Week 17 – Early Games Analysis

What a final week of the 2008 NFL season…. Atlanta ends up with a comeback victory over St.Louis 31-27 thanks to Ryan, Norwood, Turner and a final defensive stand.  New Orleans comes back from 30-10 down in the 4th quarter to take the lead 31-30 with a couple minutes to go, only to watch Carolina march down the field for a game-winning field goal, sealing a divisional crown, the #2 seed in the NFC and a bye week. 

It was a great sequence as Atlanta was behind while New Orleans was making its comeback, so everything was up in the air.  The Falcons had the potential to get the #2 seed with everything going right and the #6 seed if things went downhill today.

At the end of the day, Atlanta ran for over 260 yards (208 for Turner, 56 for Norwood) and 3 sacks, all by guys not named John Abraham.  It was great to see the effort from New Orleans in the 4th quarter.  They had nothing to play for, but instead of dialing it in and trying only for Brees’ all-time passing record (he fell just short by the way), New Orleans made a few defensive plays and forced Carolina to make a last-minute drive to pull out the win.

So the scene is set, Atlanta will travel to Arizona for wild-card weekend – the Cardinals a team that hasn’t looked well in a month (since clinching their division early) and is currently tied with lowly Seattle at halftime.

Week 17 – Halftime Update

With under 2 minutes remaining, St.Louis drove down the field to take a 14-10 lead.  With 32 seconds remaining, Norwood returned the ensuing kickoff 92 yards inside the Rams’ 10 yard line.  One play later, Norwood takes a direct snap into the endzone for a 17-14 halftime advantage.  Ryan is 7/12 for 107 yards in the 1st half, Turner 59 yards, Jenkins 59 yards.

The Saints showed a little bit of life before intermission with a 9-play drive ending in a Colston TD, cutting the Carolina lead to 23-10.  The problem is New Orleans hasn’t stopped Carolina yet today.  The good news…. the Saints get the ball to start the 3rd quarter in New Orleans.

Week 17 – In-game Analysis

We are approaching halftime with the 1pm games, most notably the Carolina and Atlanta games, with a half-full result.  Atlanta just scored on a good drive to take the lead 10-7 on St.Louis, Michael Turner scored his 17th TD of the season, a new Atlanta record.  Matt Ryan threw an interception (a tip, not really his fault) in the 1st half, but still has the record for fewest INTs by a rookie QB to start all 16 games in NFL history.  Steven Jackson has over 80 yards rushing against Atlanta.

Carolina leads New Orleans 23-3 against a Saints team that doesn’t look like they care at all.  A Carolina win would clinch the South and a #2 seed regardless of the Falcons’ outcome.  Atlanta would be the #5 seed, traveling to Arizona next week if everything stays put in the 2nd half.

Keys to Victory – Week 17 – 2008 – Atlanta Falcons vs. St.Louis Rams

The Falcons enter the game as 14-point favorites against the struggling Rams.  On paper the Rams have some talent with Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson, Torry Holt and Donnie Avery on offense.  In reality, St.Louis has been a team that has struggled to block on offense, tackle on defense and has played their worst football when the game was being decided.  Last week was a perfect example, the Rams had a 16-3 lead in the 2nd half against the 49ers at home.  The Rams proceeded to implode, giving the 49ers – not the strongest offensive unit in the NFL – opportunities to march down the field for 14 points and a 17-16 win.  The Rams have failed to show up (Jets, Chicago, Giants, Eagles) some weeks, while losing the close ones (Redskins, Dolphins, Seahawks, 49ers). 

It’s hard to see a scenario where the Rams can pull out the win – Atlanta has everything to play for, St.Louis looks like they packed it in when they started losing in November – but that can be the ultimate trap game in the NFL.  The Broncos were supposed to have a weak defense that Atlanta would score all over and the Falcons managed 20 points, a slow start and a loss that day.  The Rams, if they avoid turnovers, could move the ball and score on Atlanta.  The Falcons defense has played well lately, but was very weak against the run for the first half of the year.

A quick start by Atlanta (10-0, 14-0) could cause St.Louis to fold up camp and make vacation plans on the sidelines for the rest of the game because the Falcons are 10-1 when scoring first, playing comfortably with the lead.  But Atlanta will be vulnerable (like the Denver game) of out-thinking themselves – trying trick plays or fancy things when old fashioned running the football and their base offense is what has got them this far. 

