The Falcons are playing as well as a team with the league’s third-worst defense can play. They’re moving the ball and even scoring touchdowns as if — to quote the former Pirates announcer Bob Prince — tomorrow’s lunch was around the corner. They lead the NFC South by two games after four weeks and hold the tiebreaker over Carolina. Football Outsiders gives them a 65.5 percent chance of making the playoffs.
One thing, though. Weren’t we gushing similar gushes this time a year ago?
Going by yards, points and Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) index, the Falcons have the league’s best offense. They’ve scored 35, 45 and 48 points in the past three games. Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards, 300 attributable to Julio Jones, against a Carolina defense that was, going by DVOA, the league’s sixth-best. That was jaw-dropping stuff.
If there was no single game quite so stunning in the first month last season, the second half against Dallas wasn’t far off. The Falcons outscored the Cowboys 22-0 to win 39-28 after trailing 28-14 with 40 seconds left in the first half. Ryan only (only!) passed for 285 yards that day, Jones accounting for 164 of those; Devonta Freeman rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
The Falcons scored 26, 24, 39 and 48 points in their first four games last season, winning them all. (They’d win Game No. 5, too, but that was a lesser performance that required overtime.) What was impressive wasn’t just that those Falcons were doing it under a new coach (Dan Quinn) and a new offensive coordinator (Kyle Shanahan); it was that they were doing it against what was considered the meat of their schedule.
These Falcons are 3-1 against Tampa Bay, Oakland, New Orleans and Carolina. Only the Panthers made the playoffs last season. Only the Raiders are better than 1-3 now, and their three victories have come by an aggregate nine points. Even as we laud the Falcons for shaking off that desultory opening loss to the Buccaneers and running off three victories in games where they were underdogs, we must also note: The schedule from Week 5 on appears far more arduous than it did a year ago.
As we know from last season, schedules can deceive. Only one of the Falcons’ first four opponents last year made the playoffs, that being Houston at 9-7. But those men of Quinn managed to lose twice to New Orleans, twice to Tampa Bay, once to San Francisco and to Indianapolis without Andrew Luck. None of those teams would finish above .500. Neither did the Falcons.
There’s a chance this year will not be like last year, that the Falcons are better in every way — though it wouldn’t appear they’re better on defense; they rank 30th in total yardage and are 31st according to DVOA — than in Quinn’s maiden voyage. The marriage of Shanahan and Ryan appears to be enjoying a second honeymoon. That said, the offense looked spiffy 12 months ago, scoring 14 touchdowns in its first four games; it would manage 20 over the next 12.
Ryan is 271 yards ahead of last season’s passing pace; even with that 300-yard game, Jones is only 10 yards ahead of his. (Ryan is spreading the ball around more, which won’t be great news to Roddy White.) The Falcons are first in passing yards and sixth in rushing, and that’s a fine balance. Still, we have to ask: With the 30th-ranked defense, won’t this team always be waiting for the other shoe to drop? Even with Ryan and Jones going wild, Carolina — by then without Cam Newton — had the ball in a one-score game with 1:14 remaining Sunday.
The Falcons play at Denver on Sunday and in Seattle the next week. Those teams have stout defenses of long standing. If the Falcons can win one of the two, they’ll well and truly be on to something. If not, they’ll be 3-3.