The Falcons are amidst a three-game skid and all four of their defeats coming as double-digit losses.
However, the Falcons strike me as a more formidable opponent than some might think, especially the good people of The Falcoholic, some of whom are understandably morose at the moment. I'm not saying this to boost the Falcons up like a coach trying to avoid bulletin board material. Rather I want to know whether we're getting the full picture of Atlanta right now after six games.
Previous seasons have increasingly little bearing on the current season because players change so much year to year but there is a reason to believe that 2013 was the aberration and not the new norm.
Atlanta had posted no worse than a 9-7 record since acquiring Matt Ryan until that year and it is still hard for me to fathom their stunning fall. This is a team that has possessed the #1 seed twice in five years in a deep NFC which is impressive.
They have a track record to suggest that, while they might be continuing their 2013 swoon, they are not quite that troubled of a team. I give them the benefit of the doubt on being noticeably better than 2013.
Thomas Dimitroff's Roster Philosophy: Stars and Scrubs
One thing many seem to agree on, particularly Falcons fans themselves, is that Atlanta is a soft team. Even the management felt so before the season and made good strides to shore up the team by acquiring talents in the trenches, particularly on defense, such as Paul Soliai.
Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff has been criticized for his overall roster approach at times because of its emphasis on aggressive trades to get star talents like Julio Jones or Desmond Trufant on the outside.
Certainly, his philosophy differs starkly from Ozzie Newsome's who prefers to build up through the middle and rarely trades up. However, that doesn't make Dimitroff's approach wrong per se.
Bill Barnwell of Grantland has argued that Atlanta's philosophy can be summed up as a "Stars and Scrubs" approach.
In other words, Atlanta is what we call a "high variance team". They need their studs (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, and in years past guys like Tony Gonzalez or John Abraham) to play at an elite level or else their scrubs at other positions are going to probably lose them the game or at least not be good enough to help them win.
When it all goes right, you get the 2012 Falcons: a dominant team who put the hurt on the vaunted Seahawks for three quarters and then leapt out to a huge lead over San Francisco, coming about as close to a Super Bowl as our 2011 Ravens did.
When it goes poorly though, you get the 2013 Falcons: a team that implodes if one of those stars is lost (Julio Jones) or otherwise the stars don't play up to an elite level, forcing the scrubs into more meaningful roles that they are not equipped to do.
Again, this is only a different approach to the Ravens and not necessarily an incorrect one. The Ravens prefer to have much more depth everywhere, especially on defense, rarely making an aggressive trade up for a "star" at offensive skill positions like Atlanta has done.
The Close Games
Atlanta was by all accounts a more competitive team last year than 4-12 indicates. They lost a number of close games. If you've learned nothing from my articles, just know that we cannot know everything about a football team based only on their record. Football is truly a game of inches, especially close games. The bounce of a fumble recovery, the tipped pass for an interception (or a 60-yard touchdown to Steve Smith as the case may be), the referee's spot at the first down marker, the fourth down pass over the middle against tight coverage.
Close games boil down to such a crazy thin line between victory and defeat that truly one play can be the difference. This is why an approach based purely on a team's win loss record is not good enough to tell us about a team.
When a team loses a high number of close games, it is not because they "forgot how to win". Conversely, teams with lots of close victories have no special sauce that helped them pull them out.
What usually happens is the team regresses to the mean of about 0.500 after enough time elapses. Some years, the bounces go your way every time and you look great. Other years they don't. Said another way, chance plays a huge role in close games, whether people want to believe it or not.
The 2013 Falcons fit that profile. They produced a point differential of a 5.9 win team despite winning just four games. This suggests that Atlanta will certainly be better than 2013.
The advanced stats bear it out as well. Defensively, yes, they are still brutal, currently ranked 31st in the NFL. Offensively though, they are 7th. Yes, much of that is a result of their domination over Tampa Bay but...then again their assault on Tampa tells us they might not be that bad. Bad teams don't put up 50-burgers on teams very often, if ever. In fact, one common sign of a strong team is its ability to dominate lesser opponents.
It's more than that though. Atlanta is also playing like the best team in the NFC South. Even though the record doesn't support it, the underlying numbers do as the only team with a positive "DAVE". They are the only NFC South team with a positive DVOA (meaning they are playing above league average, which is what 0% DVOA would be).
This shouldn't surprise anyway as really no one in the NFC South has separated themselves as the lead dog. That division winner might well be 9-7 and for all we know, it could be Atlanta.
Atlanta has demonstrated an "estimated wins" count of 3.3. This suggests they have played well enough that we would expect them to have won at least three games. It is hard to find a third game that they should have won (@MIN perhaps), but this does tell us that they haven't exactly played terribly in defeat either.
I analyze trends not predictions, and the trends tell us Atlanta is better than both their 2013 or 2014 Win Loss record would suggest.
Some will always point to the W/L column to drive their narrative. That's fine. That person probably cannot be convinced by anything I've said anyway.
However, the evidence suggests that Atlanta will be formidable opponent regardless of what the final score is. I do believe Baltimore is the all-around better team which counts for a lot in this league, however, I have more faith in Matt Ryan than most to make a game of it with anyone, if the past is any indicator. He doesn't have one of the best fourth quarter comeback records by complete accident (one of which came against us in 2010 after Flacco had given Baltimore the lead in the final 60 seconds).
At the end of the day, football is a game of talent, preparation, and often times, inches. The Ravens need to play very well to win on Sunday, simple as that.