Atlanta has struggled putting things together for an extended winning streak this year.  While they haven’t lost two consecutive games in 2008, their current 3 game winning streak is the longest of the season.  Glass half full says they are peaking at the right time for the playoffs.  Glass half empty says they are due for a setback like all the other times they won multiple games in a row.

Key to victory: 

Fast start by Atlanta (they are one of the best 1st quarter teams in the NFL)

Pressure St.Louis into some mistakes

Build a lead (Atlanta hasn’t totally put many teams away this year – commonly winning by 7 points or less)

Protect Matt Ryan – nothing would shatter the playoff hopes like an injury to their franchise quarterback

Don’t scoreboard watch – the Carolina game will be going on at the same time, but play your game and address pulling your guys out in the second half if Carolina is blowing out New Orleans.

Falcons Looking For Homefield Advantage

As far-fetched as the idea is, the Atlanta Falcons have a chance to clinch the #2 seed this weekend in week 17.  This coming from a team that was considered a bottom-feeder in the NFC South, the NFC and the NFL.  Atlanta has put together ugly, but necessary wins against Tampa Bay and Minnesota (both still in the playoff hunt themselves) in the last two weeks.  While Dallas, Philadelphia, Carolina, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Minnesota have all squandered opportunities to control their own destiny.  Carolina could have wrapped up the division (and #2 seed) with an additional win, but now have one chance left.  Carolina will travel to New Orleans this week to play a tough Saints team which can defend its home turf.  The NFC South is perfect at home this year against each other, 11-0 so far.  A Saints’ win would open the door for Atlanta to win against St.Louis and gain a bye and a home game in the playoffs.  A loss or Carolina win would lock Atlanta into playing the first week of the playoffs and on the road.

Matt Ryan for MVP?

It sounds strange talking about a rookie quarterback as a possible MVP, but Matt Ryan is definitely on the short list in 2008 for the major NFL award.  Before I present the case for Matt Ryan, here’s a few things working against him…. His pure numbers aren’t great (11th in yards, 9th in rating, 16th in TD passes), he is a rookie and Michael Turner was important to the offense as well. 

Here’s a few reasons why Ryan should finish in the top 3 of the MVP voting regardless of the above reasons for him not to win.  Matt Ryan is the biggest reason for turning around a team, franchise, culture and city in Atlanta.  He jumped into the leadership role on offense, allowed Turner to run well (with a different rookie QB under center Turner would have faced 8 or 9-man fronts all season), won close ball games, and (with a win and Carolina loss in week 17) could have Atlanta as the #2 seed heading into the playoffs this season.  Ryan has only thrown 9 interceptions (behind only Chad Pennington and Jason Campbell with as many pass attempts), taken a meager 16 sacks and is the biggest reason Atlanta wins 10+ games in 2008 instead of the predicted 3-4 games. 

So if Ryan doesn’t win the award, so will?  Many say Peyton Manning.  He’s never played better than 2008, leading Indianapolis to the playoffs when significant injuries and inconsistent play from others gave the Colts a 3-4 record after 7 games. 

Kurt Warner?  He was the trendy choice through 12 games, but a fading finish and a dud of a game in New England last week, eliminates the aging one from the competition.

Adrian Peterson?  He’s leading the NFL in rushing by almost 200 yards, but he coughed the ball up multiple times against Atlanta in week 16 with the divisional crown on the line.  Chester Taylor in the backfield steals some of his thunder, and the Vikings could still miss the playoffs with a loss and Bears win in the final week.

Deangelo Williams?  The Carolina back could be the fuel for Carolina getting the #2 seed in the NFC (with a win against New Orleans), not to mention 18 TDs through 15 games, but Jonathon Stewart has his share of the running game and Carolina could have a #5 seed and an early exit in the playoffs.

James Harrison?  He’s probably a top-3 choice in the purest sense of the award.  He’s over 100 tackles, 16 sacks, a safety, an INT, 7 forced fumbles to lead the best defense in the NFL this year.  On the flip side, a defensive player rarely wins the award (Lawrence Taylor in 1986 to be exact) because they must be so far beyond the season of the best offensive player.  Harrison is definitely worthy of top consideration, but would need to be a slam dunk ahead of Manning and Ryan to win – which isn’t the case.

Atlanta Falcons are Playoff-Bound in 2008!

After an ugly 24-17 victory in Minnesota in Week 16, the Falcons are headed to the playoffs.  Most predicted Atlanta to have a top-5 pick in the 2009 NFL draft, posting 4 or less wins in a rebuilding year.  Instead, Atlanta sits at 10-5 and a playoff spot in hand heading into their season finale at St.Louis. 

