It's Week 17 and we're still waiting for the Atlanta Falcons' offense to show up. If there ever was a time for Matt Ryan and company to finally play up to their potential, the last day of 2017 would be it. Better late than never, right?
On Sunday, the 9-6 Falcons face a win-and-in situation against the 11-4 Panthers. One win. That's all that separates the Falcons from the playoffs, where they'll get a chance to redeem themselves after suffering the most embarrassing collapse in Super Bowl history, and endless Super Bowl hangover jokes.
If the Falcons lose, this video of their former stadium getting demolished will be the most appropriate way to sum up their season -- "endlessly waiting to see something explosive happen" should've been their 2017 motto.
The Panthers won't just let them take the win. Though they've already clinched a playoff spot, they still have plenty to play for. With a win over Atlanta and a Saints loss to the Buccaneers, the Panthers will clinch the NFC South. With a win over Atlanta and Saints, Vikings and Rams losses, the Panthers will earn a first-round bye. So, the Falcons can expect to see the Panthers at their best.
Beating the Panthers is no easy feat -- Atlanta has lost to them once already -- namely because Cam Newton is the closest thing the NFL has to The Mountain, but let's use this space to examine the Falcons' offense. That's the group that is going to get the most flak if Atlanta's season ends without a trip to the playoffs.
The last time the teams met back in Week 9, the Falcons scored only 17 points, but Matt Ryan played well, throwing for 313 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 95.6 passer rating. So, why did they score only 17 points? Self-inflicted mistakes. Take, for example, this 39-yard would-be touchdown on fourth down in the fourth quarter:
Forget what I said earlier: That GIF really is the best way to sum up the Falcons' season. They have no one to blame for their scoring reduction except themselves.
One game can't change the offensive unit's struggles all year long -- 15th in points per game (22.1) and eighth in DVOA a year after they finished first in points per game (33.8) and first in DVOA -- and the fact that they need to change something to improve in 2018, but it can get them into the playoffs and shift the narrative. Getting to the playoffs is difficult and an achievement in itself, and the Falcons should be lauded for going 10-6 if that's what happens. Let's take a look at how that can happen.
To be blunt, the Falcons need more from their offense. Their season-long rankings aren't horrible, but their past four games have been. The Falcons are 2-2 and they're averaging 16.5 points in the past four weeks. They're allowing only 18.8 points per game in that span, which means their defense definitely isn't to blame. It's entirely on the offense.
Ryan has thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) and accumulated a 74.4 passer rating in his past four outings. Alarmingly, their red-zone offense has completely tanked. They've scored a touchdown on five of their past 12 red-zone trips. Julio Jones hasn't caught a touchdown during their four-game offensive slump.
The Falcons will be going up against a defense that is seventh in yards allowed (313.5), tied for 11th in points allowed (20.3), third in sacks (49) and eighth in DVOA. The most concerning aspect is the Panthers' pass rush, namely because Ryan's passer rating drops to 66.2 when he's under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Ryan has been under pressure only 32.4 percent of the time, which is the 10th-lowest pressure rate in football, according to PFF. Without pressure, Ryan's passer rating is 101.6.
How Ryan handles pressure and the blitz will be the key to the game -- on one side of the ball at least. A week ago, the always erratic Jameis Winston played one of his best games of the season against Carolina, posting a 131.1 passer rating. What doomed the Buccaneers is Winston's inability to deal with pressure. He lost three fumbles. The first led to a field goal, his second occurred in the red zone and led to another field goal and his third ended the game.
Considering the Panthers are third in sacks and their defensive front features pass rushers like Julius Peppers (11 sacks), Mario Addison (10.5 sacks) and Kawann Short (7.5 sacks), they would appear to be favored in this matchup. They can certainly apply pressure and Ryan certainly struggles against pressure.
But there are two reasons for the Falcons to be optimistic about Ryan's chances to put up prolific numbers. Those reasons are Carolina's blitz percentage and how Ryan fares against the blitz.
According to PFF, Carolina uses the blitz 44.7 percent of the time. The league average is 29.4 percent. They like blitzing more than most teams. It's a good thing then that Ryan welcomes it. Against the blitz, Ryan's passer rating rises to 101.6 -- he's averaging 8.5 yards per attempt and has thrown eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Compare those numbers to his stat line against non-blitzing defenses: 7.5 YPA, 11 touchdowns, 10 picks and an 87.2 passer rating.
It would be surprising to see the Panthers dramatically alter their strategy for one game. With that being said, they blitzed the Falcons only 39 percent of the time in their previous meeting, which is still well above league average but down from their season average.
Ryan can beat the blitz and the Panthers are good at blitzing to generate pressure. Something will have to give. How Ryan handles pressure will likely determine if the Falcons journey back to the playoffs.
