line value with them, as this line is at a full touchdown. The Saints actually rank tied for 4th in the NFL in offensive touchdown margin, with 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents, only behind New England, Dallas, and Atlanta, who has a +11 offensive touchdown margin. They also have a +41 first down margin, which is 3rd best in the NFL, and they rank 7th in first down rate differential. They are just 7-8 as a result of because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer.

The Saints lost to the Falcons 45-32 in New Orleans earlier this year, but actually had 32 first downs to 26 for the Falcons in that game and it would have been a much closer game if not for two New Orleans turnovers, including one returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Outside of those 2 snaps, it was a pretty evenly matched game. That loss actually puts the Saints in a good betting spot this week, as comparable divisional rivals tend to split the season series, even if the road team pulls the upset in the first game. Divisional road underdogs are 61-35 ATS since 2002 in same season divisional revenge games against an opponent that previously beat them as home favorites and they also pull the upset and win straight up about half the time.

These two teams aren’t quite comparable and it would be a bigger play if I didn’t think so highly of the Falcons, but the Saints are definitely an underrated team that can keep this one close. Aside from their first matchup with the Falcons, which was closer than the final score suggested, the Saints have just one other loss by more than a touchdown all season and I don’t expect the Falcons to make it three this week. If you can get the full touchdown with the Saints, this is worth a bet.

Atlanta Falcons 31 New Orleans Saints 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +7

Confidence: Medium

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Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2016 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at Carolina Panthers (6-8)

The Falcons are 9-5, but they’re actually even better than that suggests, as they’ve gone 9-5 despite a 3-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. In fact, they rank 2nd in the NFL in both first down rate differential and point differential, ahead of the NFC leading Dallas Cowboys in both categories. This week, they get a couple of key players back from injury, with top wide receiver Julio Jones returning from a 2-game absence and starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn returning from a 3-game absence. The Panthers, meanwhile, are in a tough injury situation, missing two starters on the offensive line and top defensive player Luke Kuechly. That being said, we’re not getting great line value with the Falcons as 3 point road favorites. I wish this line was still 2.5, as it was earlier in the week when it opened. At 3, this is a no confidence pick.

Atlanta Falcons 27 Carolina Panthers 23

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3

Confidence: None

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San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (1-12) at Atlanta Falcons (8-5)

Since beating the lowly Rams by 28 on Monday Night Football back in week 1, the 49ers have lost 12 straight games, by an average of 14.17 points per game. This line is very high at 13.5, but not when you consider that the 49ers have been blown out by pretty much every team that has played them and that the Falcons are one of the best teams in the league. Six of San Francisco’s 12 losses came by two touchdowns or more, enough to cover this line, so I don’t see why the Falcons couldn’t give the 49ers their 7th such loss. Atlanta ranks 3rd in the NFL in point differential, behind only New England and Dallas, and 4th in first down rate differential. In a year with so few top tier teams, the Falcons are quietly closer to elite than most realize. I couldn’t bet money on the Falcons at 13.5 without injured Julio Jones, but this should be a big Atlanta win even without him.

Atlanta Falcons 31 San Francisco 49ers 13

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -13.5

Confidence: Low

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