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Enter the Falcons, part II: Back to the trap house

Matt Ryan had a monster year, but Russell Wilson is still the better playoff quarterback

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

“Keep that motherfucker rolling. Boy don’t never turn it off.”

Matt Ryan is going to be the NFL MVP. Not that the media voters look at these advanced details but he is substantially the leader in DVOA and DYAR, and also leads in QBR. More predictively (for the award) Ryan threw for 500 more yards than the next quarterback with a winning record. Ryan generated the most approximate value for his team by three full points, which is the difference between the next best player, Aaron Rodgers, and Tyrod Taylor. And Rodgers edged Ryan by two touchdowns but did it with 70 more attempts, and threw for two full fewer yards per attempt.

Whether you want to throw Tom Brady in and debate is not my point—it was easily Ryan’s best season, both by volume and efficiency. And yet, after nine full years compared to Russell Wilson’s five, Wilson has been the better quarterback.

Ryan has more than twice as many career passing yards as Wilson, so his volume production has been greater on average. But this is the first time Ryan has surpassed Wilson in most efficiency categories. He did so dramatically—not just better than Wilson’s injury-lagged 2016 but better than Wilson has ever done. And yet despite the amazing gap between their performances this year, Wilson still has the better career rates all around.

You might still say they’re trending in opposite directions, but the sudden spike, however aided by a coalescence of offensive talent that may continue, suggests Ryan’s numbers are unsustainable. Ryan’s index stats (Y/A+, NY/A+, AY/A+ and the whole “plus” family) place him between 140 and 150 percent of the efficiency of an average quarterback in 2016. His Y/A+, for example, is 149, tied for seventh-best ever with Otto Graham in 1947. It’s a more extreme position than any recent quarterbacks except Kurt Warner in 2000—really: there are 16 quarterbacks bunched around Ryan before you get to Rodgers’s 2011 season but almost all of them played in the 1930s and ’40s except Nick Foles’s 147 in 2013. The number is such an outlier historically that the 2016 runner up, Tom Brady’s 124, is tied for 140th-best all time.

Obviously Foles was never as good, and even Hall of Fame candidate Warner did not again approach such lofty numbers relative to league average. The reason old-timers do better at these indexed rates in a time that didn’t favor passing is because greater extremity of performance indicates a poorer standard of play. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould explained in his essay “Extinction of .400 hitting and the improvement of baseball”: “As average performance moves towards the limits of human possibility … (it) compresses great players into an ever decreasing space between average play and the immovable right wall.”

Of course, the question before us is not if Matt Ryan will fall off again next year, but how he will play Saturday. After last week’s game, Wilson’s playoff yards (2,552) more than double Ryan’s 1,230 yards, and his touchdowns are exactly double, 18 to nine. Naturally this is not a fair comparison because Wilson has played more than twice as many playoff games as the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback. But then again, Ryan himself was known early on as precocious for qualifying for the playoffs four of his first five years, and Wilson had also only benefited from four playoff appearances until now. They are now even in postseason entrances since Ryan has not been at all since those early visits.

Playoff wins are a team stat but part of the reason Wilson has more playoff games and better playoff totals is because he has played better in the playoffs. Wilson’s yards per attempt, yards per catch, passer rating and touchdown rate are all way better than Ryan’s. In a weak but real correlation, Ryan has just one playoff win compared to Russell Wilson’s eight, in the same number of appearances for their careers.

Then again, again, that one playoff win was against Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, and Ryan’s earlier performances (long ago as they were) did not come with the propellant of this year’s Falcons offense. But given all of the above, that makes the stakes of this game—the opportunity it presents Ryan to carry his legacy into premier-quarterback territory but also perhaps the limit to that opportunity given his (unrepeatable?) performance this year—verrrry intriguing.

One thing making Atlanta’s top scoring offense so impressive (it was 99 points ahead of the third-ranked New England Patriots) is how the Falcons did it without using particularly many drives. Atlanta’s 166 drives (not counting kneel downs) were the fourth-fewest in the league. Like the Detroit Lions last week, that’s partly because of a defense that didn’t get off the field quickly. But also because the Falcons were impressive at generating first downs. Despite the low numbers of possessions, only the New Orleans Saints moved the chains more.