In addition to a wild-card berth, Atlanta could actually win the division and have the #2 seed in the playoffs with a little help in week 17.  In week 16, Dallas lost on Saturday night, giving Atlanta a chance to get into the playoffs.  In addition, Tampa Bay and Carolina lost, opening Atlanta’s door wide open.  Carolina travels to New Orleans (a great home team) next week with a first-round bye on the line.  Drew Brees and company can beat anyone on a given Sunday, which will test Carolina.  Both games are scheduled for 1pm starts, but one could be moved to 4pm by the NFL.  With the #5 seed, Atlanta would most likely travel to Arizona in the 1st round, a team that was just routed by New England in the snow.  With Atlanta were to lose against St.Louis and Dallas were to win against Philadelphia, Atlanta would be the #6 seed and play Minnesota in the 1st round.

Falcons/Vikings Preview – Week 16 – 2008

Both teams will be looking to run the ball throughout the game, wearing down the opponent in the 2nd half.  The Vikings have Pat Williams out, making their great defensive line a little vulnerable to the running game.  But Atlanta hasn’t consistently stopped the running game all year (22nd in the NFL).  Tavaris  Jackson had a breakout game (4 TDs, easily completing passes all game) last week against Arizona.  I’m not sure Jackson will have continued success.  The Minnesota offense has to go through Adrian Peterson with Jackson passing when necessary.  If Minnesota ends up in 2nd and 3rd and long, Jackson will make mistakes in this game.  On the opposite side, Matt Ryan has made a ton of big plays this year and Roddy White has shown the ability to get open when needed.  Michael Turner may get 30 carries again as Atlanta performs best when they pass less than 30 times/game.  With Dallas’ loss Saturday night, Atlanta could clinch a playoff spot with a win and a loss by Tampa Bay against San Diego.  As always, field position, turnovers, special teams and converting 3rd downs will be key to winning the football game.

Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay – Week 15 – 2008 Recap

In a must-win game for the then 8-5 Atlanta Falcons, they got the job done.  It wasn’t pretty by any means, but Atlanta was able to get a 13-10 overtime win over rival Tampa Bay.  Most Falcons’ fans would chalk up a loss if they heard Ryan threw no touchdowns, two interceptions, had a fumble and scored a paltry 13 points.  But Atlanta’s defense bent without breaking, had 4 sacks, had only 3 penalties (compared to Tampa’s 11) and held the ball for 36 minutes.  Matt Ryan, despite a few hiccups, played with poise (doesn’t he every week?), rebounded from his worst game as a pro against Tampa earlier in the season and made key plays on 3rd downs.

 A few more telling statistics from the game:

Atlanta’s defense allowed only 21% on 3rd down conversions.

Tampa failed to score a TD in their only redzone attempt.

Updated Matt Ryan Statistics – Week 14

Ryan had another outstanding game, his 6th straight to my count, begging the question – is he really 29 years old?  Ryan seems like he’s been doing this forever.  By this, I mean shredding defenses, being a receiver’s best friend, and leading a team to significance instead of a top-10 draft pick.  After checking out his statistics, here’s a few nuggets to take away –

Atlanta is 1-4 in games where Ryan throws an interception, 7-1 when he avoids one.

Atlanta is 0-3 when Ryan completes 53% or less of his passes in the game.

Atlanta is 0-5 when Ryan throws more than 30 passes in a game.  His usual attempts are in the 22-30 range for wins.

The last Tampa Bay game (9/14) was Ryan’s “welcome to the NFL, rookie” game where he was 13/33 for 158 yards, 2 INTS and 4 sacks. 

Now for the good statistics……

Ryan has been sacked only 1 time in the past 5 games.

Ryan has averaged over 9 yards/attempt each of the past three weeks (2-1 record).

Ryan has had 6 games completing over 69% of his passes in 2008 (5-1 record), 3 are in the last 5 weeks.

9th in the NFL in passer rating (92.0), higher than Eli Manning now. (Helped by 94+ rating each of last 3 weeks).

5th in the NFL in yards/attempt (8.03), behind only Rivers, Romo, Brees and Schaub. (Just passed Warner last week).

1.9% for interception frequency is lowest in NFL behind Garcia (1.0), Campbell (1.4), Pennington (1.5) and Collins (1.7).

13 sacks ranks Ryan 6th in the NFL.