For the Atlanta Falcons, 2015 is all about starting anew.
Longtime coach Mike Smith was fired in the offseason after the Falcons finished 6-10 in 2014 and failed to reach the postseason, replaced by former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. The hope will be that the addition of Quinn will improve 2014's lackluster defense and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can rebuild the run game.
There are already some positive pieces in place, of course. Matt Ryan is entrenched as the team's franchise quarterback, and he has one of the best players in the NFL catching his passes in wideout Julio Jones. Roddy White has declined at wide receiver and battled injuries in 2014, though he is still a solid second option.
Tight end was a weak point for the team last year after Tony Gonzalez retired, though the Falcons addressed the position in free agency by signing Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki. Running back seemingly remains a question mark, though Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith will go into training camp atop the depth chart.
While the offensive line has been an issue in the past, young tackle Jake Matthews headlines a group that should be improved in 2015.
The defense was also given something of a makeover this offseason. Quinn will be expected to improve last year's 32nd-ranked pass defense, though the team has talented young corners in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford already in place.
The Falcons may have snagged one of the more underrated pickups in free agency, signing defensive end Adrian Clayborn, while Justin Durant and Brooks Reed were signed to upgrade the linebacker position.
Reed thinks the Falcons will have a whole new mentality in 2015 with all of the changes to the coaching staff and roster.
"It all starts with attitude," he told Reid Ferrin of AtlantaFalcons.com. "Just a general attitude change that the coaches will bring in, and I think they know how to do that; they've done it in the past. Everyone is excited about what's going on here, and there's no doubt that there's going to be more intensity on this defense, and I think you'll see that."
While 2014 was a debacle, the rest of the NFC South was pretty poor as well, so the 2015 division title is certainly well up for grabs. The Carolina Panthers will be the front-runners after winning the division two seasons in a row, but the Falcons, New Orleans Saints and even the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers will feel they have a shot to claim the crown.
|2015 Atlanta Falcons Regular-Season Schedule|
|1||Sept. 14||vs. Philadelphia Eagles||7:10 p.m.||ESPN|
|2||Sept. 20||at New York Giants||1 p.m.||Fox|
|3||Sept. 27||at Dallas Cowboys||1 p.m.||Fox|
|4||Oct. 04||vs. Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 11||vs. Washington||1 p.m.||Fox|
|6||Oct. 15||at New Orleans Saints||8:25 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 25||at Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||Fox|
|8||Nov. 01||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|9||Nov. 08||at San Francisco 49ers||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|11||Nov. 22||vs. Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 29||vs. Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||Fox|
|13||Dec. 06||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|14||Dec. 13||at Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|15||Dec. 20||at Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||Fox|
|16||Dec. 27||vs. Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|17||Jan. 03||vs. New Orleans Saints||1 p.m.||Fox|
Nobody fears the NFC South this season, and the Falcons shouldn't either. When the best team from a year ago is the 7-8-1 Panthers—yes, Carolina won a playoff game, but, no, beating an Arizona Cardinals team with third-stringer Ryan Lindley at quarterback doesn't count—well, that division is up for grabs.
Atlanta must win at least four games in this division. Anything less would just be disappointing.
The Falcons really have a reasonable schedule in 2015.
The high-powered Philadelphia Eagles offense won't be an easy contest, nor will be facing Andrew Luck and an Indianapolis Colts team that reached the AFC conference championship a season ago. But both of those matchups are at home. The Houston Texans won't be an easy opponent either, especially given J.J. Watt's complete domination, but the Falcons will face them at home as well.
Still, Atlanta has to go into the season feeling like it can steal wins against Washington and the Minnesota Vikings at home and the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans on the road. It isn't hard to envision a scenario where this team wins 10 games based solely on an incredibly favorable schedule.
Without question, the matchups against Carolina and New Orleans will be key. The Falcons are 1-3 against the Panthers in the past two years and 2-2 against the Saints, and the division almost assuredly will come down to one of these three teams.
The Saints lost Jimmy Graham this season, so their offense will look a lot different in 2015, while the Panthers will in theory have a healthy Cam Newton heading into the season. Carolina shouldn't start as slowly as it did a year ago, when it opened 3-8-1 before winning four in a row and somehow winning the division.
But really, the Falcons need to win their winnable games this season. Two matchups against the Bucs? Those need to be wins. Winnable contests against the Giants, Jags, Titans, Vikings and Washington? If the Falcons are to reach the playoffs, those need to be wins—or at least most of them need to be wins—as well.