The biggest football game of every year always yields a staggering amount of verbiage about non-football stuff. (To wit: Sam Adams beer.) Or ephemeral football stuff. (Is Matt Ryan "elite"? I detest that bit of ESPN-manufactured "debate," and not just about Matt Ryan.) Or football halftime stuff, or football snack-related stuff, or ... well, you know.
Today's small exercise involves a bit about actual football. Vince Verhei of the invaluable Football Outsiders has studied the Atlanta Falcons' four worst games -- the losses to Tampa Bay, San Diego, Philadelphia and Kansas City -- to get a read on what happens when they're not at their best . One key finding: When opponents do get a bit of handle on this raging offense, it's not because they shut down Julio Jones or even the running game; it's when Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel aren't as involved.
Verhei: "When you're talking about a great offense like Atlanta's, the best you can realistically hope for is to keep their scoring down to about a league-average level and hope your own offense can do better than that. And New England's offense certainly can do better than that, especially against this defense. The Falcons were horrible against the run in their good and bad games alike, but their pass defense went from 'below average' over the whole season to 'total incompetence' in their four bad games."
I know better than to argue with FO's numbers. (Because you can't argue with numbers, can you?) I would, however, suggest that two of those bad games came before Halloween, and the latest -- the Dec. 4 loss to the Chiefs -- saw K.C. score its final 16 points on plays that didn't involve the Falcons' defense (nine points courtesy of Eric Berry, the other seven off a fake punt). The Falcons lost by one. The Chiefs did gain 389 yards, though.
Verhei's worst-case scenario for the Birds: "Big plays in the passing game will put some points on the board, but an inability to extend drives will give New England's offense too many opportunities to score and the Falcons will be powerless to stop the Patriots' long marches. In this kind of Deep South nightmare world, the Falcons score in the neighborhood of 20 points and still get doubled up."
Not a pretty picture, I'll admit. But it is, we repeat, a worst-case thing. I'm pretty sure there are sunnier scenarios to be made. I'm imagine we'll offer one or two over the next nine days.