The Falcons’ offense entered Week 17 as the best in football. Four quarters later, it solidified its place as one of the best offenses in history.
With a 38-32 win over New Orleans, Atlanta finished 2016 with 540 points – tied with the 2000 Rams for the seventh-most an NFL club has ever scored in a single season. That output is 71 points more than any other team accumulated this year and 176 points above the league average.
Week 17's triumph also marked the 11th time Atlanta had 30-plus points, the third-most ever in an NFL season, and its five 40-plus-point efforts rank second all-time.
More than anything else, the Falcons reached these heights because of their efficiency. They scored 3.23 points per drive, per Football Outsiders, and gained 6.69 yards per play – both tops in the league.
Matt Ryan, of course, led Atlanta to these historic numbers. In 16 games, the veteran QB finished with 4,944 yards – a new franchise record – 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions, good for league-bests in QB rating (117.1) and ESPN’s Total QBR (83.3).
Just how good is that overall stat line? It made Ryan one of three NFL players (along with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) to throw for 3,500-plus yards and 10 or fewer INTs in a season.
And, like the offense in general, Ryan was incredibly efficient: His 9.26 yards per attempt is the highest in NFL history for a 16-game season and any season with 350-plus attempts. For perspective: Rodgers earned a lower Y/A in 15 of 16 contests, and no one other than Ryan had a higher Y/A than 8.23 in 2016.
That rate was put together thanks to remarkable consistency, as Ryan set a new league record by notching at least 200 passing yards in 55 consecutive games, a streak that remains alive. His 12 games with a passer rating over 100 were the most in the NFL and tied with Brady (2007, 2010) and Steve Young (1994) for the second-most all-time. Only Rodgers (13 in 2011) has had more in a year.
Additionally, Ryan tallied 7.91 Y/A or more during all 16 matchups in 2016. Kurt Warner (2001) previously held the record with at least 6.87 Y/A in every regular season game. He won his second MVP award following that campaign and, after learning about this fact, said Ryan should receive the same honor.
One of the biggest differences between Ryan’s MVP-caliber work and his past performance was the way he threw the deep ball. On attempts targeted 20-plus yards downfield, he completed 32 of 63 passes for 1,149 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His 136.1 QB rating on such throws ranked No. 1 amongst qualifying signal-callers, according to Pro Football Focus.
Many of those throws were completed during play-action plays, during which he registered 1,650 passing yards – 461 above the pack – nine TDs and a 118.2 QB rating.
Ryan’s outing on Sunday was a microcosm for the entire season. He methodically shredded the Saints’ defense by connecting on 27 of 36 attempts for 331 yards and four touchdowns to four receivers.
It was no surprise he distributed the ball to so many of his teammates: On Christmas Eve, with a one-yard toss to DJ Tialavea, he set an NFL record by firing a TD pass to 13 different Falcons in 2016.
“I told the team it was in typical Falcon offensive fashion to be going to four different receivers for the touchdown passes so it just felt like they were in a groove," head coach Dan Quinn said after the victory. "I thought Matt played particularly well today. He created some, moved in the pocket and just threw some balls that were right on point."
These stats will be talked about for a long time, and, in many eyes, make Atlanta's QB the most valuable player in football. More importantly, however, the Falcons’ offensive success has put them in position to make a deep playoff run. That’s what Ryan is focusing on as he prepares for his first trip to the postseason since January, 2013.
“We did what we needed to do,” he said. “To me, that’s what you want to do as an offense. That’s what you want to do as a quarterback. When games shake out a certain way, you have to figure out what you have to do to win games. I’m proud of the way we handled that. At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is we have given ourselves a chance. We have an opportunity in front of us now. It’ll be fun.”