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Falcons' victory has long-reaching playoff implications

Jeff Fogle
VSiN City newsletter

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The Seahawks missed Richard Sherman as Julio Jones and the Falcons' offense broke loose.
© USA Today Sports Images

Atlanta scored a statement win in Seattle, surviving the Seahawks for a must-have victory. Numbers and notes…the playoff implications…NFL Power Ratings…and bonus basketball all starting right now in VSiN City.

Monday Night Football: Atlanta’s road to redemption continues with survival in Seattle 
Last week felt like a coming out party for the 2017 Atlanta Falcons. They ran away and hid from the Dallas Cowboys, seemingly putting all the prior “Sarkisian’s offense is in trouble” trauma in the review mirror. Of course, after Sunday Night’s game…that could have just been Dallas imploding amidst distractions.

Nope! Atlanta is very much back in the Super Bowl discussion as the defending NFC champs led from start to finish at one of the toughest road sites in pro football. The heavily bet Falcons ultimately justified all the sharp and public support (that moved the line from plus 3 to -1) with a 34-31 victory. Though, “the worst closers in football” again had to sweat an ending. Leads of 14-0, 21-7, 31-20, and then 34-23 with less than four minutes to go almost melted away. Seattle went 75 yards in 49 seconds to get within 34-31. A last-second tying field goal try fell short. 

From Atlanta’s perspective, great to come out with fire and get a win. The final stats don’t really live up to the explosive scoreboard. Check out these numbers before placing any futures bets on the Falcons. 

Atlanta (-1) 34, Seattle 31
Yards-per-Play: Atlanta 4.8, Seattle 5.2
Total Yards: Atlanta 279, Seattle 360
Third Down Atlanta 64%, Seattle 42%
Turnovers: Atlanta 1, Seattle 2
Rushing Yards: Atlanta 89, Seattle 136
Passing Stats: Atlanta 19-27-0-190, Seattle 27-43-1-224
TD Drive Lengths: Atlanta 52-35-76, Seattle 65-11-75

Much of the night, this was actually a defensive struggle hidden by the fact that Atlanta had a fumble return touchdown, before Seattle had an 11-yard drive after the Falcons fumbled a punt. Seattle had drives of 75 and 41 yards in the final three minutes… suggesting ugly “56-minute” stats when not facing Atlanta’s shaky prevent. Give both quarterbacks credit for closing drives. 

We may be getting to a point where the best indicator stats for NFL success are turnover avoidance (combined forcing turnovers on defense), third down conversion rate, and turning red zone trips into touchdowns rather than field goals. The other stuff isn’t exactly trivia. But yards-per-play continues to drift away from being the secret sauce it once was in analytics circles. And, that’s not because it isn’t secret any more. But because coaches are prioritizing things differently now than they were earlier in the decade.

With the week in the books, we can stack it this way:

Teams winning the TO category: 11-0 ATS (two TO ties)
Teams winning third down conversions: 7-5 ATS (one 3D tie)
Teams winning total yardage: 7-6 ATS
Teams winning yards-per-play: 4-9 ATS

Anyway, Atlanta feels like the right-side winner if you focus on its 2-1 edge in forced turnovers and it’s 64% to 42% advantage on third down conversions. That helps you understand why they led wire-to-wire, often by double digits. The yardage stats just don’t paint that picture. 

This result had huge playoff implications for both teams. We decided to give that discussion its own section…

NFL: Atlanta and Seattle now tied at 6-4 in the crowded NFC Wildcard race
The NFC Wildcard demolition derby will direct two dangerous threats into the brackets, while leaving a few serious spoilers at home. Current divisional leaders Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, and the LA Rams are in good shape (though the Rams still have some work to do). Let’s run through the standings. We’ve included conference records in parenthesis because that’s an important tie-breaker in multi-way deadlocks (or, if there isn’t a head-to-head result). 

