Power Ranking the Atlanta Falcons' 2013 Schedule from Easiest to Hardest Games
The Falcons' 2013 regular-season schedule includes a Week 1 trip to the Superdome to play the New Orleans Saints in Sean Payton's first game back from his suspension, a Week 16 Monday night game at San Francisco, a Sunday night game in December at Lambeau Field, a game in Toronto against the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots' first trip to Atlanta since the 2005 season.
In a quarterbacks' league, one of the best ways to evaluate the difficulty of an NFL team's schedule is to look at the caliber of the quarterbacks the team will be facing. In 2013, the Falcons will play against a talented group of signal-callers headlined by Tom Brady, Drew Brees (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton (twice), Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.
While in reality there are no "easy" games in the NFL, for the sake of discussion we're going to take a shot at ranking the 16 games on the Atlanta Falcons' 2013 regular-season schedule on paper from easiest to hardest.
We determined our rankings based on whether the game is a home or away game, where the game falls on the schedule (to account for weather, short/long breaks between non-Sunday games), the Falcons' recent history against each team and the quality of the opposition's projected starting quarterback.
All historical stats and data gathered from Pro-Football-Reference.com
1. Week 5 vs. New York Jets, Monday Night Football
The Jets lead off this list as the easiest matchup on paper because they're a complete mess at the moment. Will Darrelle Revis get traded or will he play out the last year of his contract? What are they going to do with Tim Tebow?
Beyond those questions, Mark Sanchez (or Greg McElroy) would probably the worst starting quarterback on Atlanta's schedule if the season started today.
If the Jets remain where they are, the Falcons should be able to make quick work of them in this early-season prime-time game.
2. Week 13 at Buffalo Bills (in Toronto)
This game may have gotten the nod over the Jets game for the "easiest game on the schedule" title, but it's being played in Toronto instead of Atlanta.
While the weather may not be an issue since the Rogers Centre has a roof, the league's decision to place this game between a Thursday night game at home against the Saints and a Sunday night game the next week at Green Bay sets this up as potential trap game for the Falcons.
Atlanta is probably looking at Kevin Kolb or a rookie quarterback here.
3. Week 8 at Arizona Cardinals
Matt Ryan and the Falcons make their first trip to Arizona since their playoff loss that ended the first season of the Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan era.
The Cardinals come in third on this list because they'll be relying on Carson Palmer regaining his form as their starting quarterback.
Even still, Falcons fans shouldn't discount this game too quickly; Arizona may have beaten the Falcons in Atlanta last year if they had Palmer under center in a what turned out to be a sloppy 23-19 Falcons victory.
4. Week 2 vs. St. Louis Rams
The Falcons will face the Rams in their home opener and hope to send them away with a humble defeat like they did the last time St. Louis kicked off Atlanta's home schedule in 2004.
The Rams beat San Francisco and Seattle last season, and they figure to be a much improved team in 2013 after making a couple of nice additions in free agency and carrying two first-round picks into next week's draft.
Sam Bradford is far from a pushover at quarterback, but St. Louis is still a relatively young team and Atlanta should be able to handle them at home.
5. Week 7 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay lost five of its last six games in 2012 after starting 6-4, but they expect to compete for the playoffs in 2013.
Tampa Bay's trip to Atlanta earns the fifth spot on this list because Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman has a 2-6 career record against the Falcons, and his only win at the Georgia Dome came in Week 17 last year when the Falcons had little to play for.
6. Week 15 vs. Washington Redskins
It may be a bit surprising to see the reigning NFC East champions and budding star Robert Griffin III slotted in the sixth spot on this list behind teams like Carolina and Miami, but consider my reasoning.
First, Atlanta handled Washington pretty well on the road at FedEx Field last year. In addition, the cap-strapped Redskins haven't been able to make too many improvements this offseason and they won't make a selection in next week's draft until the 51st pick.
Finally, since the game is being played Week 15, the Falcons should be playing their best football of the season.
7. Week 17 vs. Carolina Panthers
Even though Cam Newton is only 1-3 against the Falcons in his young career, he and his Panthers team have held second-half leads in all four games against Atlanta.
That's a big part of why Carolina's visit to the Georgia Dome presents a tougher challenge than the Week 15 game against Washington.
If Carolina can avoid another slow start this year, this Week 17 game could have major playoff implications.
8. Week 3 at Miami Dolphins
Miami was very active during the free agency period following a competitive 7-9 season. Mike Wallace gives second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill an explosive target on the outside, while Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Brent Grimes join a formidable Miami defense.
Winning on the road in the NFL is tough, and Miami is positioned nicely to pull off an early-season upset over the Falcons if Atlanta isn't careful.
9. Week 11 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Falcons' second tilt against the Buccaneers leads us into the eight toughest games that Atlanta will play in 2013.
Tampa Bay almost always plays the Falcons tough at Raymond James Stadium, and things shouldn't be any different this upcoming season.
It's tough to blow a divisional opponent out because of the familiarity that exists between the Falcons and those teams, so I'd expect another tight NFC South game when these teams get together.
10. Week 9 at Carolina Panthers
The Panthers play a Thursday night game against Tampa Bay the week before hosting the Falcons, so they'll have a couple of extra days to heal their injuries and get ready for Atlanta.
The Falcons played one of their worst games of the season in their 30-20 loss at Bank of America Stadium in 2012.
11. Week 12 vs. New Orleans Saints, Thursday Night Football
The Saints' team charter bus was egged the last time the Saints played the Falcons on a Thursday night in Atlanta.
Even though this is a home game, the return of Sean Payton makes this a difficult matchup for the Falcons.
12. Week 10 vs. Seattle Seahawks
I was surprised to see that this playoff rematch didn't end up being a prime-time game.
Russell Wilson nearly led the Seahawks to a win against the Falcons in the divisional playoffs last year, and Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have all joined the Seahawks roster since then.
13. Week 4 vs. New England Patriots, Sunday Night Football
The Patriots will present a tough task for any team in the league as long as Tom Brady is playing.
The addition of ex-Rams receiver Danny Amendola helps to ease the pain caused by Wes Welker's departure, and New England tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are two of the best in football.
Atlanta will be playing New England in the regular season for the first time since 2009. The lack of familiarity between these two teams lands this game towards the more difficult end of Atlanta's 2013 schedule.
14. Week 1 at New Orleans Saints
It seems like the Superdome has been a house of horrors for the Falcons since that fateful Monday Night Football game in 2006 when the Saints reopened their dome after Hurricane Katrina.
Since then, Atlanta is just 1-6 in New Orleans.
Falcons fans won't have to wait long to see if Atlanta can break the hex that the Saints have on them in the Crescent City.
The Falcons' recent history in New Orleans makes this the team's third-most difficult game on paper.
15. Week 14 at Green Bay Packers, Sunday Night Football
The Falcons will have to face both the Packers and the elements when they travel to Lambeau Field for a late-season Sunday night game against the Packers.
Facing Aaron Rodgers on the road would have been enough to land this game in Atlanta's top five most difficult games of 2013, but the high possibility of inclement weather plants this game firmly into its position as the second-most difficult game on the Falcons' schedule.
16. Week 16 at San Francisco 49ers, Monday Night Football
The 49ers are the defending NFC champions, so the Falcons' trip to San Francisco is the toughest game on their schedule by default.
On top of that, this Monday night game that will be the last regular-season contest played at Candlestick Park.
Both teams should be clicking on all cylinders at this point in the season, and in all likelihood, the game will have a major impact on the NFC playoff picture.