The Atlanta Falcons are coming off their first ever back-to-back winning seasons. The Falcons previously held the record for the longest streak of seasons without consecutive winning seasons among all major American sports, a streak that lasted from 1966-2008.
Though they failed to make the playoffs last year, the streak ended when the Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-10 in the final game of the season to improve their record to 9-7.
In 2008 the Falcons finished 11-5 and made the playoffs behind rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and rookie head coach Mike Smith
Their 2009 fall-off was mostly due to injuries to Matt Ryan, and starting All-Pro running back, Michael Turner.
The Falcons defense was also one of the worst in the league. They ranked 21st in total defense and 28th in pass defense.
The Falcons attempted to address these deficiencies in the 2010 NFL Draft.
First round pick Sean Weatherspoon will start Week 1 at middle line backer. Third round pick, (Atlanta's second round pick was traded to Kansas City in the Tony Gonzalez deal) Corey Peter, has a strong chance to start on the defensive line. The Falcons current defensive roster has 12 rookies on it, including five rookie defensive backs.
The Falcons also inked corner back free agent Dunta Robinson to a 6 year deal in the off-season.
With an improved defense and hopes for a full season from Ryan and Turner the Falcons have a bright outlook at a winning season in 2010.
With another successful season head coach Mike Smith might be able to lay claim to being the most successful Falcons coach ever. Only coaches Leeman Bennett (.526 winning pct.) and Jim Mora (.542) had winning records with Atlanta.
Let's take a look at the road ahead that Smith, Ryan and the Falcons will have to travel to have another winning season. .
The Falcons get a break right out of the gate when they face Pittsburgh - sans Ben Rothlisberger.
As of this writing the Steelers are unsure who their opening day quarterback will be. Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Byron Leftwich are in an open competition.* None of them are very good and should provide a nice opening game for the Falcons defense.
The Falcons actually beat the Steelers the last time they played them in 2006. An offensive shoot-out ended 41-38 on a Morten Anderson field goal in overtime. Charlie Batch replaced Rothlisberger in that game after Rothlisberger hurt his shoulder.
While it's never easy to start the season on the road, a Rothlisberger-less Steelers against a fully healthy Falcons should be enough for a tough road win.
Falcons win: 17-13
*On Monday September 6th the Steelers named Dennis Dixon as their starter for week 1. It will only be Dixon's second NFL start.
He started against Baltimore on November 29th last year. The Steelers lost in overtime 20-17. Dixon went 12 for 26 for 145 yards, a touchdown and a critical interception which led to Baltimore's winning field goal.
Dixon, while versatile, is not as good a pure passer as Leftwich. That's good new for Atlanta.
The Falcons get another opponent with questions at quaterback in week 2.
Matt Leinart takes over for hall of fame QB, Kurt Warner in Arizona.
Leinart won't have all-pro wideout Anquan Boldin to throw to after he departed for Baltimore this off-season. Defenses can now key on All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
This is a benefit for the Falcons. With questions at QB for their first two opponents a week secondary will be able to adjust to the season and avoid being tested early.
The last time Atlanta and Arizona faced off, Leinart made his first NFL start. It was not a good one. Atlanta rolled to a 32-10 win.
An untested QB, a wide recieving core that is not what is once was and a defense that allowed 90 points in two playoff games last year make a nice recipe for a home opener.
Turner should run wild and score at least two touchdowns as the Falcons roll 31-13.
With two opening game victories the Falcons team, and especially their defense, should be gaining confidence going into Week 3.
Things get real for the Falcons in Week 3. Defending Super Bowl Champions real.
The only positive in this match-up against Drew Brees and the Saints is that the Falcons catch them on a short week after New Orleans faces the 49ers on Monday Night Football.
The Falcons played New Orleans relatively tough last year but lost 35-27 in week 8 in New Orleans and then 26-23 in week 14 at home. The second loss occurred without Ryan and Turner.
In 2008 the Falcons also lost in New Orleans but played tough again losing 29-25.
