The Atlanta Falcons are fresh off a victory over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 12, defeating their opponent 21-14 and climbing to a 5-6 record. That record is already an improvement over their 2020 finish of 4-12, which is at least a sign of marginal growth for Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot’s team. It may not have been a dominant performance on Sunday, but Atlanta took care of business against a bad team on the back of a strong defensive effort and just enough from the offense.
Despite the good vibes that come from any win, I’m hesitant to get any more excited about this Falcons team. It was just a week ago that Atlanta lost 25-0 on Thursday Night Football, and just days before that the team lost 43-3 to the Cowboys. This team is not at all consistent and has proven to be talent-deficient and prone to major lapses in play. And yet, heading into Week 13, the Falcons are sitting just a hair behind .500 and are tied for the 7th seed with Washington, Minnesota, and New Orleans.
This team is maddening, but also strangely endearing. They’ve managed to keep punching back after getting knocked down, repeatedly and forcefully, over the course of the season. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that Atlanta is currently -103 in scoring differential—they’ve been outscored by over 100 points so far in 2021. Despite that lopsided number, this team could easily be 6-5 if not for a blown lead against Washington.
As it stands, the Falcons are 5-6—but even that record is remarkable for a team that has been so thoroughly outscored. For reference, Atlanta’s -103 margin is currently 5th-worst in the NFL. Only the Jets, Texans, Lions, and Jaguars are worse. The records of those teams are also significantly worse than the Falcons:
Jets: -135 scoring differential, 3-8 record
Texans: -128 scoring differential, 2-9 record
Lions: -115 scoring differential, 0-10-1 record
Jaguars: -110 scoring differential, 2-9 record
In fact, at 5-6, the Falcons are tied for the 19th-best record in the NFL. That’s just a little bit behind league-average, and far better than you’d expect for a team with this scoring differential. So, why has Atlanta performed so much better in the win column than their scoring differential would suggest?
The most obvious answer is when Atlanta has won, they’ve tended to win narrowly. All five of the Falcons wins have come in one-score games, where the team is 5-2 on the season. When Atlanta has lost, however, they’ve tended to lose big: four of the team’s six losses have been by 20 or more points.
It’s notable that the Falcons have significantly improved their fortunes in one-score games under Arthur Smith. In 2020, Dan Quinn’s final season, the Falcons were 2-8 in such games. Smith’s 5-2 record is well above-average—one-score games tend to be a coin flip for most teams, so Atlanta has overperformed expectations significantly. In terms of Expected W/L, this team “should” be 3-8. By comparison: in 2020, the Falcons Expected W/L was roughly 8-8—so the team vastly underperformed expectations.
So is Arthur Smith simply a better coach in close games, or are the Falcons benefitting from some regression to the mean? Is the team’s overperformance a reflection of the staff and roster management, or just plain old good luck?
That I don’t know—and I’m not sure how you’d figure it out. The most notable development with this team seems to be an ability to close out games that simply wasn’t there in 2020. Atlanta has mounted three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives this season, compared to zero in 2020. The defense has also managed to get key stops that secured several wins.
Time will tell if this Falcons team is actually building the identity of being a scrappy team that can and will win the majority of the time in close games, or if they’ve simply benefitted from better-than-average luck in 2021 (after perhaps the worst luck of all time in 2020). How they perform against another NFC contender in the Buccaneers this weekend will also give us an important piece of information: is this team legitimately improving, or did they just have a solid outing against a lesser opponent in the Jaguars?