The Falcons are halfway to an undefeated regular season almost nobody thinks will happen. Football Outsiders puts the chances of the Falcons going 16-0 at either 0.9 percent or 1.1 percent, depending on which FO index you check. Football Perspective, a more charitable numbers-driven web site, puts the likelihood of perfection at 3.3 percent.
We’ve already seen a slew of articles suggesting the Falcons aren’t as good as their record — I know; I wrote one of them – and the intent today isn’t to revisit that discussion. (But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Football Outsiders, in its Efficiency Ratings, ranks the 8-0 Falcons only the league’s ninth-best team; Aaron Schatz notes that the Falcons’ Defensive-weighted Value Over Average number is the worst of any 8-0 team ever.) Our focus is on the eight remaining games.
USA Today informs us that the Falcons are the 20th team since 1966, when the first Super Bowl was played, to be 8-0. (From 1966-77, seasons lasted 14 games.) You’re aware that only two teams — the 1972 Dolphins and the 2007 Patriots — completed a regular season unbeaten. USA Today, with help from the busy Football Outsiders, also breaks down the hurdles over which previous unbeatens tripped, Games No. 11 (four teams lost) and 14 (four more) being the most treacherous.
But here we veer from advanced analytics and turn to a rather basic set of numbers — the NFL standings. Of the Falcons’ final eight games, only one will come against a team currently above .500. (The Giants, who play here on Dec. 16, are 6-3.) Three more games feature an opponent at .500. The other four offer sub-.500 opposition.
That’s a slightly toughened version of the the season’s first half, which featured one opponent that currently holds a winning record (Denver); one at .500 (San Diego) and six with losing records. And now we ask: Of the remaining eight games, which looks scariest? (Remember: The Falcons still must play New Orleans and Tampa Bay twice apiece.)
The Saints? They’re playing without their head coach, whose contractual status even while he’s not coaching has become an issue, and they’re on pace to have the worst defense in NFL history. The Cardinals? Once 4-0, they’ve lost five straight. The Panthers? The Falcons saw them already and took what might have been their best shot.
The Giants? They’re good, but they’ve also lost to Dallas and Philadelphia, teams the Falcons just handled. The Lions? They’ve been one of the league’s bigger duds and, with two games against Green Bay and one against Houston to come before they face the Falcons, they could be out of it by Dec. 22.
That leaves, improbably, Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers were 4-12 last season, the last of those losses a 45-24 embarrassment in the Georgia Dome. They’re 4-4, having won three of four and not having lost to anybody by more than seven points. Unlike Bucs teams of recent vintage, they’re better on offense than defense — they’ve gained only two fewer yards than have the Falcons — and the 5-foot-9 rookie Doug Martin has rushed for 386 yards in the past two games.
On Sunday the Falcons play in New Orleans, and they well recall Drew Brees and his rub-it-in record. The Falcons would be stoked to play the Saints if both were 0-8. Next is a return to the Dome to face Arizona, which appears to have nothing left. Then it’s down to Tampa the Sunday after Thanksgiving. If I had to take a wide-angle guess at where the first loss will occur, I’d say it’ll happen Nov. 25 in the stadium with the pirate ship in the perilous Game 11.
Granted, this all could be moot come 4:10 p.m. Sunday. The Saints could do the deed. (Though I, not being a fan of historically awful defenses, doubt it.) Or the Falcons, advanced analytics be darned, could rattle off another eight and become the worst 16-0 team ever. And here the aging historian in me recalls that, even as the only NFL entry ever to finish as an undefeated champion was going about its business, doubt held some sway.
The ‘72 Dolphins went 14-0 against a schedule that included — see if this sounds familiar — two opponents that finished above .500, and neither of those made the playoffs. They’d lost quarterback Bob Griese to a broken leg against the Chargers in Week 5, and he would return only when Earl Morrall couldn’t muster an offense against the young Steelers in the AFC title game. And even at 16-0, the Dolphins were underdogs in Super Bowl VII against Washington. (They won 14-7, no thanks to Garo Yepremian.)
Because those Dolphins finished 17-0, they’re generally considered the NFL’s greatest team ever. A lot of folks in Miami, however, insist the 1973 edition, which went 12-2 en route to another Super Bowl victory, was superior. So there’s precedent at work: Even winning every game doesn’t inoculate you against criticism. The unassuming Falcons are only halfway through their regular season, and already they know the feeling.
Further reading/viewing: Would the Falcons be getting nitpicked if they were 6-2?
By Mark Bradley