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Will the Falcons Finally Put Teams Away?

Hoping and praying that the team slows down on the need for Matt Ryan fourth quarter comebacks.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

From 2008 to 2012, the Falcons were one of the most successful NFL franchises when looking at regular season records. We all know the team struggled to win playoff games and despite their regular season successes, the team could never consistently put teams away. There was a strong tendency for the Falcons to play "down" to their opponents, often needing a fourth quarter comeback in order to seal the victory. Many fans felt that this tendency was the sign of a deeper set of issues and that the success of the team was not a true indicator of the quality of the team.

For fans of advanced analytics, Football Outsiders has uncovered a trend that may explain why the Falcons "success" for those five seasons never materialized into a championship. If you scroll to the end of that page, you'll find this very informing section:

Championship teams are generally defined by their ability to dominate inferior opponents, not their ability to win close games.

In the stretch from 2008 thru 2012, the Falcons were very good at winning close games - but they were terrible at dominating inferior opponents. For some deeper insight, let's take a look at the regular season records of the Falcons from 2008-2012 and another successful franchise in that same time: the New England Patriots.

Winning, Just not Convincingly

Let's first take a look at the win totals of each team from 2008 thru 2012. In parentheses is the number of wins that were by one score (8 points) or less - ie, a close game:

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Falcons 11 (6) 9 (4) 13 (7) 10 (5) 13 (7)
Patriots 11 (3) 10 (3) 14 (5) 13 (4) 12 (4)

During those 5 seasons, the Falcons won 56 games, 29 of which were a one-score game. That means in 52% of the games the Falcons won, they were within a single score. Contrast that to the Patriots, who in the same time frame won 60 games of which only 19 were a single score game - a much smaller 32% of the games they won.

Further, the Falcons average margin of victory during those five years was 11.7 points. The Patriots? An eye-opening 17.1 points - nearly 6 points more per win. Simply put, the Patriots - though they had a similar record - did a much better job of putting teams away every single year.

Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Curses

Another factor to consider when looking at the success of the Falcons and Patriots is how many fourth quarter game-winning drives each team needed each year.

It should come as no surprise that the Falcons - under Matt Ryan - had one of the most successful stretches of fourth quarter game winning drives in NFL history from 2008-2012. In that time, the team had 24 total fourth quarter game winning drives. In contrast, the Patriots had less than half of that at 11. While this certainly paints a positive picture of Ryan, there's a troubling revelation that comes with this.

What if the team didn't have those GWDs to save them?

For the Patriots, their amazing 60-20 record during that time would be reduced to a respectable 49-31 record. For the Falcons, their 56-24 record would drop to a very depressing 32-48. Here's a look at how each season would have played out if the team didn't have those game winning drives:

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Falcons 11-5 9-7 13-3 10-6 13-3
Patriots 11-5 10-6 14-2 13-3 12-4
Falcons GWDs 4 4 6 3 7
Patriots GWDs 2 1 3 3 2
Falcons Record w/out GWD 7-9 5-11 7-9 7-9 6-10
Patriots Record w/out GWD 9-7 9-7 11-5 10-6 10-6

As you can see, the Falcons - without those patented Matt Ryan fourth quarter comebacks - would be reduced to a team that would have had no winning seasons between 2008 and 2012. By contrast, the Patriots would have continued to have winning seasons every single year, if not necessarily playoff berths.

Why the Team Needs to Win Differently

I don't want to minimize the importance of being able to win close games - it is important for teams to be able to stay close and "close out" a game in the fourth quarter. But when a team wins convincingly, there are several benefits that would not otherwise be realized in a close game:

  • Starters are able to sit and get some rest, instead of playing a full hard-fought game
  • Depth players are given valuable reps in real games, not just preseason games
  • Teams are not as drained physically and emotionally going into the next game on the schedule
These points should resonate with Falcons fans, because we've experienced the opposite of each of these over the years. We've seen some of our starters play a ridiculously high percentage of snaps because they are in so many close games. We've also seen very few of our depth players get on the field and get valuable reps. Once the injuries began piling up, we had to insert players who had never taken a snap in a regular season game before. And I can't count the number of times that the Falcons edged out a close victory, only to go into the next game looking flat and lifeless.

Going Forward

But what about going forward? Will things truly change under this new coaching regime? There's some reason to hope they might.

For one, if the team can improve on defense, we may not see the defensive collapses that plagued the team from 2008 until last year. In particular, if the team can get off the field on third downs, it should give the offense more opportunities to score and put the game out of reach. Easier said than done for sure, but the moves this offseason could provide a better pass rush that  - when combined with a good secondary - could help this defense improve quickly.

On the offensive side of the ball, the goal will not only be to score more consistently, but to do it either passing or running the ball. Having true offensive balance should help this team better manage the clock and not be as predictable as it has been in the past. With home-run threats like Tevin Coleman and Antone Smith running the ball, and Julio Jones receiving it, the Falcons offense has some of the necessary pieces to be very dangerous offensively. Having Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator also brings hope that the team can use these players even more effectively.

These are a lot of IFs in the equation, but none of this seems out of reach. Assuming the team can put this all into action, Falcons fans may finally get to watch some games that don't cause massive heart attacks through all four quarters. And while that would mean Matt Ryan would have fewer 4th quarter comebacks on his resume, that's a sacrifice I believe all fans are willing to make.