And yet, Atlanta was only 11th in the league at converting third downs (just a few spots higher than Seattle’s offense). In the matchup against the Seahawks on October 16, the Falcons were just 3-11 on third down. But they faced the fewest third downs in the league by being likely the best offense in NFL history on first down, according to Bill Barnwell.

If Seattle can keep Atlanta in second and long, it has a huge advantage Saturday. The Seahawks can do it by giving Steven Terrell help in keeping a lid on the back end, and by controlling Ryan’s access to his pass-catching running backs. As Sterling Xie pointed out, Tevin Coleman and Davonte freeman accounted for 37 percent of the Falcons’ yards from scrimmage. They are probably the best pair of pass catching backs in the league, but the Seahawks held them to their lowest combined total in the first meeting.

If Terrell and the cornerbacks can avoid giving up long touchdowns better than they were able the first time around, they may even be able to limit Atlanta even if they give up intermediate yards and find themselves in somewhat manageable situations near the end zone. Relative to their crazy scoring potential, the Falcons don’t have quite as good a red zone offense, ranking just 9th in the league.

Julio Jones is big, and good at jump balls in coverage, but his skills don’t translate into as many targets when he’s not able to move in space. ESPN Falcons blogger Vaughn McClure reminds us Ryan only aimed for Jones eight times in the red zone in 2016, for a Jimmy Grahamish two touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu was slightly more of a feature down near the goal line, and of course Ryan has plenty of other targets including Taylor Gabriel (who didn’t play in the first tilt against Seattle), tight ends Levine Toilolo, Jacob Tamme, “secret weapon” Austin Hooper and the two running backs.

The Seahawks also got Ryan and his unit into third down with an effective pass rush. Seattle has the best group at getting pressure of any remaining in the playoffs, but was somewhat limited that game, with Frank Clark missing his only appearance of the season--plus a shortage of interior depth after Quinton Jefferson went on injured reserve but before the Seahawks plugged Sealver Siliga and eventually John Jenkins to replace him. And yet Barnwell emphasizes that the Seahawks managed to harass Ryan on 11 of 17 first-half dropbacks as they opened a 17-3 lead. It was only after Michael Bennett’s third-quarter knee injury made the unit extra thin (not to mention missing two of its best pass rushers), that Atlanta started to spark.

There’s so much spotlight on Seattle’s porous offensive line, but the Falcons’ adjusted sack rate is less than half a percentage point better than the Seahawks’. Atlanta also doesn’t have the interior rush that has bothered Seattle so much when the line struggled this year. Vic Beasley is the NFL leader in sacks, which should be problematic for the Seahawks’ tackles, but their next best pass rushers are Dwight Freeney and Adrian Clayborn so it’s not like the Arizona Cardinals where they can bring elite rushers from both sides. Seattle might try to give George Fant or Garry Gilliam help by using the tight ends or inserting Rees Odhiambo to help slow Beasley—or it can hope to get its run game going to further slow the defenders’ penetration.

The defense is healthy right now, thanks to a bye week that let Beasley nurse a wounded shoulder and Kam Chancellor-impersonator Keanu Neal care for his concussion that took them both out of their last game in New Orleans—but this is also the first playoff game for these young players, and most of the Atlanta defense.

The Falcons are 19th against the pass in DVOA, but were even worse statistically against the run—even worse than Detroit. Also expect Atlanta to have trouble marking Graham and Doug Baldwin: Dan Quinn’s defense was 29th against slot receivers, and their usual slot corner Brian Poole had to move outside after Desmond Trufant tore his pectoral. Graham had six catches for 89 yards in the first Falcons-Seahawks meeting.

This time the game is on the road, but that venue might not actually be as much hindrance as supposed. Seattle struggled away from home this year, scoring just 15.9 points per game compared to 28.1 on its own field. But as Davis Hsu mentioned on Twitter this week, most of those road woes came exclusively on grass, where they averaged just 9.8 points. It’s a small sample but in three games on artificial surfaces, the Seahawks scored 20, 27 and 31 points for an average nearly equivalent to what Seattle did at home. The Georgia Dome has field turf, the same substance as the Seahawks’ familiar home field.

That field is also where Seattle with Wilson exploded for flurry of scoring in one of the most exciting games of all time four years ago. That was, again, the site of Matt Ryan’s only postseason win, true, but if Ryan does happen to collect yet another playoff L, let him know that when life gives you lemons, in Atlanta you can always order lemon pepper wet.