Originally written on Cippin on Sports  |  Last updated 12/4/12
The Falcons, speeding off to an 11-1 record through the season’s first thirteen weeks, clinched the NFC South on Thursday with a win over the Saints.  They have done so with a lineup on the offensive side of the ball that is almost identical to last year’s squad, and that helped the team to a (still not shabby) 10-6 finish and a wild-card entry to (and first-round exit from) the playoffs. What’s changed this year?  Strangely, it hasn’t been an improvement in either offensive or defensive performance.  In fact, Atlanta’s DVOA on both sides of the ball has actually fallen (the ratings below are as of week 12; as of this writing, Football Outsiders’ stats were not yet updated to include week 13): Year Off. DVOA Lg. Rank Pass Rank Rush Rank 2012 4.0% 14 19.9% 13 -16.6% 27 2011 6.1% 11 23.2% 8 -7.3% 23 Year Def. DVOA* Lg. Rank Pass Rank Rush Rank 2012 1.1% 16 0.5% 12 1.9% 24 2011 -9.1% 8 -1.8% 11 -19.1% 3 *Remember that, for defensive DVOA, the lower the number, the better (so last year’s overall -9.1% DVOA is significantly better than this year’s 1.1%). Atlanta’s success despite a drop-off in performance is not just a result of its easy schedule (according to PFR’s SoS rating system); DVOA adjusts for quality of opponents, so it indicates that Atlanta is actually performing less effectively, in a vacuum, than it did last year.  The most significant culprit is the vast difference between this year’s team and last year’s in its record in close games.  This season, the Falcons are 7-1 (.875) in games decided by seven points or less; last year, they were 4-3 (.571).  And Matt Ryan, after leading three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives last season, already has four and six, respectively, this year (leading the league in both categories). The difference made by performance in tight games is reflected not only in the team’s overall record, but in the difference between its actual record and its expected record according to point differential (see PFR’s discussion of football’s Pythagorean Theorem for an explanation of how wins can be projected based on points-for and points-against): Year W-L Point Diff. Expected W-L Diff. in Wins 2012 11-1 +88 8.2-3.8 +2.8 2011 10-6 +52 9.3-6.7 +0.7 Much of Atlanta’s success this year thus results from its ability to pull out wins in close games, as it has won almost three more games than expected based on its point differential.  What does this mean for the remainder of the Falcons’ season, and for their chances of finally winning a playoff game?  It has been argued that, historically, “winning blowouts is a far better indicator of championship quality than winning close games”; on the other hand, though, last year’s Super Bowl champions went 7-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points, including the final two games of their playoff run. In a future column, we will take a look at the performances of other title contenders in 2012 in order to sort out whose potential Super Bowl trips could be “expected,” and those who could once again demonstrate that, in pro football, regular season performance matters far less than being on top of one’s game in the deep winter months. —- Box of the Week Washington Redskins 17, New York Giants 16 The Redskins ran for a total of 207 yards against the Giants on Monday, as rookie back Alfred Morris passed the 1,000-yard mark in the twelfth game of the year.  He is tied with Doug Martin for third in the league in rushing yards with 1,106, and he is on pace to rush for almost 1,500 this season.  Together with rookie QB Robert Griffin III (whose 714 yards on the ground is first among quarterbacks, and 21st overall), Morris has helped lead Washington to the top of the league in rushing in 2012. —- The Rounds: It’s time again to start messing with ESPN’s Playoff Machine. The walls continue to fall in Philadelphia. Fitzgerald on the pain of being an A+ receiver in a D offense. Handshakes now bear watching, apparently. Ed Reed made the most Ed Reed play ever Sunday against the Steelers. Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos became a big deal this week. Titus Young likes to freelance at the line. Dan Snyder is all-in with his team’s intra-divisional animosities. The Bus Egger saga has come to an anticlimactic close. This didn’t really almost happen. — Greg Blume writes here and rambles there.
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