Atlanta proved all season long it is a threat to score anytime it gets the ball, regardless of down, distance or opponent. Yet their inability to stop their opponents from doing the same makes them one of the most unbalanced teams to ever reach a Super Bowl.
The difference between Atlanta’s DVOA — which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent — rank on offense (No. 2) and defense (No. 27) would be higher than any Super Bowl champion since 1990, the year the league expanded its playoff system from 10 to 12 teams. Up until this year, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts (a difference of 24 spots between their offense and defense), 2011 Patriots (27) and 2015 Denver Broncos (24) had the biggest spreads between their offense and defensive rankings. Two of those teams, the Colts and Broncos, would end up being Super Bowl champions.
The Falcons got to this point thanks to an offense that has been historically good this season. They became just the ninth team since the merger to score at least 540 points and averaged 7.4 yards per play on first down, placing them alongside the 2006 Philadelphia Eagles (7.1) as the only teams since 1994, the first year data is available, to average over seven yards per play on first down.
Their offensive output is even more impressive once you account for Atlanta’s strength of schedule. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons had to navigate the second-toughest slate of defensive opponents in the NFL. Only the Washington Redskins faced a tougher collection of defenses during the regular season.
However, Atlanta’s defense allowed the fifth-most first downs in the NFL this season (358) and the sixth-most points per drive (2.2), signaling a fatal flaw that could keep the franchise from earning its first NFL championship.
But perhaps the Falcons’ young defense is maturing, and is no longer as bad as it seems.
Since the bye week and including the playoffs, Atlanta has allowed an average of 20.5 points per game, which would rank 11th over the course of a season. The Falcons suffocated a Green Bay offense that ranked No. 4 in offensive DVOA during the regular season, not allowing them to score until the third quarter after Atlanta had already run up a 31-o lead. By the end of the game, the Falcons had generated two turnovers and two sacks. Defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman had one of those sacks plus two more stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. Dwight Freeney had one quarterback hit and six hurries, helping keep Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers under pressure for most of the NFC championship game despite Green Bay boasting one of the better offensive lines.
Three rookies — cornerback Brian Poole, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal — were among the team leaders in tackles and second-year cornerback Jalen Collins recovered a fumble in the end zone on Sunday against the Packers. And let’s not forget the emergence of second-year defensive end Vic Beasley, who led the league with 15.5 sacks. It’s possible that the unit is peaking at the right time, which seemed to be reflected in their attitude after the NFC title win.
“If there’s a football and there’s a field, we’re going to go out there and play ball,” Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen told reporters after the game. “We’re like junkyards dogs in here, man. We don’t care.”