NFC Wildcard Standings (top two will qualify)
Carolina 7-3 (4-3 in the NFC)
Atlanta 6-4 (5-1 in the NFC)
Seattle 6-4 (4-3 in the NFC)
Detroit 6-4 (5-3 in the NFC)
Dallas 5-5 (4-4 in the NFC)
Green Bay 5-5 (4-4 in the NFC)
Washington 4-6 (3-5 in the NFC)
Arizona 4-6 (3-5 in the NFC)

The fact that Atlanta gagged so badly at home vs. Buffalo and Miami actually helps them here. They have far and away the best NFC record amongst the Wildcard threats. They also own heads-up wins over Seattle, Detroit, Dallas, and Green Bay. A home rematch with Carolina is in the offing. Win THAT, and the Falcons would own that tie-breaker too. 

Seattle? They’re far from out of it. But its best shot might be in chasing down the 7-3 Rams at the top of the NFC West. They already own a road win over LAR. Win the rematch in the Pacific Northwest…and that would knot things up while giving the Seahawks the tie-breaker. 

Everyone at 5-5 or below is in deep trouble in terms of tiebreakers (and, not being good enough to begin with!). Detroit at 6-4 is an interesting case because a schedule that ends with Tampa Bay, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Green Bay could allow them to close very strong (after tests vs. Minnesota and at Baltimore). 

NFL: New Estimated Market Power Ratings
Time for our weekly Tuesday estimate of how “the market” is rating all 32 pro football teams. Almost all of you reading this know the drill by now. Here are the Monday evening lines we’ll be using…

Minnesota (-1.5/45) at Detroit
LA Chargers at Dallas (-1/48)
NY Giants at Washington (-7/44)
Cleveland at Cincinnati (-9/38)
Chicago at Philadelphia (-13/44)
Miami at New England (-17/48)
Buffalo at Kansas City (-9.5/45)
Tampa Bay at Atlanta (NL pending MNF)
Carolina (-4.5/40) at the NY Jets
Tennessee (-4.5/NT) at Indianapolis
Seattle (NL pending MNF) at San Francisco
New Orleans at the LA Rams (-2.5/53.5)
Jacksonville (-4/38) at Arizona
Denver at Oakland (-5/43)
Green Bay at Pittsburgh (-14/41)
Houston at Baltimore (-7/38)

If you’re new to VSiN City, we use those lines to build “couplets” that we place on a Power Ratings scale. We adjust the numbers you see above three points as a standard for home field advantage. The Chargers are plus 1 at Dallas on Thanksgiving. Once you adjust for HFA, that would mean the Chargers would be two points better on a neutral field. In this case, we put LAC at 80, and dropped Dallas down to 78 because the market has soured on the Cowboys so much lately. Maybe it should be 81 and 79 instead, or maybe the Chargers are only a 79 and the Cowboys are now a 77. Through the season we make a good faith effort to get it right, accepting that they’ll never be perfect. 

86: New England, Philadelphia
85: Pittsburgh
84: New Orleans, Atlanta
83: Minnesota, LA Rams
82: Kansas City, Seattle
81: Jacksonville, Carolina
80: Tennessee, LA Chargers
79: Baltimore, Washington, Detroit 
78: Dallas (no Elliott)
77: Oakland
76: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago (?) 
75: Houston, Denver, NY Giants (?), Tampa Bay (w/Fitzpatrick)
74: NY Jets, Green Bay, Arizona
72: Miami, Indianapolis
71: San Francisco (with Garappolo, maybe more)
70: Cleveland 
68: San Francisco (with Beathard)

Definitely some confusing numbers this week. A few notes…

Let’s go in chronological order. Washington laying only -7 to the NY Giants on Thanksgiving night is way out of whack with recent pricing. How can the Giants be plus 10 at home to Kansas City (13 worse than the Chiefs) but only plus 7 on the road at Washington (only 4 worse than the Redskins)? Kansas City isn’t NINE points better than Washington on a neutral field. Yes, the Giants sprung an upset. But it’s not like they played well. The offense was horrible. And we’re talking about a Giants team that looked awful its prior three outings vs. San Francisco, the LA Rams, and Seattle. We put Washington at 79 off its strong showing at New Orleans. The Giants had to go at 75 to try to capture “the market.” 

