This is a companion piece to the excellent post made by knomercy regarding garbage time scoring against the Falcons defense. Highly recommended if you haven't yet read it.
So, I was listening to Q speak on his radio show yesterday about how the D really began to "play faster" after the bye week. He explained that players were spending much less time figuring out their assignments and actually executing them, allowing them to showcase the more punishing brand of defensive football we've witnessed of late. I wanted to take a look at how this shift translates to the stat page, given how much we have heard over both the regular and postseasons regarding the statistical awfulness of Atlanta's defense. Listed below are the last eight games the Falcons have played, the scoring rank of each opposing offense and the points allowed by our defense (and only our defense) in each.
ARI 6th in scoring, 19 PA
KC 13th in scoring, 13 PA
LA 32nd in scoring, 14 PA
SF 27th in scoring, 13 PA
CAR 15th in scoring, 16 PA
NO 2nd in scoring, 32 PA
SEA 18th in scoring, 20 PA
GB 4th in scoring, 21 PA
As we can see, 5 out of the 8 offenses we faced during this stretch were top half of the league in scoring (We faced 6 other top-half offenses before the Week 11 bye.)
By comparison, the Patriots defense faced only 5 top-half scoring offenses the entire regular season and postseason combined (That's 5 out of 18 total games.) After their bye in Week 9, they ran a 10-game "gauntlet" made up of only one team that was top half in scoring, which didn't even occur until that 10th game last week. Before that, it was the likes of SEA (18th), SF (27th), LAR (32nd), BAL (27th), DEN (22nd), MIA (17th), HOU (28th) and the NYJ (30th) twice. I'll also point out that the only team NE faced during those nine games who was led by a QB who wasn't a total scrub, a rookie or both ended up hanging 31 points and a home loss on them.
We can also see that the Falcons defense allowed below the league average of 23 PPG in 7 of those 8 contests. To the Pat's credit, they did hold top-half offenses under the league average 4 out of the 5 times they faced one, a home shutout at the hands of the Bills being the lone exception.
Another aspect that rarely gets mentioned in all of this is takeaways. Over the entirety of the regular season, both teams were pretty middling in this stat, with NE amassing 23 takeaways (14th) to Atlanta's 21 (16th.) After the bye and into the playoffs, however, the Falcons forced an impressive 15 takeaways over those next eight contests. That is a game changing number. And unlike the Pats, they did it against some mighty potent offenses led by some mighty accomplished QBs - a group of six that can collectively boast 26 Pro Bowls, 4 All-Pros, 3 MVPs and 3 SB Championships between them.
All that said, if we extrapolate Atlanta's defensive performance since "the light came on" over the last eight games to an entire 16 game season here are the numbers we arrive at:
296 Points Allowed (4th)
5512 Yards Allowed (15th)
30 Takeaways (2nd)
And compared to NE:
250 PA (1st)
5223 YA (8th)
23 TA (14th)
None of this is to say that NE's defense is to be trifled with. They are d*mn good and have been all season. But looking at how fast and physical the Falcons D has been playing over the last eight games, I don't believe they are as far behind as they are being made out to be. They are certainly much more battle tested than NE. And when you consider the rarely mentioned takeaway factor - which always seems to have a way of determining outcomes in big games against equally matched oppenents - along with our offense's season-long habit of putting our defense in a willing position to trade yards and points for clock, there's a chance Atlanta's may actually end up being the superior unit on NRG Field after it's all said and done.