It’s a division so competitive, that no team in its 12-year existence has ever won the division in consecutive years. And I doubt that streak is broken in 2014.
The Carolina Panthers won the division in 2013, being carried by one of the league’s premier defenses and their ability to win a bunch of close games. After losing their two opening games last year by one score, the Panthers won all five one-score games in the second half of the season.
That ability to win close games is often the difference between whether or not you can win the division or not. The Panthers and Atlanta Falcons have benefited from it the most in the years where they have managed to win the division. In years where the Panthers won the NFC South (2003, 2008 and 2013), they have posted a combined 19-6 record in one-score games. The Falcons record is 20-6 in their three division-winning seasons (2004, 2010 and 2012).
Since the division’s creation beginning with the 2002 season, the Falcons have played in the greatest amount of one-score games (100) within the four-team group and also have the best winning percentage (56.5 percent). No team has benefited more from their ability to win close games than the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith.
From 2008 to 2012, the Falcons posted the league’s best record in one-score games, winning 70.7 percent of their games. The only other team that had come close to that figure were the Indianapolis Colts, having won 70.5 percent of their games thanks in part to the play of quarterback Peyton Manning.
But in 2013, the Falcons ability to win close games evaporated as they posted a 4-7 record in such contests. Those 11 one-scores games involving the Falcons were tied for the second-most in the league, only following the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans, who both appeared in a dozen such games.
One of the reasons why the Falcons have been so good in close games is that they have gotten a lot of lucky breaks over the years.
That was on display last year in their wins against the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins. If not for the opportune fumbles of Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler at the end of the Bills contest, they probably don’t win that game. The Redskins opted to go for a two-point conversion at the end of their game, trying to win rather than tie the game and failed.
Now the fact that Robert McClain and William Moore managed to strip both Johnson and Chandler, respectively, is not pure luck, but rather a display of skill. But the fact that Moore and Robert Alford, respectively, managed to recover each loose ball is essentially luck. No different than when Roddy White stripped cornerback Nate Clements after an interception in a close win over the San Francisco 49ers in 2010, where Harvey Dahl managed to fall on the loose ball to give the Falcons another scoring opportunity.
Forcing fumbles isn’t luck, but recovering them essentially is. In all three cases, the Falcons were able to recover the ball within a few yards of the sideline. A different bounce here or there, and any one of those fumbles could have gone out of bounds, and the chances the Falcons win any of those games becomes nil.
Thus why in 2014, one can expect the Falcons to attempt to try and get back to a playing level where they win close games. Over the first few weeks of 2013, the team can blame their injuries as the primary reason for why they went 1-4 in one-score games over the first five games. Not being at full strength, the team couldn’t make the one or two plays necessary to win close games.
Under Smith, the Falcons have thrived on the ability of quarterback Matt Ryan to lead the team on game-winning drives. Over his first five seasons, no quarterback in NFL history had more game-winning drives than Ryan. In both 2010 and 2012 when the Falcons won the NFC South, Ryan led the league in the number of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives.
In those two seasons, Ryan had 13 game-winning drives, in which he completed 64.8 percent of his passes and had a passer rating of 95.7. In 2010, Ryan’s favorite target in the clutch was Roddy White, who caught 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown combined on the six game-winning drives. The rest of Ryan’s receivers combined to catch 12 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown.
In 2012, Ryan spread the ball around more. Tony Gonzalez had the most catches (seven for 75 yards), but Jacquizz Rodgers led the team in yards (90 on five grabs). White had three catches for 84 yards, while Harry Douglas caught six passes for 74 yards and Julio Jones had a pair of catches for 44 yards.
Are the Falcons any better prepared to win close games in 2014 than they were in 2013? If the team is healthy, then the answer is yes. Whether or not they revert to their 2008-12 levels remains to be seen, but there should be at least some improvement from their 4-7 record last year if they are able to stay healthier.Coupled with improvements made to the offensive line, the Falcons should also fare better in those clutch situations because they should be better able to stand up to opposing pass rushes.
A notable instance where the team’s offensive line play failed them a year ago occurred in the season finale against the Panthers. The Falcons gave up three sacks on their final three possessions in that game, and had a botched snap by Joe Hawley kill any chance of pulling out the victory. Any one of those possessions could have proved to be the game-winner for the Falcons in what proved to be a four-point loss. If this year’s offensive line is in a position where they only give up one sack instead of three, then it likely changes the team’s fortunes.
The defense will also have to take some strides. While the poor play of the Falcons 2013 defense did not prevent them from being in several close games a year ago, the ability to get a few more stops can greatly improve the team’s chances. Last year, the Falcons allowed game-winning drives to the likes of Matt Flynn, Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith, not exactly a who’s who of NFL quarterbacks.
Flynn’s winning drive was precipitated by a sack-strip on Ryan by Mike Neal, giving the Packers favorable field position. Again, improved blocking could have averted that disaster. But the inability to get off the field on third down and generate a capable pass rush were the culprits in the other two instances of Tannehill and Smith driving down the field to get scores against the Falcons defense.
Have the Falcons made major improvements in those areas? That remains to be seen, but there is reason to believe that some improvement has been made. And some improvement could be just enough to make up the difference in a game here or there.
Players like Jonathan Massaquoi should be better able to create pressure this year than last, and that could lead to an errant throw that could kill an opposing team’s drive. The Falcons are also hopeful that additions made in the secondary should improve their third-down defense, which was the worst in the league last year.
Given that fact, there’s really only one place to go from here: up. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Falcons’ third-down defense will be good. That has been problematic throughout the Smith era. Only the Cleveland Browns have been a worse defense when it comes to getting third-down stops than the Falcons over the past six seasons. There should easily be improvement on third downs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will stop being a liability.
It’s one of the reasons why the team’s focus this past offseason on acquiring two-down defenders like Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman to beef up their defensive front didn’t quite move the needle in my book. And losing a player like linebacker Sean Weatherspoon won’t help matters any more.
Thus, the onus will be even heavier on the offensive side of the ball to carry the team this year in clutch situations. The potential is certainly there, but there are of course obstacles the Falcons will have to overcome.Losing a tight end like Tony Gonzalez won’t help matters since he was instrumental in the team’s ability to win close games in previous years, acting as a security blanket for Ryan on third downs and in the red zone. Someone else will have to step into that role. While I have several doubts about whether Douglas can fill the void left by Gonzalez as Ryan’s third target, in terms of clutch performance, Douglas is not that bad an option. Many of his more prominent moments as a Falcon have come in the fourth quarter, and his production on game-winning drives has been on par with Gonzalez in certain years.
But it begs the question of whether Douglas in the past benefited from the presences of players like White and Gonzalez to create opportunities for him versus whether he can create those opportunities for himself.
Jones will be asked to take a more prominent role, but that’s always a little iffy. Frankly because of Jones’ durability concerns, being as reliant on Jones as the Falcons seemingly are is not a good thing.
Other players will have to step up and the Falcons can’t be as “Julio-centric” an offense as they were for the part of 2013 where Jones was healthy and playing. Otherwise any instance where Jones is not 100 percent will send their offense reeling as it was for a large portion of 2013.
There are a lot of questions remaining, and the answers won’t be known until the regular season begins. While I’m not quite optimistic the Falcons can revert back to their pre-2013 form in terms of winning close games, I certainly believe there will still be significant improvement in that regard in 2014. And if that’s the case, then the Falcons certainly will be in the mix to win the division this year.