NFL playoff picture: Now are the Falcons for real?

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Is is better to be lucky or good? Why not both?

The Atlanta Falcons did it again, winning their 11th game which keeps them ahead of the pack in the NFC. Barring some incredibly unforeseen circumstances, the Falcons are also likely to land the top seed in the conference, which means a first-round bye and home field advantage through the playoffs. Now can we finally accept the Falcons as a legitimate contender?


More: NFL playoff picture | Playoff scenarios for Week 13 | NFL picks

Thursday's win over the rival New Orleans Saints - the only team to beat the Falcons this year - didn't leave many observers convinced. Despite the score board, the game was close through the fourth quarter. It might have been even closer had Drew Brees not struggled with the clock at the end of the first half.

Atlanta's offense failed to convert a single third down until the seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter. It was the only one Matt Ryan and Co. would convert out of 11 chances. Not exactly the hallmark of efficiency. Prior to this game, there were six NFC teams ranked higher in Football Outsiders overall efficiency ratings, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA).

The chart below includes each NFC team ranked higher than the Falcons in overall DVOA, along with the offensive and defensive DVOA numbers through Week 12. The rankings reflect each team's place in the entire league in that category. Remember that negative numbers are better for defense.

Team Total DVOA Rank Off. DVOA Rank Def. DVOA Rank
SF 40.1% 1 23.0% 2 -17.7% 2
SEA 30.7% 4 9.2% 8 -15.7% 4
CHI 24.9% 5 -15.2% 26 -33.8% 1
GB 23.7% 6 15.0% 5 -7.5% 7
NYG 18.2% 7 11.9% 7 -5.6% 8
DET 4.0% 11 15.3% 4 6.1% 25
ATL 2.9% 12 4.0% 14 1.1% 16

The efficiency data is likely to change for Atlanta when it's calculated and adjusted following the complete round of Week 13 games. The defense is likely to get a boost thanks to the turnovers, while the offense could tumble a bit given its struggles.

Right now, the Falcons are above average, slightly, when compared to the rest of the NFL. The biggest difference is that no other team can boast an 11-1 record.

The Falcons are 7-1 this season in games decided by seven points or less; four of the Falcons' last five games were decided by that margin. It almost happened again against the Saints. Atlanta had the same record in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2010, when the team finished 13-3 with the top seed in the NFC. Green Bay beat them 48-21 in Atlanta's first playoff game that season.

This season's Falcons fit into two convenient descriptions. The Falcons either 1) keep things exciting with a nailbiter every week or 2) are just lucky to get the bounces, bluffing all the way to 11-1. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Better decision-making from Drew Brees could have the Saints within a touchdown at the half on Thursday night, rather than down by 10 points and desperate to the start the third quarter. Rafael Bush's fumble recovery was another one of those turning points.

On the other hand, Atlanta's defense intercepted Brees five times, a career-worst for the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback. That kind of thing doesn't happen purely by accident, though there is a little luck involved in the equation when a desperate Brees is making decisions the Sean Payton supervised version of himself might not have allowed.

Mike Smith's record in the playoffs, not to mention his troubling relationship with fourth downs, also colors opinions about the team's success this season. The team has made three trips to the postseason since Smith became head coach in 2008, never winning a single game.

The Falcons have four more games to answer these questions. A Week 15 game against the Giants will be closely scrutinized for answers about just how resilient this team really is. Until then, never underestimate just how far a good bounce can take a team.

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