Inside the NFL | Undefeated Falcons not as good as they seem
Week eight marks separation of the best from the rest
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 25, 2012 00:10
ESPN’s Week Eight power rankings have the Atlanta Falcons sitting pretty atop the league, with the Giants, Texans, 49ers and Bears, in that order, rounding out the top five. Though this is estimated to be the NFL’s cream of the crop, it is widely accepted that each of these teams is uniquely flawed. All of them have played multiple mistake−riddled games thus far.
Now, being crowned the league’s best by a panel of “experts” is by no means the Holy Grail for any team. That, of course, would be the Super Bowl. But the tenuous nature of these rankings does not preclude them from scrutiny, and, as such, it’s necessary to bring into question the top ranking of an undeserving Falcons team.
The Falcons have managed to hoodwink much of the football world with their stellar play in a few early games. The team’s success is in large part due to its laughably soft schedule — one that scarcely offers up formidable competition throughout the rest of the season. Accordingly, the Falcons are undefeated.
During this span, quarterback Matt Ryan has darted to the front of the pack of MVP candidates. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who, in his advanced age, shocked many simply by virtue of his not being a shell of his former Hall of Fame−caliber self, has once again staked his claim to the upper echelon of tight ends. Finally, the defense, porous especially in the backfield last season, has allowed the seventh−fewest points per game.
Every impressive facet of the Falcons’ game, however, can to some extent be chalked up to their schedule — a veritable charitable donation from the NFL. Their first six opponents — the Chiefs, Broncos, Chargers, Panthers, Redskins and Raiders — have a combined 13−24 record, not one of them above .500. The Falcons won their last three games against average or below−average teams by a combined 12 points, two touchdowns away from losing all of them.
The Falcons, therefore, have only played teams for whom the playoffs are likely a pipe dream, some of whom have approached the brink of victory against them only to be thwarted at the 11th hour.
In fact, the first team with a winning record at the moment that the Falcons will encounter is a suspect Arizona Cardinals team in Week 11. You know, the same Cardinals led by elite backup quarterback John Skelton and three−headed running back monster LaRod Stephens−Howling, William Powell and Alfonso Smith — their third, fourth and fifth−stringers.
Since its red−hot start to the season, the Falcons juggernaut has been slowed substantially. The team now ranks in the bottom half in rushing yards on offense and in total yards and rushing yards on defense. Even considering their perceived strengths — passing yards, total yards and points per game — the Falcons are ranked no higher than sixth.
While it must be said that last week’s game against Oakland was anomalous at best, the Falcons nevertheless can be exposed in myriad areas of the game, but still went unexploited by a Raiders team that was gifted a golden opportunity.
Matt Ryan threw three picks, Michael Turner rushed the ball 11 times for 33 yards and kicker Matt Bryant missed a field goal, while the defense conceded 474 total yards against a team that has typically struggled to produce on offense.
Needless to say, had they played a competent team, the Falcons, plagued by lackluster, mistake−prone play, would have lost in humiliating fashion.
This is not to say that the Falcons are not a top−tier team. They have a quarterback who is a few tweaks away from excellence, a running back who has surpassed 1,000 yards rushing each full season he has played since joining the Falcons, two tremendous receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, and a few all−stars on defense.
What, then, is missing?
This inevitable burning question has haunted Ryan and his teammates for the past few years. It seems to descend like a dark cloud promptly upon the Falcons following their ritual first−round exit from the playoffs each January. (Ryan is 0−3 in the playoffs as a starter).
The answer: a challenging schedule. Not a brutal, grueling schedule like that of the Giants, but one dotted with difficult games.
Beating losing teams is necessary for a Super Bowl contender, obviously, but it doesn’t say much about the quality of Atlanta as a whole. No one in his right mind, for example, would have picked the Chiefs over the Falcons. On the contrary, as the Packers learned last year, it bodes ill for a team when that team steamrolls its competition en route to a nearly pristine regular season record.
A real test is all the Falcons need. If they come up against one — or maybe even two or three, if things turn around markedly for certain teams — later in the season and emerge victorious, then people will need to admit they were too harsh on a very, very good football team.
Until then, the critique stands, underpinned by the notion that the Falcons’ perfect record must not be the only litmus test in determining exactly how good they are.