|Blatant attempt to get readers via hot Falcons cheerleader.|
But as I think back to the start of the season, few people would have had this game circled on the schedule as a tough one for the Packers. And few people probably would have expected the Packers to go 3-0 against their previous three opponents – the Jets, Cowboys and Vikings. So I found myself wondering, is Atlanta really that good? Don’t get me wrong – they’re a good team, and they will be tough to beat on Sunday. But are they great? Are they intimidating? After looking at the stats, I’m not so sure.
First, let’s look at their offense. The Falcons rank sixth in the NFL in total offensive yards. Sounds pretty good, right? But a large reason for that is they’ve run 708 offensive plays, the most in the NFL. If you rank them by yards per play, they are only 19th in the NFL at 5.2 yards/play. The Packers are sixth by that measure, at 5.7 yards/play. By points scored, the Falcons are sixth in the NFL at 256 points, but the Packers are only 4 points behind them at 252 (eighth in the league).
The stat that sticks out for the Falcons (and which has certainly contributed to that league-leading 708 plays) is their third-down conversion. Atlanta has converted 49% of their third downs this season, second best in the NFL. So getting stops on third down is going to be key this Sunday.
Defensively, Atlanta is pretty mediocre. By yards allowed, they rank right in the middle – 17th in the NFL compared to a #12 ranking for the Packers. By points allowed they’ve fared slightly better -- 7th in the NFL at 192 points. But this has been a forte of the Packers, who are tied with the Bears for #1 in the league at 146.
Even more interesting is to look at point differential (points scored minus points allowed). The Packers lead the NFL in this measure at +106 – significantly ahead of the #2 team, the Steelers, at +70 (see chart to right). The Falcons have fared pretty well in this statistic as well – coming in fourth at +64. But that really just puts them in a clump of teams. Two fewer touchdowns for the Falcons and they'd rank 10th in this category. Fiver fewer touchdowns for the Packers and they'd still rank #1. Last time I checked, you win games if you score more points than your opponent, so this statistic is pretty meaningful.
Next, let’s take a quick look at the Falcons’ win/loss record. They’ve had two impressive wins – 27-24 over the division-rival Saints on the road, and 26-21 over Baltimore. Their 27-21 win over Tampa Bay is important, since they are in their division, but I wouldn’t call it impressive – particularly since the Buccaneers should have won that game, and since they are… the Buccaneers. Their other 5 wins were all games they should have won – a blowout of Arizona (a train wreck who is second only to the Panthers in getting blown out), a 16-14 squeaker over the 49ers (who, I can attest first hand from living in the Bay Area, are awful), a 20-10 victory over the talentless 3-10 Browns, a narrow 39-32 win against the 2-9 Bengals, and a 34-17 romp over the rookie-led Rams. Their two losses came against the Steelers (without Ben Roethlisberger on opening day) and Eagles (with Kevin Kolb rather than Michael Vick at QB).
I’m not saying the Falcons aren’t good – in the words of Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” I’m just saying that if the Packers play like they are capable of playing, it’s a very winnable game. And if they do win, they just might find themselves on the inside track for a playoff bye.