By Jason Keidel
It’s hard to glean season-long nuggets from two weeks of play. But based on data gathered since the NFL expanded its playoffs to 12 teams, those who start 0-2 have a 12 percent chance of playing in January. Conversely, teams that start 2-0 have an over 60 percent chance to make the postseason.
Only two such clubs are playing each other this Sunday, and it wasn’t a game anyone circled before the season started.
But there’s no denying that the Atlanta Falcons-Detroit Lions game is worthy of our attention. In the turbulence of this young season, these are the only 2-0 clubs facing each other in Week 3. And if we can add one more stat into the mix, teams that start 3-0 make the playoffs 73 percent of the time.
Atlanta, who few expected to bolt out of the gate this well, has already scored 57 points. The catchphrase outside of Atlanta was Super Bowl hangover. We knew that it existed, and we knew it would plague the Falcons, who didn’t just lose a Super Bowl to the Patriots, but also gagged up the biggest lead in history.
Even non-Falcon, heck, non-football, fans have memorized two numbers since February…
That’s Atlanta’s lead, of course. In the second half. They blew the doors of Brady, Belichick and all the alleged mystique they brought with them to big games. Only Eli Manning was allowed to beat the Pats. You know the rest, and so does every Falcon who returned for the 2018 season.
But if there is any hangover, it certainly hasn’t hit QB Matt Ryan, who leads the NFL with nearly 10 yards per pass attempt. “Matty Ice” has completed 69 percent of his passes so far, and while he has just two passing TDs (0 INT), he has a gaggle of gifted runners around him who have scored three TDs on the ground. Atlanta has looked crisp, focused and quite potent, particularly during their Sunday drubbing of the depleted Packers to open their glittering new stadium. The Falcons are pretty much a carbon copy of last year’s team.
Only one NFC club has scored more than Atlanta — Detroit, which has dropped 59 points in just two games. Matt Stafford is still playing his dazzling best, which proves what most of us outside of Detroit already know — he’s worth every dime of his record-breaking, $135 million deal that includes $92 million in guaranteed money. Lions fans have given him the sardonic handle, “Pad Stat-Ford,” but you’d love to hear who they’d rather have under center, and why.
Stafford broke the NFL record last year with eight fourth-quarter comebacks, and this year has completed 71 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception. But so far, Detroit has not relied entirely on Stafford’s blessed right arm. Though the Lions were 30th in the NFL in rushing last year, averaging a paltry 83 yards per game, they sliced the stout Giants defense, on the road, for 138 yards. Between their newfound running attack, which will pry open the play-action, and Atlanta playing without pass-rushing ace Vic Beasley, the Lions are poised to put up some points.
When two teams with the same record square off, you expect the home club to be favored. But the Falcons visit Ford Field as three-point favorites, which speaks almost entirely to reputation. Atlanta just played in the Super Bowl, while the Lions have never appeared in one. The Lions are considered a joke, a forlorn franchise, with any fast start far more mirage than some kind of revival.
So this is the perfect time for Detroit to stamp its arrival, during the marquee matchup of the week, against the defending NFC champs. You won’t find two quarterbacks playing any better than the two men named Matt. And, at least for a week, the Detroit Lions can win a game and claim the ephemeral throne as supreme team in the NFC, if not the NFL. And restore the Roar.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.