Generally the last remaining undefeated team in an NFL season is recognized as the best of the best.
Other teams around the league see them as a target. Fans expect to see them making a long playoff run. And the media throws more hype behind them than the next teen singing sensation.
Well, the Atlanta Falcons currently stand alone atop the National Football League with a sparkling 6-0 record. All other 31 teams have at least one blemish on their record.
Legendary head coach Bill Parcells once said that in the NFL “you are what your record says you are.”
So why, then, when fans and media are asked to name the league’s best, do so many of them confidently pronounce the 5-1 Houston Texans, or the 5-2 New York Giants, or someone else not the Falcons as the top dog?
The Falcons aren’t one of the traditional powerhouse teams of the last decade like the Patriots, Steelers, or any team with a quarterback named Manning. They’re the new kid in the sandbox.
Since 2008, the Falcons have the second most wins in the league and have been almost unbeatable in the Georgia Dome. With offensive weapons that rival any in the league and a defense that has forced 17 turnovers though just six weeks, the Falcons should be riding league-wide hype all the way to the Super Bowl in February.
A Deceiving Fast Start?
Looking more closely into the Falcons’ early season success shows a team that hasn’t been the powerhouse their record depicts.
The offense has scored no fewer than 23 points in a single game, an impressive stat…until you look at the opponents.
Atlanta hasn’t played one team this season with a winning record, and the only complete victory of the season was over the Chargers, 27-3. Their opponents this season have a combined 12 wins through six weeks.
Usually dominant at home, the Falcons had to rally for fourth quarter comebacks against the one-win Panthers and the hapless Raiders. Atlanta also owns a victory over the one-win Chiefs.
The Falcons own the 22nd-ranked defense in football, and they are 28th against the run. Their opponents this season have actually gained more yards on the Falcons than Atlanta has on them.
Look at some of these statistics without looking at the record and you think you’re investigating a losing football team.
Despite they’re struggles in some areas, they’re still 6-0. And they play in a division where no other team has a winning record.
The large cloud over this team has nothing to do with the regular season, however.
The Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs since head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan came to town. The Falcons have folded three straight seasons when it mattered most, once when they had a first round playoff bye in 2010. So now it’s hard to trust Atlanta until we all see what happens come playoff time.
Yes, right now the Falcons are in a better position than anyone in the league to march toward January football looking at a first round bye and home-field advantage, ready to erase the memory of those playoff defeats. But things can change fast in the NFL.
Rocky Road Ahead?
Atlanta has come through the easy part of their schedule unscathed. They had their struggles but didn’t trip up and fall to any of the lesser teams they’ve faced.
The road could get far bumpier in the next couple months.
The Falcons head to Philadelphia this week to face the Eagles, with both teams coming off their bye week. Eagles’ head coach Andy Reid has never lost the first week after his team’s bye, 13-0 overall, and has won three of his four games against Atlanta since Mike Smith became head coach.
The Falcons’ strength is their passing game with explosive receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. Few teams can match those two playmakers on the outside; the Eagles however are the exceptions. Philadelphia’s strength is their pass defense. They hold quarterbacks to a lower passer rating than any other team in the league, and cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie match up extremely well with the height and speed of White and Jones.
And I couldn’t mention this game without bringing up Michael Vick, the Eagles quarterback who was the Falcons’ franchise player before Matt Ryan arrived.
Atlanta then hosts a talented Cowboys team before they travel to their biggest rival, the New Orleans Saints.
Quarterback Drew Brees seems to have found his stride after a rocky 0-4 start to the season. The Falcons later host New Orleans at the end of November as well.
The defending champion New York Giants travel to Atlanta in December for a game that could have massive playoff implications. Eli Manning has become the elite quarterback everyone knew he could be, and the Falcons will be looking for some revenge against the team that tossed them from the playoffs last season, a game that included Ryan and the offense being shut out.
Atlanta will face nine Pro Bowl quarterbacks in their remaining ten games this season, a very difficult slate that has many questioning whether the undefeated Falcons, and especially their suspect defense, can keep on churning out Ws.
If the D can hold up enough for the Falcons to win some shootouts, they should be a top seed in the NFC.
But Atlanta will have to play far better than they have early this season – against some of the weakest teams in the league – or they could get kicked right out of the sandbox as quickly as they arrived.