HOUSTON — I’m picking the Atlanta Falcons to win. No surprise there, I concede. I’ve been high on them … oh, pretty much since I wrote after they lost their opener to Tampa Bay that they’d become a bad team. (What can I say? Reality changes. I endeavor to adjust.)
In the interest of fairness, I point out two stories — one by Bill Barnwell of ESPN, the other by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders — that pick the Patriots. These are writers who know their advanced analytics and whose work I respect and enjoy.
Mr. Barnwell doesn’t just favor New England; he picks the Pats by 14 points. His conclusion: “The Falcons are a great team. It’s not a fluke they made it here, and I think I probably would have picked them to beat just about any of the other teams from the AFC. The Patriots are just a nightmare matchup for what the Falcons do well.”
(Oh, and before you label Mr. Barnwell a hater, be advised that he has gushed over the Falcons in previous missives, like this one from December.)
A bit of inside baseball, as it were: Mr. Schatz and I exchanged emails after the Falcons won the NFC title, and from his response to my contention that the Falcons’ defense has improved — he averred that the Patriots’ defense had improved even more — I got an idea how he was leaning. Sure enough …
“It’s pretty easy to imagine the Falcons pulling off an upset with a ton of points and a couple of serendipitous bounces of the ball on defense or special teams. And yet, the Patriots were clearly the better team this year … The Patriots are more likely to slow down Matt Ryan than the Falcons are to shut down Tom Brady. There are just too many matchups that specifically favor the Patriots … Falcons fans are dreaming of a win that looks like the Giants beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII or Super Bowl XLVI. But this Atlanta team doesn’t look anything like those Giants teams that took down the Patriots juggernaut.”
I’d advise you to read both articles — not to make you mad but to get an idea of how two of the smartest guys in football analytics see this game. (Both are lengthy, but you’ll have time. Game doesn’t start until 6:40 EST.)
It surprised me that 30 of 36 ESPN on-air commentators picked the Patriots. That’s a bandwagon effect — without trying to cast aspersions, TV is big on bandwagons — that I don’t quite grasp. This is close to a coin-flip game. This isn’t the 49ers against the Chargers. (Favored by 18 1/2 points, San Francisco covered.)
Heck, these Falcons are a much smaller underdog — three points, as opposed to 7 1/2 — than against the Broncos 18 years ago. Full disclosure: I also thought they’d beat Denver until 10:15 p.m. on Super Bowl Even when someone called my room in Miami Hyatt Regency with the greeting, “A source tells me one of the Falcons just got arrested.”
The same person — you’d know the name if I mentioned it, which is why I won’t — called back 15 minutes later. “And it’s Eugene Robinson.”
At that moment, I knew the Falcons were sunk. I like this team’s chances even more than I did back then (pre-phone tip), but if I get a similar call tonight, I reserve the right to change my mind.
Really, though: If a Falcon gets arrested tonight, they should just fold the franchise.