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Last year, Atlanta won its fourth game of the year in week eleven.

Last year, Carolina won its fourth game of the year in week fourteen.

This year, both the Falcons and Panthers have started the season 4-0. But both teams have feasted on some pretty easy schedules. Which gets us to the real question: how good are these teams, really?

For Carolina, it’s easy to buy into the idea that this 4-0 streak is mostly a mirage. The Panthers have beaten Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay. Those four teams are 4-12 this year, after the Saints defeated the Cowboys in overtime on Sunday Night Football. And two of those wins came against each other! Carolina may very well have gone 4-0 against four teams that won’t win 20 games combined this year.

The Falcons began the year with close wins against three NFC East teams, which isn’t normally worthy of praise. Atlanta won by 2 against the Eagles at home, and then came back from double-digit deficits to win on the road against the Giants and Cowboys. Given that Dallas was without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, it’s hard to get too excited about those victories. Then, Atlanta dominated the Texans, and well, while it’s still just the Texans, it at least goes down as the most impressive Falcons win of the year.

Okay, so the Falcons are probably at least an above-average team, but are they a top eight team? That’s hard to say. Let’s look at Atlanta’s schedule and see when the Falcons real test will come.

Score
Week Day Date Rec Opp Tm Opp
1 Mon September 14 W 1-0 Philadelphia Eagles 26 24
2 Sun September 20 W 2-0 @ New York Giants 24 20
3 Sun September 27 W 3-0 @ Dallas Cowboys 39 28
4 Sun October 4 W 4-0 Houston Texans 48 21
5 Sun October 11 Washington Redskins
6 Thu October 15 @ New Orleans Saints
7 Sun October 25 @ Tennessee Titans
8 Sun November 1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9 Sun November 8 @ San Francisco 49ers
10 Bye Week
11 Sun November 22 Indianapolis Colts
12 Sun November 29 Minnesota Vikings
13 Sun December 6 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14 Sun December 13 @ Carolina Panthers
15 Sun December 20 @ Jacksonville Jaguars
16 Sun December 27 Carolina Panthers
17 Sun January 3 New Orleans Saints

Uhh….Is there a real test on the Falcons schedule?

The two games against Carolina, and perhaps the Colts game if Andrew Luck can turn things around, stand out as the only games where the Falcons won’t be clear favorites, and even that might change by the time those games arrive.

The NFC South got a very favorable draw this year. That goes double for the upper crust of the division, because they also get four games against the Saints and Bucs.

In addition to the six division games, each NFC South team gets four games against each of the AFC South and NFC East. The AFC South is just about always the worst division in the NFL, and 2015 is no different (although there appears to be even less variation inside that division than usual). The NFC East has been surprisingly bad. The other two games consist of one game each against a team from the NFC North and NFC West.

For every pair of division rivals, the schedules are identical for 12 of the 16 games.  The other four are the two games against each other, and the two games based on the order of the teams’ finish in the prior year against the other two division in the conference (after the two divisions where both teams play each team from those divisions).  As it turns out, that leads to some pretty large differences in the schedule this year, and Atlanta is the big winner.

  • Each NFC South team has one game against an NFC North team.  For Carolina, they get the Packers, while the Falcons get the Vikings.
  • Each NFC South team has one game against an NFC West team. For Carolina, that involves a trip to Seattle, while the Falcons visit the 49ers.
  • In addition, consider that Atlanta faced Dallas in week three, with the Cowboys down both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.  The Panthers face the Cobwoys in Dallas on Thanksgiving, when both players should be healthy.

There’s a pretty good chance the Falcons go 3-0 or 2-1 in those games, while the Panthers go 1-2 or even 0-3. Given that the rest of the schedules are identical, this makes those Falcons/Panthers games critically important for Carolina.  If the Panthers don’t sweep those games, it’s going to be really difficult for the Panthers to win the NFC South.

Atlanta, meanwhile, is in fantastic shape. The Falcons are 4-0 and still have four games against the Bucs and Saints. Given that the Colts game is at home and the trip to Carolina is in December (and could come with the Falcons looking like the better team), Atlanta may even wind up being favored in its final 13 games after being underdogs in each of the first three weeks.

Atlanta may not exactly be the favorite for the number one seed in the NFC, but the Falcons are certainly in the mix.  The Falcons started 8-0 in 2012, which prompted me to look at the team’s odds of going undefeated. It’s a bit early for that sort of talk — especially given the question of how good Atlanta actually is — but the Falcons are a strong favorite to finish the year with the league’s easiest schedule.