Surprisingly, the Falcons also played the Saints tough at home in 2007. In the midst of a 3 and 13 campaign the Falcons battled to 22-16 loss.
The Falcons haven't won in New Orleans since a 37-35 victory in 2002. They beat New Orleans at home in 2005 but that "home" game was in the Alamodome.
Since this is a home game the edge has to go to New Orleans. If the Falcons could sneak out a win here, it would really put them in good position to win the division and control their season.
I don't see it happening. Saints win another close one 36-31.
The Falcons and 49ers faced off in week 5 last season. It was the Falcons best game of the season as they cruised to a 45-10 road victory.
That game was one of the Falcons three road wins in 2009.
Few people expect this season's rematch to be another blowout. In the 2009 game Frank Gore did not play because of injury. The consensus, this year, is that San Fransisco has improved their team enough that they are ready to take a big step forward.
This will be San Francisco's third road game in their first four contests.
The game does present the dreaded, "West coast team coming east," factor for the 49ers. Another lucky break for Atlanta.
There is the possibility of a letdown if Atlanta upsets New Orleans the week before. Since I'm betting against that happening I'll give the slight advantage to Atlanta in this game.
Atlanta wins 21-14.
The Browns were a pretty sad bunch in 2010, but somehow head coach Eric Mangini kept his job in the off-season.
The biggest question for this game might be whether or not Mangini is still coaching the Browns in week 5. Team President Mike Holmgren, is itching for a chance to return to coaching.
Cleveland's only saving grace is that they open with two easy opponents - Tampa Bay and Kansas City. But if they lose those two games Mangini and the Browns are in trouble as they next face Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Cleveland brought in three new quaterbacks in the off-season. Jake Delhomme is the team's projected starter, but career back-up Senaca Wallace and rookie Colt McCoy wait in the wings.
Along with the Mangini question there is the question of who will be the Browns QB by week 5? Delhomme didn't exactly play well in Carolina last year and the Browns could quickly make a change if things go south quickly.
The Browns are not much improved from the 5-11 team they were last year. They certianly don't have an above average passing game, which plays right into the hands of the Falcons defense.
Falcons win again: 28-10
Week 6 will be a tough road game against a perennial NFC power.
Philadelphia routed Atlanta in Week 13 last season.
This game was better known as Mike Vick's return to Atlanta. Vick ran and threw for a touchdown and the Eagles raced to a 34-0 lead.
This match-up was, unquestionably, Atlanta's worst performance last year. It was made all the more so because it occurred at home, late in the season, when the team needed to make a run at the playoffs.
Atlanta was missing Ryan and Turner for this game.
This season the Eagles have major questions at quarterback with the insertion of third year player Kevin Kolb into the starting role.
Kolb is one of the biggest questions of the off-season. The Eagles have been a competitive playoff team for almost a decade now. Kolb however has only two NFL starts under his belt.
The Eagles also jettisoned long-time running back Brain Westbrook and linebacker Jeremiah Trotter in the off-season. Whether or not the Eagles can maintain their top-ranked offense from last year remains to be seen.
The Falcons get a small scheduling break here. This mid-October game is likely to have fair conditions instead of a late season game in Philly under less than optimium conditions.
I've given the Falcons the benefit of the doubt in their two road games thus far. They probably can't continue that for long, especially in a hostile place like Lincoln Financial Field.
Eagles dominate again (at home this year). 38-17.
In Week 7 the Falcons face a 2009 playoff team for the second straight week.
The Bengals strength is their running game, anchored by Cedric Benson. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is not what he once was. He was incredibly average last year (barely passing for more then 3,000 yards).
The Bengals lack of a legitimate passing game once again helps the Falcons avoid one of their defensive weaknesses, stopping the vertical passing game.
Cincinnati overachieved last year. Their expected win loss based on performance and schedule was 8-8.
It is also important to remember that in 2005 the Bengals went 11-5 and won their division The next year they went 8-8. I'm thinking 2010 will be more of the same.
