On Saturday, the Seattle Seahawks will be one win away from their third appearance in the NFC Championship game in the last four years. In each of their previous three playoff trips, they faced the team with the NFL’s highest-scoring offense: The Denver Broncos, the Green Bay Packers, and the Carolina Panthers. Their opponent this week is also the league’s leading offense:
The Atlanta Falcons, who scored 540 points, tied for the seventh-most ever with the 2000 St. Louis Rams. The Falcons are led by Matt Ryan and a passing attack that finished first in net yards per attempt and second in touchdowns despite no player catching more than six touchdowns on the season. (A tie between Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel.) Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has done a brilliant job of getting the most out of Ryan, who had career-highs in completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt, and a passer rating of 117.1 when he had never been in triple digits before. For their offense, and their offense alone, Atlanta is considered a frontrunner to make the Super Bowl, and perhaps even win it.
They have the third-best odds to win the Super Bowl, according to FootballOutsiders, which is a little surprising because on defense their DVOA is very bad. The Falcons are first in DVOA on offense (25.3%) but 27th on defense, and 29th against the run specifically. Despite the idea that Dan Quinn would be a defense-first coach, they certainly are not that, and defensive coordinator Richard Smith has never had a top 10 defense in any of his six seasons as a DC with the Dolphins, Texans, and Falcons.
Past “Great Offense/Bad Defense” DVOA teams haven’t been very successful in the postseason:
In 2015, the New Orleans Saints were seventh on offense and 32nd on defense, posting a 26.1% DVOA. They went 7-9.
In 2014, the Pittsburgh Steelers were number two on offense and 30th on defense. They went 11-5 but lost at home in the wild card round. The Saints were seventh and 31st this time, again going 7-9.
The 2013 San Diego Chargers were second on offense, 32nd on defense, and went just 9-7. The Philadelphia Eagles were 3rd and 23rd and lost in the first round. The Green Bay Packers were ninth and 31st but a big reason for their lower offensive ranking was that Aaron Rodgers missed a good chunk of the season. In the playoffs though, they were knocked out quick.
In 2011, the Packers went 15-1 with the number one offense and 25th-ranked defense, losing to the Giants in the divisional round without much of a fight. New Orleans was second and 28th. The New England Patriots were third and 30th. Two of those teams lost to the New York Giants in the playoffs (19th on defense) and the Saints were knocked out by the third-ranked San Francisco 49ers. The Chargers went 8-8 ranking fifth and 29th, while the Carolina Panthers went 6-10 ranking fourth and 32nd.
In 2010, the Houston Texans actually went 6-10 with the number two offense, because they were 31st on defense. The Pats were first and 21st, losing to the Jets in the divisional round.
The 2008 Denver Broncos went 8-8 with the number one offense and 31st-ranked defense. Nothing notable in 2007 and then finally in 2006 ...
The Indianapolis Colts were first on offense and 25th on defense, 25th on special teams. They were second in points and 23rd in points allowed, outscoring opponents by just 67 over the course of the season. They actually had to win a wild card game and then go on the road in the divisional round, meaning the Falcons have an advantage now that they did not, but the reason the Colts were successful in those games: They allowed 14 points combined, including just one touchdown. Against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional matchup, they actually only scored 15 points, all on field goals by Adam Vinatieri. The quarterbacks they faced in those rounds were Trent Green and Steve McNair, who combined threw 23 touchdowns in 24 games that season. Green was 36, McNair 34. Indy did need one significant victory, and it came in one of those classic games against New England.
The Patriots took a 21-3 lead, the Colts came back to tie it in the third quarter, then New England would take a lead again, tie, New England lead, tie, New England lead, before Indianapolis won on a Joseph Addai touchdown with 1:00 minute remaining.
Two weeks later, the Colts won the Super Bowl, benefiting from being the first and last team in history that saw Rex Grossman as the only thing standing between them and a Lombardi trophy. Was that Indianapolis team a great one? In the context of all 50 Super Bowl winners, absolutely not. They had a great player, some great supporting players, including Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney on defense, but their win would be somewhat forgettable if not for the fact that it was Peyton Manning’s only championship that a defense didn’t carry him to.
How does that compare to Atlanta and Matt Ryan now?
In general, I’d have to say that even if Manning is better than Ryan, their play during just those two seasons is comparable, if not giving the edge to Ryan. The combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is arguably on par with Addai and Dominic Rhodes, but perhaps giving an edge to the Falcons’ duo. Interestingly, the edge in receivers has to go to Indianapolis because as great as Julio Jones is, Jones and Mohamed Sanu has nothing on Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (both topped 1,300 yards that season), even if you throw in Taylor Gabriel.
But the big thing as far as their paths to the Super Bowl is that they’ll either need their defense to play a lot better or they’ll need to hope that they don’t run up against a defense that can contain their offense. The Falcons were held under 20 once all year, a 24-15 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, Atlanta was 1-5 when they scored 30 or less, with the lone victory being a 23-16 win over the Denver Broncos and their terrible offense. The Seahawks held all but two teams they faced under 30: The Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals, both losses.
All evidence says that the Falcons need to put up big points in order to win games. All evidence also suggests that Seattle has been the best team in the NFL in limiting points allowed dating back to 2012, but we don’t have enough of a sample size to know how big the loss of Earl Thomas will prove to be in that regard other than: it’s big and they’ve already allowed 30+ twice without him. So it’s not a great sign, but perhaps Pete Carroll has learned something from those experiences to change things by Saturday.
They also had the most games in the NFL of holding a team to 10 or less with five.
The good thing for Atlanta is that if they get by the Seahawks, they might be set. The Cowboys are 17th on defense, the Packers are 20th, the Patriots are 16th, the Chiefs are 14th, and the Steelers are 11th. The Texans are seventh but don’t have enough offense to even make it to the next round, let alone the Super Bowl. Perhaps Pittsburgh and New England have the best shot to out-duel the Falcons, certainly Seattle hasn’t looked like the out-dueling type for most of the season, but this may be the perfect year for Atlanta to get away with a Super Bowl win. Or the perfect opportunity for the Seahawks to get a win over a team with a great offense and a very bad defense, because as shown above, none of those teams in the last 10 years have won a Super Bowl, and only one has gotten that far. Many of them were one-and-done.
That doesn’t mean that the Falcons can’t stomp Seattle, reach the Super Bowl, and win it. They could definitely do that. But are they a great team? I think a title like that should really be held for teams who don’t have a defense that is one of the worst in the NFL. That’s a destination they could be headed towards in the future with Keanu Neal, Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, and Desmond Trufant in the fold, but right now they might just be a great offense with a fortunate path.
That is unless the Seahawks can be greater on Saturday.