Philadelphia has looked so great of late that 86 feels like it understates its form. Yet, they’re laying -13 at home vs. Chicago…which would be 10 points better than the Bears on a neutral field. That makes little sense because Chicago just pushed as a 3-point home dog to Detroit, which equates to 6 points worse than the Lions on a neutral field. How can a team be six points worse than the Lions but only 10 points worse than the Eagles? If you wanted to make the case that Philadelphia should be an 87, I would agree with you. Can you then say that Chicago should be a 77? Off a 3-point home loss to Detroit as a 3-point home dog (push), and a TD home loss to Green Bay as a 5-point home favorite (non-cover)?   

There’s some mud in the middle of the pack that’s just going to have to work itself out. Houston, Tampa Bay, really everyone from Dallas at 78 to the hunk at 74 doesn’t have much you can sink your teeth into. 

The market is kind of floundering a bit of late given the one-sided results for so many favorites, From low to high, here are the distances from price to final scoreboard margin this week (at the end of regulation).

0-2-5-5-8-9-9-10-15-16-18-21-22-23

This is not a good time to tease! Only four games finished within a touchdown of the point spread (it wouldn’t have been three if not for the late TD by Seattle Monday night). When reality is this volatile as compared to expectations, paying to get those extra six points (needing to “sweep” teasers is a form of vigorish in itself) barely buys you anything of value. 

College Basketball: A taste of Monday hoops from the Hall of Fame Classic
Two ranked teams reached the final four of the Hall of Fame Classic, held in Kansas City (after perfunctory preliminaries held at campus sites). Only one made it through to the finals. Here’s a look at key stats from that doubleheader.

Creighton (-3.5) 100, #23 UCLA 89
2-Point Pct: UCLA 53%, Creighton 58%
Three Pointers: UCLA 6/23, Creighton 11/29
Free Throws: UCLA 23/31, Creighton 23/35
Rebounds: UCLA 36, Creighton 44
Turnovers: UCLA 7, Creighton 8

Depressing to know that Papa Ball’s appearance on CNN Monday night probably drew higher ratings than this telecast. UCLA’s defense appears to be feeling the effects of cross-oceanic jet lag and playing a bunch of games in a short period time. You may not be aware that the Bruins allowed 101 points to Central Arkansas earlier in this tournament (106-101 victory). Here they let Creighton shoot almost 60% on two-pointers on the way to the century mark. 

Creighton upset then #20 Northwestern 92-88 five days earlier. That’s a high scoring result for a Northwestern game! It was likely Creighton/UCLA was going to be a track meet with both teams ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s top 50 in “adjusted tempo” entering the matchup. Officiating helped the scoring cause, with both teams clearing 30 free throw attempts. 

Too many in the mainstream media will call this an “upset” too because of the AP ranking. You see at the top that Creighton was favored by -3.5. Smart money drove that up from an opener of pick-em. 

#22 Baylor 70 (pick-em), Wisconsin 65
2-Point Pct: Baylor 38%, Wisconsin 43%
Three Pointers: Baylor 6/13, Wisconsin 7/21
Free Throws: Baylor 22/31, Wisconsin 12/18
Rebounds: Baylor 39, Wisconsin 32
Turnovers: Baylor 9, Wisconsin 8

Baylor is always fun to study because they focus on the inside game. They typically run into opponents that prefer to win from the arc, or have a more balanced offensive approach. If opponents can’t hit their treys…Baylor is going to beat them! You see here that Baylor owned the battle of the boards and earned 13 extra free throws by attacking the basket. And, they only made on fewer trey anyway despite shooting eight less.

Baylor will face Creighton in the championship game Tuesday night on ESPN2. A clash of styles that will be fun to watch if you get a chance. 

VSiN college basketball aficionado Greg Peterson will be back with us Wednesday to preview the exciting “Battle 4 Atlantis” that begins that morning in the Bahamas. Three top 20 teams are among the eight tournament entries. Joining #2 Arizona, #5 Villanova, and #18 Purdue are NC State, Tennessee, Northern Iowa, SMU, and Western Kentucky. 

Be sure you join us 4 that!

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