It was in 2006 that Cincinnati and Atlanta last matched up. Mike Vick led the Falcons to a 29-27 road victory.
This game is also the first of a three game home stand for the Falcons. Cincinnati will be coming of their bye.
The Falcons home-field advantage helps them it pull out. Falcons win. 21-18. Turner out gains Benson by at least 40 yards.
The Falcons return from their mid-season bye to face the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Falcons catch another scheduling break, as they get their bye right in the middle of the season. Hopefully any injuries accrued in the first seven weeks can be healed with two weeks off in early November.
Tampa Bay was awful last season. However the Falcons struggled a bit in both their wins against them.
In Atlanta, in Week 12, Tampa Bay almost eeked out their second win of the year, but lost 20-17.
That game was the one in which Matt Ryan injured his ankle. The Falcons struggled throughout. Only a fourth and goal touchdown pass to Roddy White with 26 seconds left, gave Atlanta the victory. .
The Bucs lost a lot of players in the off-season including star wide out Antonia Byrant and safety Will Allen.
This game has the feel of an upset. It sounds crazy, but at some point in 2010 the Falcons WILL lose a game they should win. It's difficult to say it will happen coming off a bye, at home, but I'm going to predict it anyway.
Bucs win on a last second field goal, 23-21.
I'd like to be called crazy if the Falcons win in a rout though.
Atlanta's two toughest, non-division games, both occur at home. The first one, against Baltimore, is a Thursday night NFL network game
Baltimore will be coming off a home date with Miami. The Falcons will not have to travel as this is their third consecutive home game.
This is an obvious benefit for the Falcons. Last season home teams went 5-3 in Thursday games (this includes the Lions predicatable loss on Thanksgiving). In 2008 home teams went 6-4 (the Lions once again got blown out on Turkey Day).
Baltimore is the early season pick of many to reach Super Bowl XLV. Their major off season upgrade was the addition of WR Anquan Boldin.
I have doubts about their defense. Ray Lewis is 35 and Ed Reed is 32 (as of September). This doubt isn't shared by many minds far sharper than mine.
The Ravens ranked second in total defense and second in fewest points allowed in 2009. I think age and depletations to their defensive roster might catch up with them this season.
A lot of people expect Joe Flacco to take a giant step forward this year. I also have by doubts about this. Flacco started strong last season but faded down the stretch. Over the season's final nine games Flacco tossed 10 touchdowns against 7 interceptions (this includes a four TD game in Week 15). In those last nine weeks Flacco threw for more than 250 yards just twice.
In the playoffs he was awful, completing just 24 of 45 passes with no touchdowns and three picks. In five career playoff games Flaco has a QB rating of 46.5.
This is a statement game for the resurgant Falcons.
The Falcons dominate in their first primetime game of the season. 30-10.
Another scheduling break allows Atlanta to stay in the eastern time zone until they travel to St. Louis in late November.
The Falcons will also be coming off a 10-day layoff after their Thursday night game.
St. Louis, at 1-15, was the worst team in the NFL last season. They drafted Sam Bradford number one overall and by Week 11 he'll probably be the teams starter over A.J. Feeley or Keith Null.
We shouln't be to quick to dismiss rookie Sam Bradford.
It was only three years ago that the number three pick took a 3-13 team to the playoffs. That was Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
Joe Flacco did the same in Baltimore and Mark Sanchez, though he wasn't very good, also had success as a rookie QB last year.
St. Louis still has Steven Jackson at running back - one of the games best when healthy.
Head coach Steve Spagnaulo is a defensive wiz who should, in his second season, start to have a positive affect on the Rams defense.
The Rams could easily build confidence this year because they have the easiest schedule in football.
I smell an upset in the Edward Jones Dome.
Still I can't imagine the Rams getting this one, though it's possible.
Falcons eek out a suprisingly close game 17-16.
ESPN simulated four versions of the 2010 NFL season using Madden 2011. In three of those seasons the Green Bay Packers reached the Super Bowl.
Thank God, and the NFL schedule makers, this game is in Atlanta.
