Tonight we get what used to be a classic NFC South match-up between Tampa and Atlanta. Atlanta had a rough season last year, and Tampa hasn’t really returned to its John Lynch/Warren Sapp/Mike Alstott level of play. The Falcons should make a turnaround this year, as there’s almost no way they’ll be as bad as last year, and they already have a win over the Saints to point to. Tampa has been a trendy pick to surprise each of the past few years, but hasn’t done it yet. Last week’s loss to the Rams isn’t going to impress anyone either. So it’s no surprise that the Falcons are favored by nearly a touchdown tonight.
The models are pretty much on board with the spread. Or, at least Luigi and Yoshi 2 are, putting Atlanta at a 6-7 point favorite. Yoshi 1 actually has Tampa as a tiny favorite by its score prediction (and Atlanta a favorite, but less than Luigi, by win probability). Tampa has been better at running the ball, and Tampa has been better defensively. The Bucs don’t have any interceptions yet, and they’re only average at pass defense, but the Falcons have the worst pass defense in the league by a full yard and have yet to sack anyone. It’s true that Atlanta has already had to put up with Drew Brees once (and he went for over nearly 350 yards), but Andy Dalton came in and got 300 on just 24 passes as well.
So Yoshi 1 could be focusing on Atlanta’s poor defense while Luigi is focusing on offense. The Falcons are decent in the passing game, currently at 8th in the league in yards per dropback, but Tampa is pretty bad, at 22nd and over a full yard worse than the Falcons. The Bucs have also been intercepted just as often and sacked one more time despite dropping back 30 fewer times. Tampa is the better running team, but both squads are running pretty well so far. So this game will essentially come down to if Tampa can use it’s poor passing offense to take advantage of the Falcons’ poor passing defense. Are you a believer in Josh McCown? In case you’ve forgotten (which Tampa did when they signed him), Josh is 35 and has just under 1400 career passes, or about 30 more than Matt Stafford threw in the last two years combined.
And it’s still a little early to look at power rankings, since unusual performances and strength of schedule are dominating this early in the year, but I wanted to mention that the Texans have taken over. I didn’t expect the Lions to stay at the top all year, but I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that Houston would be there. The Texans have two double-digit victories under their belts and feature the league’s 3rd-best passing efficiency. Ryan Fitzpatrick also has yet to be sacked or throw a pick, which has to be reassuring to fans who still have visions of pick-sixes running through their heads. Houston’s run game hasn’t been as effective, but they’ve used it a lot. Their rush defense is also not great, as they’ve given up a league-worst 5.8 yards per carry. The pass defense has been more steady at a little bit above average. The Texans’ sitting this high is also likely a fluke, but it’s likely that they stay high in the rankings longer than the Lions since Houston has a trip to play the terrible Giants this weekend. The few games after that, against the Bills, Cowboys, and Colts, should even things out.