Upset Watch: Carolina (+3.5) vs. Atlanta
The Carolina Panthers are 3-9 and a mess, playing out the string until owner Jerry Richardson once again cleans house in the offseason. The Atlanta Falcons are 11-1 and cruising to a likely top seed in the NFC playoffs. So the idea that Carolina has a good chance to upset Atlanta this week probably sounds a bit absurd. Our numbers disagree.
The Football Outsiders DVOA ratings rank the Falcons just 10th despite their 11-1 record. The Panthers are 18th despite winning just three games. A big issue here is strength of schedule; the Panthers have played the fifth-toughest schedule in the NFL by average DVOA of opponent, while Atlanta's schedule ranks 31st.
The other big difference between these teams has been performance in close games. The gap between the two is astonishing. The Panthers are 0-7 in games decided by less than a touchdown; they actually have a winning record (3-2) in games decided by seven or more points. The Falcons, on the other hand, are 6-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown.
Fans like to believe that close games are decided not just by luck but also by better coaching and clutch performance. In the short run, looking at each individual game, this is true. But in the long run, performance in close games usually evens out. Here's an example relevant to the Panthers: From 1990 through 2011, seven different teams were 0-6 or worse in games decided by less than a touchdown through Week 13. Were these sad teams built to flop under pressure in close games? It sure didn't look like it in December. Those same seven teams went 8-2 in games decided by less than a touchdown over the final four weeks.
The 2011 Panthers were 0-4 in games decided by less than a touchdown, so Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is now 0-11 in two seasons. It certainly is true that certain coaches historically have a better or worse record in close games, to such a point that it is statistically significant -- but no coach could possibly be this bad over the long term. Rivera's absurdly conservative late-game decisions hurt the Panthers' chances of winning, especially when his fourth-and-1 punt allowed the Falcons an opportunity to march down the field and claim a last-second 30-28 victory in Week 4. However, random variation is also a part of the reason for the Panthers' awful record in close games, and Carolina is clearly better than most other 3-9 teams.
The Panthers already know they can play the Falcons close, and this time they have the advantage of home field. However, Carolina needs to get back to its classic identity as a run-first offense. If we look only at the first half of games to eliminate the effect of running out the clock or trying a comeback, the Panthers have run the ball on just 47.5 percent of first downs this year. That ranks just 22nd in the NFL and is entirely the wrong strategy against the Falcons, whose run defense is poor overall and particularly poor on first down. Atlanta ranks 26th against first-down runs but third against first-down passes.
When Cam Newton has to pass the ball, one of his biggest strengths matches the weakness in Atlanta's secondary. Newton has been much better passing the ball to the left side of the field this year than he has when passing to the right. Newton's 9.5 yards per pass attempts on left-side passes is the best in the NFL. Some of this has to do with the fact Steve Smith lines up on the left side about twice as often as he lines up on the right, but the split can be seen on passes to Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen, as well.
Cam Newton Passes by Direction
Area DVOA Rk Yd/Att Rk
Left 60.9% 2 9.5 1
Middle 16.2% 26 9.4 8
Right -0.7% 23 6.8 20
The left side is the right place to attack the Atlanta defense because Asante Samuel covers the right side of the field (particularly the short right) so much better than Dunta Robinson covers the left side. So far in FO game charting data, we have Samuel allowing 6.9 yards per pass while Robinson has allowed 8.3 yards per pass. Samuel is usually on the offense's right, while Robinson is on the offense's left. The Falcons will be hurt if Samuel can't play because of a shoulder injury that kept him out of most of last week's game, but even then it might make sense to pick on Robinson. Robert McClain has allowed just 4.5 yards per pass, albeit in limited time covering mostly slot receivers.
Passes vs. Atlanta by Direction
Area DVOA Rk Yd/Att Rk
Left 14.9% 17 7.6 24
Middle 38.8% 19 9.1 22
Right -1.4% 8 6.0 7
The left-right dichotomy was clearly seen in the first game between these teams, as Newton was 8-of-12 for 128 yards throwing left but 4-for-10 with 65 yards throwing to the right.
Matt Ryan will face a Panthers offense that is better than you might expect. Carolina ranks 14th in both defensive DVOA and yards allowed. The Falcons will need to use more of the shifty Jacquizz Rodgers and less of the now-plodding Michael Turner. The Panthers rank next-to-last in our adjusted line yards metric, showing they consistently give up running yards, and they are particularly poor against runs outside of the tackles. The Falcons also may need to protect Matt Ryan with an extra blocker or two. The Panthers have just 28 sacks, close to the league average, but once you adjust for their schedule and the low number of pass attempts they have faced, the Panthers rank fourth in our adjusted sack rate metric.