Frequenters of this space know I enjoy a good prediction. I even enjoy bad predictions. Without the question, “So who’s going to win?” there would be no sports worth following. But the predictions I track most closely are those made by Football Outsiders, which uses its data to cut through the noise. And, regarding the Atlanta Falcons, Football Outsiders has been pretty close over the years. A recap:
— In 2013, F.O. had the Falcons — who were coming off a 13-3 season and a narrow loss in the NFC Championship game — plunging to 7.6 mean wins and finishing last in the NFC South. (They were 4-12 and tied Tampa Bay for last.)
— In 2014, the site forecast a rise from the four wins of 2013 to 7.3 mean wins. (The Falcons finished 6-10.)
— In 2015, Football Outsiders had the Falcons surging from 6-10 to 10-6 and making the playoffs. (They finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, but had to slip from 6-1 to manage that.)
— In 2016 … well, here’s one F.O. didn’t see coming. It had the Falcons going 7-9, which sounded reasonable — a team coming off 8-8 and a bad schedule had to face the NFL’s co-toughest slate this time around. The Falcons finished 11-5 and nearly won the Super Bowl. (For the record, F.O. picked the Patriots to beat the Falcons in Houston, which looked wrong until it wound up right.)
Enough history. In 2017, Football Outsiders has the Falcons going 9-7, finishing second to Carolina in the NFC South and taking a wild card. It has the them as the NFC’s sixth-best team, behind Seattle, Green Bay, Dallas, Carolina and Arizona. That’s surely lower than most every projection you have or will read.
In a post for ESPN Insider, F.O. founder/editor Aaron Schatz writes:
“Carolina’s projection is pretty simple: a bit of rebound on both sides of the ball combined with an easy schedule. … The Panthers will have a close race with the Falcons, whose late-season defensive improvement is likely to continue in 2017. However, we’re also expecting some regression from the Atlanta offense, particularly because of the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.”
As noted, I like reading Football Outsiders because I learn something every time I click on the site. Numbers-based discussions differ from the usual sports blather — “Matt Ryan: Is he elite? Kind of elite? Elite but not sweet? — in what I consider a better way. And I do think the Falcons will suffer from the loss of Shanahan, who — until those final eight minutes in NRG Stadium — had the greatest play-calling season I’ve ever witnessed.
If you ask me the single biggest reason the Falcons went from 8-8 to the Super Bowl, I wouldn’t say Ryan (although he was immense) or Julio Jones (ditto) or the improving defense (although it definitely improved). I’d say Kyle Shanahan. And he’s gone. And Steve Sarkisian, for all the latest round of Flowery Branch happy talk, isn’t Kyle Shanahan.
I believe the Falcons have built well and should be really good for a nice long while. I also believe Shanahan is irreplaceable. I do think 9-7 sounds a bit low — but not ridiculously low. Nothing Football Outsiders writes is ridiculous.