Carolina? The remaining schedule isn’t quite as easy, given that Carolina’s easier opponents were front-loaded and the presence of the Seahawks and Packers on the slate.  In fact, after the bye, Carolina’s next four games are at Seattle and then home games against the Eagles, Colts, and Packers.  A 1-3 record seems like the most likely scenario there, and if that happens, the NFC South race may be all but over.

Let’s end this with a bit of trivia. What would Carolina need to have JAX/HOU/NO/TB be the easiest stretch of any 4-0 team in NFL history? The “record” here belongs to the 2008 Bills and 1968 Giants, who both started 4-0 against teams that wound up winning just 25% of their games.1

In ’08, Buffalo beat Seattle (the Seahawks finished 2008 with a 4-12 record), Jacksonville (5-11), Oakland (5-11), and St. Louis (2-14) in September.  That hot started prompted Peter King to declare Trent Edwards his MVP of the first quarter of the season, and you probably know how that turned out.  Buffalo finished the season winning just three of the team’s final nine games.

In 1968, the Giants started 4-0 and scored 34+ points each week, thanks to a lights out offense headlined by Fran Tarkenton and Homer Jones.  But the wins came against Pittsburgh (2-11-1), Philadelphia (2-12), Washington (5-9), and New Orleans (4-9-1). New York finished the season 7-7.

It’s going to take some bad turns for Houston, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans to combine for less than 16 wins and to allow Carolina to “break” this record, but hey, this gives us something to track! So who wants to volunteer?

  1. (If anyone is curious the ’97 Bucs, ’78 Rams, and ’75 Cowboys set the record for best opponent’s win percentage among 4-0 teams; each team’s first four opponents had a (pro-rated) average record of 10-6. []
  • Bob Harris

    Worth adding that Carolina’s schedule was even easier than it looks given that they avoided the only good QB they could have faced in the first four weeks with Drew Brees missing the week three game.

    • True. Given that Carolina already banked that win, and the Falcons will have to face Brees, that is an edge for Carolina. But Carolina’s still had an easier schedule to date, and since Atlanta’s overall schedule is easier, that gives them a big edge over the final 12.

  • Tom

    Considering the home field advantage of their opponents, these two teams also have somewhat easy road schedules: using data from 2002-2014, Atlanta’s opponents this year have an average observed HFA of 2.0 (7th easiest, the NFL average is 2.6), Carolina’s opponents check in at 2.3 (15th). When the Falcons go on the road in December to face the Bucs, Panthers and Jags, the average HFA for that trip will be 1.5. This is good news for a team that relies more heavily on its offense to win games.

    • Richie

      Plus, no road games in cold weather for the Falcons. Carolina has to play at New York in week 15.

      • Tom

        Right, I didn’t notice that!

      • Bill Plummer

        The Giants are chokers.

  • Richie

    “Last year, Carolina won its fourth game of the year in week fourteen.” ….and made the playoffs! That’s hilarious. I had forgotten how bad a start they had.

    3-8-1 and then finish with a 4-game winning streak.

  • Richie

    Everybody is getting giddy about the Patriots going undefeated. Maybe the Falcons are the team to go undefeated. Or, maybe both of them. That would be wild.

    Right now I think the toughest game on the Falcons’ schedule is Minnesota. The Vikings have been a little frisky. But Atlanta gets a break by playing them at home.

    • Tom

      I think I’d put Washington in that frisky category as well…when Cousins gets hot, look out!

  • wakecooper

    Likely 1-3 in a stretch of @ SEA/vs PHI/vs IND/vs GB seems a little harsh given how the middle two have played, and with Seattle not looking all that impressive thus far. I wouldn’t expect better than 2-2, but 1-3 isn’t giving Carolina enough credit

  • Andrew Healy

    There is almost no chance of this happening, but the Falcons going undefeated against that schedule would be reminiscent of the ’72 Dolphins. Depending on how unimpressive their wins are, you could even see a 16-0 Atlanta team favored by 1.5 against the Packers or Seahawks in the playoffs. That would be pretty awesome.

  • Bill Plummer

    The undefeated Dolphins had a tough schedule and Carolina’s is super easy. Nevertheless undefeated is undefeated.