One thing important to remember is that difficulty is not merely a measure of an opponent’s talent level based off their play in the previous year. While over analyzing the schedule to predict wins is worthless, it is evident the Falcons have some challenges ahead of them in the upcoming season.
The Falcons start their season with two home games against the Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers. A lot of fans are anxiously anticipating the Dolphins game because both teams were the biggest turnaround teams of 2008. Both teams will have a chance to prove who is for real in week one.
The Panthers game should prove to be close as the Falcons have split division wins with them each year since 2005. An interesting note about the Falcons in the first two games; since 2004 the Falcons are 10-1 at home in the first four weeks of the season.
Week three provides one of the biggest challenges on the schedule as they travel to Boston to take on the New England Patriots. Good news; the game is not played in the cold. Bad News; the Patriots have only lost two home games in September since 2002. Worse News; Tom Brady is back.
The New England game is an opportunity for Mike Smith to take his team and get their biggest road win in his regime.
One possible downside to the Falcons schedule is the bye in week four. Although there is no real statistical disadvantage to the early bye, most teams prefer to have the break later in the season when players are recovering from injuries and fatigue.
The next four games are possible danger as the Falcons play at San Francisco, home vs. Chicago, then at Dallas and New Orleans. The defense will be challenged during this stretch as all four opposing quarterbacks led their teams to top 13 rankings in passing last year.
Another factor is that in the last three years the Falcons have never been ranked inside the top 20 in passing defense. This combination could pose a threat to the defense if the Falcons are not able to tighten up in the secondary and get pressure on the quarterbacks.
Week nine through week 17 is the meat of the Falcon’s schedule with each opponent posting a record of .500 or better in 2008 (with the exception of Buffalo). One advantage that the Falcons have is the ability to get into a rhythm as they have nine straight games with 1:00 kickoffs. The four away games are all on the east coast too which allows the team to become consistent and repetitive in their preparation and planning for each game.
After a week nine home game against Washington, the Falcons face consecutive road games against Carolina and the New York Giants. Weather may become a factor in the New York game as it is played on November 22. The Giants defense will be hard to move the ball against especially in inclement weather conditions.
The Falcons then enjoy a three game home stand with games against Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. These three games will be a test for the Falcons secondary as the opponents were ranked 11th, sixth, and first respectively in passing offense.
The Falcons also see tough defenses as the Bucs were fourth in passing defense and Eagles fourth in rushing defense last year.
The final three games of the regular season are at NY Jets, home versus Buffalo, and at Tampa Bay. While the New York game could be a tough game because of the weather, the Jets are only 3-3 at home in December over the past three years.
The final game of the season will not be a cake walk as the Falcons have only won in the Bay once since 2004. While the Bucs may be weak on the offense their defense is strong enough to carry them through a lot of games.
The NFC South is a tough division and the Falcons have a rough road ahead of them in search of a division title. All four teams were at or above .500 last year and they had more combined wins than any other division in the NFL.
Outside of the division, the Falcons have some challenging road games with trips to New England, Dallas, NY Giants, and NY Jets. Those four games will be the most decisive outside of division play as the Falcons try to prove that they can win the big game on the road.
One of the biggest tests for the team will be the ability to contain opposing quarterbacks. As if it wasn’t tough enough to face division foes Jake Delhomme and Drew Brees, this year the Falcons get to see Tom Brady, Jake Cutler, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, and Donovan McNabb.
A year ago this combination of quarterbacks would have picked apart the Falcons defense but the team has strengthened their roster during the offseason.
First round pick Peria Jerry should be an immediate help on the D-line and 2nd and 3rd round selections William Moore and Christopher Owens are possible starters in the secondary.
The play of the defense will be the litmus test for what potential this team has. If the Falcons are able to prevent the big play through the air they have the personnel on the defensive line to stop the run.
We know the Falcons offense has potential to put up big numbers on anyone. As the Falcons look to take home a division title and move deep into the playoffs, the schedule points to the defense as the key to wins.