Read on for nine stats to know for Week 17.
1. Todd Gurley's MVP case
Tom Brady held on to his lead over Todd Gurley. It appears unlikely that Gurley will be able to top Brady, but that doesn't mean his extraordinary season isn't worthy of recognition. It doesn't mean Gurley wouldn't be a worthy MVP.
2. Wade Phillips' incredible streak
Regardless of what happens in Week 17, the Rams are playoff bound as the NFC West champs. Gurley and the rest of the offense will get most of the credit for the Rams' incredible turnaround -- whatever you do, don't give ranks sixth in DVOA and is tied for eighth in points allowed (19.7).-- but let's not sleep on the Rams' defense, which
New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips also deserves credit. Oh and by the way, he has quite the streak going.
Wade Phillips also keeps his streak alive. Every team where he's taken over the defense has made it to the playoffs in the first year.— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) December 24, 2017
Oh and before Fisher tries to take credit for the state of the Rams' defense, remember that the Rams' defense ranked 15th in DVOA a year ago. Along with the offense, the defense has undergone a major transformation.
3. Carson Wentz still leads the NFL
Wentz hasn't played in two weeks and he still leads the league in touchdown passes with 33. For Wentz to finish the year as the league leader or the co-leader, he'll need Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to throw no more than one touchdown pass against the Cardinals and Brady to throw no more than three against the Jets.
4. Eagles at home
Even without Wentz, the Eagles have gone 2-0 with Nick Foles under center. It hasn't been pretty, but the Eagles did . Nobody is going to pick them to win a Super Bowl with Foles as their starter, but it's worth noting just how dominant they've been at home this season, which bodes well for the playoffs.
With that being said, nobody would be shocked to see the Eagles go one-and-done in the playoffs.
5. Le'Veon Bell's versatility
Since entering the NFL in 2013, Bell leads all running backs with 2,660 receiving yards. The closest running back? Matt Forte with 2,347 yards.
With Brown sidelined in Week 17, Bell should take on another heavy workload against the Browns -- that is, if Mike Tomlin decides he wants to play his starters. The Steelers can clinch home-field advantage with a win, but only if the Patriots also lose to the Jets, which seems unlikely.
6. What the Patriots are getting in James Harrison
Speaking of the Patriots, they made headlines this week whenafter the Steelers Nobody should fool themselves into thinking Harrison will be a superstar -- after all, there's a reason the Steelers hardly used him and then cut him knowing full well that the Patriots would be interested in his services -- but that doesn't mean he can't help bolster the Patriots' pass rush.
The Patriots have let go of too many players who can rush the passer -- from Jamie Collins to Chandler Jones to Akiem Hicks -- over the past couple season and it's showing up. Dont'a Hightower's season-ending injury also hasn't helped. According to PFF, the Patriots generate pressure 32.2 percent of the time. If an individual quarterback was under pressure on 32.2 percent of his dropbacks this season, he would have the 10th-lowest pressure rate among all quarterbacks.
Harrison can be a situational third-down pass rusher. When he was actually being used from 2014-16, he racked up 15.5 sacks. In his past five playoff games (in 2015 and '16), he accumulated 4.5 sacks. As long the Patriots don't expect him to be an every-down, game-changing pass rusher, they'll likely be satisfied by what he brings to the team.
Last season, Harrison was the fifth-most productive pass rusher among 3-4 outside linebackers, according to PFF.
7. Jimmy G time
The 49ers aren't in the playoff hunt, but let's take a quick detour to acknowledge this incredible stat related to Jimmy Garoppolo:
Over the last two seasons, the 49ers are 4-0 when Jimmy Garoppolo is their starting quarterback and 3-24 when anyone other than Jimmy Garoppolo is their starting quarterback.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 25, 2017
Did you knowSeriously.
8. A weird stat about run defense
I stumbled upon this strange stat the other day:
Five of the worst six teams in yards allowed per carry are going to the playoffs (Patriots, Rams, Jaguars, Steelers, and Saints). The other team? The Chargers.— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) December 27, 2017
Weird. If the Chargers make the playoffs, the bottom six teams in rushing yards allowed per carry will be in the postseason.
9. Jimmy Graham's amazing stat line
Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham has had an incredible season in terms of touchdowns (10), but not in terms of yards (475). What the Seahawks have turned him into is an unstoppable red-zone machine -- all 10 of his scores have come inside the red zone.
Take a look at his stat line from the past three games. It really is the most Jimmy Graham thing ever:
Jimmy Graham's last three games:— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) December 25, 2017
6 targets, 2 receptions, 2 yards, 1 TD
The Seahawks can still make the playoffs if they beat the Cardinals and if the Falcons lose to the Panthers.