The 2016 Atlanta Falcons have a very good offense. It’s an offense that generally made some stout defenses look helpless and overwhelmed.
Comparing teams and units throughout history is a tricky practice, and won’t be truly accurate until time machines are invented, but I digress. This year’s Atlanta offense, engineered by Kyle Shanahan and orchestrated by Matt Ryan, is regarded as one of the best the NFL has ever seen.
play action split zone in the redzone. solid throw from matt ryan pic.twitter.com/1T3C8Uflx4— charles (@FourVerts) December 20, 2016
With a Super Bowl victory, however, the Falcons should be able to stake their claim as the top offense in NFL history.
Starting with the obvious, Atlanta scored 540 points – 505 on offense – over the course of the regular season, which is tied for the seventh-most with the “Greatest Show on Turf” 2000 St. Louis Rams. Factoring in the playoffs to that list, Atlanta has scored 620 points this season, which moves it into fifth place in all-time scoring.
Point totals aren’t a surefire way to measure an offense, though. For example, the Falcons rested their starters at various times in the fourth quarter, which may have prevented higher point totals.
In this case, a better measurement might be points per possession. Atlanta averaged 3.06 points per possession this season, which is second among the seven highest-scoring offenses in NFL history. The Falcons scored points on more drives than any other team besides the 2007 Patriots, which averaged 3.37 points per possession.
Here is where the argument becomes a little more nuanced. For starters, the Falcons offense is the epitome of versatility. It’s well-known that Ryan set an NFL record by throwing a touchdown pass to 13 different players and nearly all of those receptions came from regular contributors. That’s not a stat driven by injuries, but simply as a function of the offense.
teco's touchdown on the 99yd drive. scissors concept with him running the corner and gabriel running the post. seattle lost him pic.twitter.com/ROgaDCKiG2— charles (@FourVerts) January 15, 2017
It’s also important to note the slate of defenses that Atlanta played in 2016. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Falcons played the second-toughest slate of defenses in the league. Only the 2012 Patriots faced a string of defenses inside of the top 10 among the NFL’s other notable offenses.
In fact, five of the seven comparable offenses had a defensive schedule that was ranked 26th or lower. Atlanta’s offensive excellence was forged against the toughest run of defenses that any of the great offenses faced.
2013 Broncos – 664 total points*, 2.98 pts/drive, 30th defensive schedule
2007 Patriots – 655 total points, 3.37 pts/drive, 11th defensive schedule
1998 Vikings – 624 total points, 2.92 pts/drive, 28th defensive schedule
2011 Saints – 624 total points, 2.98 pts/drive, 27th defensive schedule
2016 Falcons – 620 total points, 3.06 pts/drive, 2nd defensive schedule
2012 Patriots – 611 total points, 2.82 pts/drive, 8th defensive schedule
2011 Packers – 580 total points, 3.05 pts/drive, 26th defensive schedule
2000 Rams – 568 total points, 2.85 pts/drive, 27th defensive schedule
This isn’t a perfect argument, and there really isn’t a surefire way to determine which NFL’s offense is the very best. What is for certain, however, is that Atlanta belongs in that discussion and has a chance to do something that no other team on that list accomplished. Win the Super Bowl.
Of the seven other top-scoring offenses, only the 2007 Patriots and 2013 Broncos reached the Super Bowl. In the Big Game, neither of those teams failed to score more than 14 points, further continuing the notion that defense wins championships.
Atlanta has a chance to eschew that notion and earn its first championship in one game. This season, the Patriots led the NFL in scoring defense by allowing just 15.6 points per game. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Denver Broncos allowed 18.5 points per game.
If the Falcons offense once again delivers a victory with an impressive performance, it will have done so against the best defense in the league. Considering the string of talent-laden defenses the Falcons have exploited in their march to the Super Bowl, it’s only fitting that this is their final test.
None of the other elite offenses have managed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end. If Atlanta takes the podium after the game, its case for best offense in NFL history will have been made.