To be honest the conditions and fast track might benefit the Packers prolific passing game. It's still preferable to traveling to Green Bay during the weekend after Thanksgiving.
The Falcons and Packers faced each other two years ago at Lambeau Field. An impressive performance from then rookie Matt Ryan and 132 rushing yards from Michael Turner, gave the Falcons a 27-24 victory. Rodgers still thew for 313 yards and three touchdowns.
Rodgers will be a problem again, against Atlanta's less then stellar passing defense.
If the Falcons are going to have prolonged success this year their passing defense has to improve from last season. The NFL is a passing league. It's very difficult to survive without a good pass rush and strong defensive backs.
This game will be a test of the defense's progress.
I see the Falcons first real slump of the season as they lose, badly, after almost losing to St.Louis the week before. There's nothing wrong with facing a little adversersity in early December, as long as the team rallies together.
Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan both air it out in a shootout. The Packers just have too many weapons. They prevail 39-21.
If the Falcons lose in weeks 11 and 12, they should recover with a trip to Florida.
It's always nice to travel south in December, when the rest of the country is bracing for winter.
As I mentioned in the first Tampa Bay game preview, the Falcons didn't exactly dominate the 3-13 Bucs last season. In Tampa Bay, the Falcons won 20-10 in the final week of 2009 . In that game Jason Snelling ran for 147 yards and Matt Ryan passed for 233 with two scores.
If by some chance Atlanta pulls out a win over Green Bay in the previous week, this could be a trap game considering it is on the road against a division opponent.
Tampa Bay will be coming off tough road games in San Francisco and Baltimore.
I think the Falcons defense will win the day and give the Falcons another road win.
Falcons win 24-6.
For the second straight game the Falcons go on the road to face a division opponent.
Carolina is the only team the Falcon's franchise has a winning record against that they have played in more then ten games (they are 6-4 against the Bills and Jets).
Carolina will start the season with Matt Moore at quarterback, but by week 14 it could very well be Jimmy Clausen.
Last season the Falcons lost a week 10 match-up in Carolina by a score of 28-19. This was the game in which Michael Turner hurt his ankle. He was dominating in the first half with 111 yard on nine carries before the injury.
Turner only rushed for 40 yards the rest of the season.
With a healthy Turner the Falcons should notch another December road win against a team that will likely be looking towards 2011 at this point.
A good, close contest sees the Falcons prevail 20-17.
As we progress with these previews, the games get harder and harder to predict.
Injuries will take their toll on every team and teams that looked awful last year will undoubtedly improve dramatically in 2010. The season will look very different in Week 15, then from our current perspective.
One of those improvements could be the Seattle Seahawks.
For their third straight December road game the Falcons make their first, and only, trip to the west coast. The weather in Seattle on the weekend before Christmas will be a major factor.
The state of the Seahawks will be of importance also. They might be greatly improved under new coach Pete Carroll or they could struggle with aging quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
The Seahawks have been one of the worst teams in the NFL over the last three years, posting a 13-35 record.
The last time these two teams faced-off the Falcons won a fantastic game 44-41 in week 17 of the 2007 season. The Falcons scored 24 points in the fourth quarter of that game.
This is a tough game to predict. It's very hard to win three road games in a row in the NFL. But Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle isn't exactly a murderers row of opponents.
I say the Falcons get a little weary and lose this one, with the help of bad weather, by a score of 16-9. Things could easily go the other way.
The Falcons and Saints provide a last Christmas present when they match up on Monday Night Football, two days after Christmas.
This will be the Falcons only appearance on MNF and their only weekend primetime game. This will also be the final Monday Night Football game of the season.
The Falcons and Saints played on Monday night last season. The Saints won that week 8 contest at home, even though the score was knotted at 21 entering the fourth quarter.
Since this is the second to last game of the season, the Saints could once again be coasting to the postseason. In week 16 last year they lost to the 2-12 Buccaneers on the road. They had wrapped up home field advantage the week before.
If this script repeats itself, it will be of great benefit to the 2010 Falcons.
