A record six teams started the NFL season 5-0, and the Atlanta Falcons were one of them.
If the season ended today, five of those teams would make the playoffs, and the Falcons would not be one of them.
That's insane! Teams that start 5-0 are virtual locks to make the playoffs. Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, 43 teams have started 5-0. Only four (9 percent) failed to reach the playoffs.
You almost can't miss. It's as unfathomable as someone taking a bucket of Titleists to the beach, hitting the golf balls out to the ocean and then having one of them drop directly into a whale's blowhole.
What in the world is wrong with the Falcons (6-5)? After that start, why do they need to beat the Bucs (5-6) on Sunday and the Vikings to beat the Seahawks just to reclaim the lead for the No. 6 seed in the NFC?
You could point to their first five wins and say they didn't beat a single quality opponent. The Eagles, Giants, Cowboys and Washington are all below .500, and the Texans were starting Ryan Mallett, whom they cut a few weeks later.
Since the 5-0 start, the Falcons have faced only two teams that are currently above .500 (Colts and Vikings) and lost to them both. But they also lost to three of four teams below .500 (including to the Bucs in overtime in Week 8). Their lone victory was an ugly 10-7 a-win-is-a-win-type of contest against the Zach Mettenberger-led Titans.
So they're losing to bad teams now, too. Why?
Simple as that, as Bucs coach Lovie Smith would say.
Through the first five weeks of the season, the Falcons were one of eight teams with a plus-five turnover differential. The combined record of those teams? 33-4. From Week 6 on, they have the worst turnover differential in the league (minus-eight). In that span, they're 1-5.
Their quarterback, Matt Ryan — formerly one of the NFL's most consistently good players — has been up-and-down. He's Bizarro Matt: same jersey, same arm, more interceptions.
After Week 5, Ryan has thrown more picks (eight) than anyone except Peyton Manning (10) and Blake Bortles (nine). His 2.8 percent interception rate is his highest since his second season (2009), and his 3.7 percent touchdown rate is his lowest since his rookie season.
One area of the field in which Ryan has struggled more than past seasons: the red zone, where he has thrown a league-high and career-high four interceptions. Last season, he threw 65 passes in a row without throwing an interception, which led the NFL (quarterbacks averaged a pick about every 40 attempts in 2014).
While the Falcons have scored a touchdown on 60 percent of their trips to the red zone — which is about average — Ryan's quarterback rating of 81.1 inside the 20 is the sixth-lowest among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts and the worst of his career.
Matt Ryan in the red zone
|2015 NFL average||12.3||1.3||92.4|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Are his red zone interceptions this season the result of bad decisions or bad luck? Let's take a look at all four and reconstruct them as only Seinfeld could.
Week 1 vs. Philadelphia Eagles in Atlanta
Situation: Second-and-8 from the 8-yard line, 5:57 left in the first quarter, Falcons lead 3-0
Atlanta gets a favorable matchup — receiver on a linebacker — but Kiko Alonso makes one of the best plays you'll see from a linebacker this season.
The Falcons come to the line in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), and the Eagles play zone coverage with two safeties deep. Leonard Hankerson, lined up in the slot, runs a corner route to the back left of the end zone, and tight end Jacob Tamme runs the same route to the back right. Each receiver attracts two defenders.
Julio Jones begins to run a crossing route and draws defensive back Walter Thurmond. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks watches running back Devonta Freeman in the flat.
The sum of this leaves Roddy White, who runs to the back middle of the end zone, isolated against Alonso.
Ryan makes the right read, and while you could nitpick and say that he should have thrown the ball higher, sometimes you just have to credit the defender.
"That's where length at the middle linebacker position shows up," Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden said. "Six-foot-4 and he needed every inch of it to end this drive."
Week 7 vs. Tennessee Titans in Tennessee
Situation: Fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, 6:38 left in the fourth quarter, Falcons lead 10-7
The Falcons tried to punch it in the end zone on the previous play, but the Titans stuffed fullback Patrick DiMarco. They come back again on fourth-and-goal with their "heavy" goalline formation, which features three tight ends.
Ryan fakes the handoff to Freeman and looks left to tight end Tony Moeaki in the flat. He sees cornerback Perrish Cox covering and backpedals to buy time. He looks back over the middle to his only other option, Tamme, but he's wrestling with Marqueston Huff's physical coverage and isn't open, either.
