Yesterday, I said that the most exciting game of the coming NFL weekend may be the Sunday Night Football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Arizona Cardinals. If that’s so, this weekend’s meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots should be right up there as well. This game will feature an intriguing matchup between one of the NFL’s budding stars in Matt Ryan, whose rookie season last year was among the best ever, and Tom Brady, considered by many the best QB in the game today, but who was also known for his early career success. Ryan has looked strong so far this year, while Brady has struggled. Will that trend continue, or will Brady return more to his 2007 form?
I don’t really know, but I hope that by reviewing some of the statistics for each team (from Pro-Football-Reference.com) thus far in the season, I will get a better idea of who we can expect to win this game. Last week, I previewed the Giants-Cowboys game, and from what I saw statistically, I sort of favored the Giants’ defense and thought they would pull it out by running the ball well and shutting down the Cowboys’ running game. As it turns out, it was Dallas that rushed ball well, but Romo’s 3 INTs did them in. So, we’ll see if I can do any better with this one.
In that post, I pulled the per game data for the Giants and Cowboys and compared them to each other. Then I compared their per game data to their respective Week 1 opponents’ averages per game from 2008. Having reviewed that approach, I decided that it really won’t work long term. I would have to begin averaging data from multiple opponents, with the number of opponents for each team increasing each week. By the end of the season, I would have to average the data for 16 different opponents. So, I decided that I would just compare the Falcons’ and Patriots’ per game statistics so far this season and then compare the average offensive and defensive ranks of their opponents so far this season. Although it’s very early in the season, this should still give some indication of the teams’ strengths relative to each other. For future games, it should become more accurate.
First, we will compare the respective per game numbers for Atlanta and New England.
|Atlanta Falcons||New England Patriots||Atl – NE|
In this table, I have the offensive and defensive averages for both teams from their first two games of the season. Then, in the third column, I have the difference between them, by subtracting the Patriots’ number from the Falcons’ number. Based on these numbers, it looks like the Patriots have been more productive offensively in everything but rushing and scoring. So far this year, New England averages about 45 total yards more offensively than Atlanta, about 75 yards more passing/game, but 31 yards less rushing. Just from that discrepancy in yards and points, I’d say that the Falcons do a better job, at least so far this year, in finishing drives.
When we look at the defensive numbers, again, the Patriots have the edge in yards, but not in points. Falcons fans know that last year they employed sort of a bend but don’t break defense, which seems to be continuing this year. Atlanta has allowed an average of about 85 more yards defensively than New England, but just as the Falcons have scored 6.5 more points per game, they have allowed 6.5 fewer points per game than the Patriots. The biggest Pats advantage is in passing yards. They’ve allowed 68 fewer passing yards per game. Other than points allowed, the Falcons’ main advantage is in takeaways (2 more so far this year than the Pats).
Let’s look at their team rankings in terms of offense and defense for both points and yards.
|Atlanta Falcons||New England Patriots|
|Offense Pts Rk||9||23|
|Offense Yds Rk||18||9|
|Defense Pts RK||5||15|
|Defense Yds Rk||22||3|
Again, we see that the Falcons have been more opportunistic, ranking in the top 10 in points scored and allowed, but around 20 in yards gained and allowed. Conversely, the Patriots are top 10 in yards for both offense and defense, but 23 and 15 for points in offense and defense, respectively.
Finally, let’s look at their opponents’ average rankings to this point in the season.
|2009 Opponents’ 2008 Average Ranks|
|Atlanta Falcons||New England Patriots|
Based on these numbers, the Patriots have so far played a stronger schedule than the Falcons, especially in terms of opposing offenses. The Pats’ opposing offenses were ranked in the low teens while it was around 20 or lower for Falcons. Defensively, New England’s opposing defenses were ranked much higher in points allowed (9 to Atlanta’s 24.5) while the opposing defenses of both teams rank 14.5 in yards. To an extent, these paradoxes are expected because they reflect the corresponding paradoxes of both these teams as well. That is to say, New England’s offensive rank is higher in yards than points while their opposing defensive ranks are lower in yards than points, with the opposite being true for Atlanta.
Well, considering all of this data, it’s hard to favor one team or another. The question is whether the Patriots will continue to struggle scoring while piling up the yards, or will they start putting it all together? Also, how much will the hidden yards play a part? One of the reasons that the Falcons offensive yard rankings are higher than points scored is probably because they are ranked number 10 in both KR and PR averages. Winning the turnover battle has also played a part. So, considering all those factors, I would tend to lean toward the Pats winning this game. If they take care of the football, which they have so far this year, they should limit the Falcons’ opportunities compared to other Atlanta opponents so far. However, with Wes Welker still limited, the Falcons could have the advantage, especially in the Red Zone, where Tony Gonzalez has already shown his worth. Still, Brady hasn’t lost back to back very often, so it would be somewhat surprising to see it happen this weekend.