This is also a road game for the Saints and the first of the Falcons two home games to wrap up the season. If the Falcons need to make drive for the playoffs these two home games are where they need to do it.
I think the Falcons will be ready and focused.
They'll win impressively, 35-20, with two touchdown catches from Tony Gonzalez. On the biggest stage, the veteran will step up when his team needs him to be the difference maker.
Hopefully this game will be superfluous because the Falcons are sitting at 12-3 locked into the #1 or #2 playoff spot.
That's unlikely though.
The Falcons beat Carolina in Atlanta last year 28-20. Matt Ryan had one of his best games of the year, completing 21 of 27 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
Jake Delhomme threw for 308 yards for the Panthers and Carolina actually out gained the Falcons by 70 yards in their week 2 match-up.
This could potentially be a key playoff positioning game since the Falcons are unlikely to cruise to a top two seed. Carolina could also be in the playoff hunt if they get some stability at QB.
As I mentioned before, predictions get harder and harder to formulate as we move deeper in the season. As this is as deep as it gets, it's the hardest to predict with much certainly.
The Panthers will be coming off a 10-day lay-off after a Thursday night game in Pittsburgh.
With the lay-off the Panthers should play the Falcons tough, but the home field advantage gives the Falcons the narrow edge to achieve a 23-20 victory.
Michael Turner finishes the year with a monster game.
Based on these game-by-game predictions the Falcons would finish 11-5.
They could easily be 12-4 if they don't loss road games in Philly or Seattle. That's obviously a best case scenario.
They could easily lose twice to New Orleans and lose on the road against Pittsburgh in Week one or against a dangerous San Fran team in Week four. If those things happen they could be looking at another 9-7.
The Falcons face six playoff teams from 2009 (including the Siants twice). However three of these teams will have different quarterbacks when they face the Falcons (Pittsburgh, Arizona and Philadelphia).
With losses beyond the quarterback position, Arizona and Philadelphia are not the same playoff teams they were last year. The Falcons are lucky to catch them in their transition/rebuilding mode.
Carolina, who they face twice, will also have a new QB in Matt Moore (with Jimmy Clausen waiting in the wings). Like Seattle, it's hard to tell if Carolina will take a step forward this year or falter with their new direction.
Cleveland will also have a new signal caller, the old Carolina one, Jake Delhomme.
The Falcons seem to have caught a lot of teams undergoing a transition this year. Hopefully these transitions will be difficult and thus beneficial for the Falcons.
Green Bay, Baltimore and New Orleans are the Falcons toughest opponents. Winning just two of these four games would be a boon to their season.
San Fran, Philadelphia and Cincinnati are real wild cards These teams could easily be playoff teams with the right breaks or be stuck at 8-8.
If the Rams and Bucs are as bad they were last year, the Falcons should be able to count on at least three easy wins. The same probably goes for Cleveland and Seattle.
The Falcons catch two nice breaks: they only have to travel to the west coast once and have only one potential bad weather game (both occur in Week 15 against Seattle).
Three of the teams toughest non-division games (Green Bay, Cincinnati and Baltimore) all take place in Atlanta.
Their toughest road games are in Week one against Pittsburgh and Week six against Philly.
The New Orleans home and home is difficult no matter how you look at it. The possibility of New Orleans not playing for much in Week 16 is an intriguing situation to look forward to.
In conclusion, the Falcons have a good chance of making the playoffs. They play the weakest division in football, the NFC West, and have four games against division opponents who will probably not be that good (Carolina and Tampa Bay).
If they can avoid injury, stay competitive in their home games and survive a tough December road trip they can return to the playoffs in 2010.
If I had to make a prediction (that is likely sure to go wrong) I'd pick Dallas, Green Bay, Minnesota, Atlanta, New Orleans and San Francisco for the playoffs.
Without an improved passing defense Atlanta doesn't match up well against any of these playoff teams, except San Fran. They'll need some luck or a drastic improvement on defense to advance past the first round.
But that's a full season away. Let's enjoy the games first.