As linebacker Derrick Morgan bears down, Ryan has to let the ball go. He tries to squeeze it through coverage to Tamme, but Huff tips it. Tamme bobbles the deflection, and linebacker Avery Williamson pulls it away.
Going for it on fourth-and-1 is often a can't-lose proposition; either you succeed and score the touchdown or you fail and the opponent starts the next drive backed up against its own end zone. But for the Falcons, an interception was the worst possible outcome (other than a pick-six) as it allowed the Titans to take over at the 20-yard line.
You could question the play call and the lack of a run-pass option as much as — or more so — than the execution. Two plays earlier, Ryan bootlegged to his right and completed a pass to Julio Jones near the front pylon.
Week 11 vs. Indianapolis Colts in Atlanta
Situation: Third-and-6 from the 12-yard line, 9:30 left in the first quarter, no score
The Falcons try to attack the middle of the field by having Roddy White run a post route between the Colts' safeties. Because Jones' crossing route underneath attracts cornerback Darius Butler and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and pulls them away from the middle, White is open.
Ryan's throw, however, is high and bounces off White's hands. As the ball falls toward the ground, safety Dwight Lowery dives and appears to come up with the interception.
Replay shows the end of the ball hitting the ground, but officials did not overturn the call. Aaaand that's how you end up with an article saying "Matt Ryan has thrown more red zone interceptions than any other quarterback" instead of "Matt Ryan is tied with Sam Bradford and Eli Manning for most red zone interceptions."
Even so, Ryan might have been better off checking down to Terron Ward, who sneaked out of the backfield late. The Falcons only need 6 yards for the first down, and no defender is within even 10 yards of him. If Ryan sees him and he makes the catch, there's a whole lot of green ahead.
Sometimes a little patience is everything …
Week 12 vs. Minnesota Vikings in Atlanta
Situation: Third-and-goal from the 14-yard line, 8:07 left in the third quarter, Vikings lead 7-3
After a questionable clipping penalty wipes out a touchdown, a dropped pass and 4-yard loss puts the Falcons in a situation in which they're extremely unlikely to convert. Heading into Week 12, teams had passed 21 times on a third-and-goal longer than 10 yards. None of them scored a touchdown.
The play begins breaking down up front. Against the left side of the Falcons offensive line, the Vikings execute a stunt in which defensive end Everson Griffen (97) loops around interior defender Brian Robison (96). Left guard Andy Levitre whiffs, and Griffen's pressure flushes Ryan out of the pocket.
The pressure makes an improbable situation just about impossible because as Ryan rolls to his left, he loses more than half of his receiving options. He has two choices: Ward or Tamme, and only Tamme is in the end zone.
When Ryan forces the throw to Tamme, cornerback Terrance Newman picks it off and — like George Costanza denying the Bubble Boy the satisfaction of a Trivial Pursuit victory — prevents the go-ahead score.
When the Bucs and Falcons met in Atlanta a month ago, the Falcons had no trouble moving the ball, reaching the red zone five times. Once there, they scored two touchdowns, kicked two field goals and lost a fumble. They also reached the Tampa Bay 20-yard line one other time and lost a second fumble on a bad handoff exchange.
The Falcons turned the ball over four times in all, while the Bucs didn't turn it over once. And Atlanta still came back from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to force overtime. The Bucs didn't force a turnover against Matt Hasselbeck and the Colts — their first game without a takeaway since their Week 10 loss to the Falcons last season (17 games) — but will have to Sunday if they are to win. Will they? Yes, Atlanta is mistake-prone, but predicting turnovers is about as easy as defining what a catch is these days.
The loss to the Colts showed us that while the Bucs are making progress, especially at quarterback, many issues remain. The offensive line still struggles in pass protection, the defensive line still doesn't generate a consistent rush and the secondary is still vulnerable against decisive and accurate passers.
Donte Moncrief's (eight catches, 114 yards) and T.Y. Hilton's (six catches, 95 yards, two touchdowns) performances don't inspire much confidence the Bucs will contain Julio Jones, who has been close to unstoppable against Lovie Smith's defense. In his past three games against Tampa Bay, the NFL leader in targets, receptions and yards has caught 29 of 35 targets for 442 yards and three touchdowns. The Bucs have been particularly susceptible to big gains, having allowed completions to Jones of at least 35 yards in each of those games.
My record: 7-3
Oh, and have a happy Festivus, everyone!
Thomas Bassinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.