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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Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams: 2016 Week 14 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (7-5) at Los Angeles Rams (4-8)

The Rams have been beaten badly in back-to-back games. First they couldn’t stop anything against the Saints, who scored 7 offensive touchdowns in a 49-21 victory. Then last week they couldn’t move the ball, not breaking 100 yards until a garbage time touchdown drive and totalling just 7 first downs in a 26-10 loss in New England. Their offense has been the problem all year as they rank dead last (by almost 2%) in first down rate. Overall, they rank 31st in first down rate differential on the season, despite a solid defense. Unfortunately for them, things do not get any easier the next couple of weeks, as they host the Falcons this week and then go to Seattle to face the Seahawks next week.

The Rams are 6.5 point underdogs here at home, but that’s not enough points to scare me off of Atlanta, who ranks 4th in first down rate differential. Next week, the Rams figure to be at least double digit underdogs in Seattle, which puts them in a very tough spot. Not only are teams 41-63 ATS since 2012 before being double digit underdogs, underdogs of 6 or more are 48-81 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 6 or more again, as it’s very tough for an inferior team to keep it close against a superior team with another tough game next on the schedule. Next week’s game is going to be the Rams’ Super Bowl, so they could easily look past the Falcons this week, especially since the game is on Thursday Night.

The Falcons, meanwhile, host the lowly 49ers next week. Favorites of 6 or more are 93-52 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 6 or more again, including 33-7 ATS when their opponent will be underdogs of 6 or more again in their next game. With no real distractions on the horizon, the Falcons should be able to steamroll an inferior Rams team. The only thing preventing this from being a bigger play is Julio Jones’ uncertain status with injury. The Falcons have said they expect him to play despite a toe injury, but he hasn’t practiced all week so nothing is certain. Even if he plays, he could be nothing more than a decoy. I think it’s still worth a bet on the Falcons as long as the line is under a touchdown though.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Los Angeles Rams 13

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -6.5

Confidence: Medium

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