The Falcons are heading into the last four games of the regular season with a playoff appearance locked up, having clinched the NFC South following Tampa Bay's loss to Denver on Sunday. If the season ended today, the Falcons would not just be on top of the NFC South, but would be on top of the entire NFC with the first seed and a first round bye. The Falcons would then play the winner of either the Seahawks and the Packers, or the Bears and the Giants, depending on which team ended up with the fewest wins. The other team in the mix, currently slated for the second seed in the NFC, is the San Francisco 49ers.
Also in the hunt are the Redskins, the Cowboys, the Buccaneers, and the Vikings, all currently at 6-6. With the Redskins and the Cowboys just one game behind the Giants, the NFC East is really wide open at this point.
The Falcons have weaknesses--rushing, run blocking, and short yardage issues come immediately to mind--yet they have managed to attain 11 wins despite these difficulties. They also have strengths--their red zone efficiency (scoring touchdowns on 56.25% of trips to the red zone) is actually better than the Seahawks (54.29%), the Bears (51.43%), and the Giants (48.98%), and slightly behind the 49ers (56.41%.) The Packers lead this category, scoring touchdowns on 59.38% of trips to the red zone, although their last three games have seen an abysmal average of 0%. That is not a typographical error.
Atlanta's offense has allowed 22 sacks, 29 hits and 102 hurries on Matt Ryan. Under pressure, Ryan's completion percentage drops to 51.7%, compared to 73% with no pressure. The offensive line is going to have to hold up for Ryan in the playoffs, because one thing that the top teams in the playoff picture have in common is their ability to pressure the opposing quarterback. The offensive line will have their hands full with Seattle, with 32 sacks, 35 hits and 113 hurries on quarterbacks this season; Green Bay, with 34 sacks, 32 hits, and 104 hurries; Chicago, with 32 sacks, 26 hits and 149 hurries; the 49ers, with 33 sacks, 29 hits and 117 hurries; or the Giants, with 30 sacks, 37 hits and 115 hurries.
The Falcons proved against the Saints that the ability to pressure the quarterback could make all the difference. Atlanta's defense has amassed 27 sacks, 32 hits and 113 hurries on opposing quarterbacks.
Seattle's offensive line is doing a fine job of protecting their rookie quarterback, with Russell Wilson taking just 13 sacks, 21 hits and 101 hurries this season. This can be partially attributed to Wilson's ability to scramble, but that low sack count is impressive nonetheless. Wilson has thrown 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions this season, and under pressure he has thrown just four touchdowns compared to three interceptions.
The Giants have also been doing an excellent job with pass protection for Eli Manning this season, allowing just 15 sacks, along with 26 hits and 106 hurries. Eli struggles under pressure, like most quarterbacks. On the season, Manning has thrown 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Just one of those touchdowns and six of the interceptions have come under pressure.
The Packers, Bears and 49ers are all doing a less than stellar job of protecting their quarterbacks. The Packers have allowed 33 sacks, 22 hits and 77 hurries on Aaron Rodgers, and it isn't all on the offensive line. Pro Football Focus premium stats charge eight sacks and three hits to Rodgers, who has a tendency to hold on to the ball longer than one can reasonably expect the line to maintain protection. The Bears and 49ers have both had to deal with high profile concussion injuries to their starting (at least at the time) quarterbacks. The Bears have allowed 34 sacks, 27 hits, and 100 hurries, and the 49ers have allowed 33 sacks, 15 hits and 80 hurries on their quarterback combo of Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.
The NFL-watching world regularly attributes Atlanta's 11-1 record to mere strength--or, more accurately, weakness--of schedule. Atlanta's strength of schedule for 2012 is .488. Compare that to the 11-1 Texans, who struggled to beat the Jaguars, and would have lost to the Lions had the refs reviewed a Detroit touchdown that wasn't, and you'll see that Atlanta's strength of schedule is slightly higher than Houston's .473. I'm just saying.
As far as the most likely playoff teams from the NFC, Atlanta's strength of schedule is worse than the league-best New York Giants (.547), the Seahawks (.504) and the Bears (.492.) Atlanta's schedule has been statistically identical to the 49ers in difficulty (.488), and has been stronger than the Packers (.469.)
Over the course of the season, the "any given Sunday" principle has been proven time and time again. All four of Green Bay's losses have come from playoff teams, but they looked spectacularly bad against the Giants in week 12. The Giants have lost to all of their division opponents, as well as the Bengals and the Steelers. The Seahawks beat Green Bay (technically), New England and Chicago, but lost to Arizona, St. Louis, Detroit and Miami, as well as San Francisco. The Bears lost to playoff-caliber teams in Green Bay, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle, but also nearly lost to the Panthers at home. The 49ers have a full-blown quarterback controversy on their hands, and have lost to the Vikings, the Giants and the Rams, and also tied the Rams.
All of the teams in the playoff hunt are imminently beatable. Unfortunately, the same holds true for the Falcons, but what seems to set the 2012 Falcons apart from the other playoff contenders in the NFC is a will to win. The Falcons have not played their best football at times this season, but they have found a way to win 11 of 12 games regardless. They've suffered injuries on both sides of the ball, and the "next man up" comes in and does his best. Statistics cannot predict how a team will fare in the playoffs. It cannot be quantified, but the intangible will to win, despite mistakes or injuries or adversity, is the most important characteristic a team can possess in the playoffs.
How do you think the Falcons match up with the other playoff contenders in the NFC?