The Atlanta Falcons 2016 schedule was announced on Thursday and the final product certainly lived up expectations that the team would have a very tough slate of opponents. Yet despite the stoutness of the schedule, the team may still be able to carve a path to the postseason.
I should preface the remainder of this article, by admitting that I do not have high expectations for the Falcons entering this season. Even before the schedule came out, it was tough for me to predict a winning season. Upon discovering the exact order of this murderers’ row of games only solidified that belief. Anybody that listens to the recent podcast breaking down the 2016 schedule can hear me got a bit more in-depth on why I think that way.
Yet despite this, I will do my best to put a positive spin on things and if for no other reason than a fun thought experiment, let’s imagine if the Falcons were able to pull it together this year and make the playoffs. What would need to happen?
I like to break down each season into quarters, as it’s much easier to parse it out.
Opponents: (Week 1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, (2) at Oakland Raiders, (3) at New Orleans Saints and (4) Carolina Panthers
I believe in the first quarter, the Falcons have to start the year 3-1. The Panthers are the defending NFC Champions, so they are the most obvious choice to peg any loss on. None of the other three opponents finished with more than seven wins, suggesting that if the Falcons are indeed playoff bound, they should beat all three.
How to Beat the Bucs: This is a game where the Falcons need to have Julio Jones firing on all cylinders to start the season, much in the same way they did a year ago on Monday Night Football. The defense will also need to step up in order to slow down the Bucs’ running game. If that happens, then they can start to tee off and revert Jameis Winston back to his turnover-prone ways.
How to Beat the Raiders: Despite the offseason addition of guard Kelechi Osemele, if the Raiders offense is vulnerable anywhere, it’s at offensive tackle. The Falcons need to attack there with their young defensive ends. Offensively, the Falcons need to have another episode of the “Julio Jones Extravangaza!”
How to Beat the Saints: Quarterback Matt Ryan is usually steady and productive against the Saints, but perhaps it’s time he goes above and beyond if they want to steal a win in the “Steve Gleason 10-year anniversary” game. Pressuring Drew Brees and letting Julio Jones off his leash also will help a lot.
How to Beat the Panthers: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has always been a problem for the Falcons defense. That needs to end and this would be a good week for it to occur. Attacking with both Julio and Mohamed Sanu in the slot against Brandon Boykin would help tremendously.
How Did the Falcons Win the First Quarter?
As noted in each matchup, the first quarter is going to have to feature a heavy dose of Julio Jones dominating opponents much as he did to kick off the 2015 season. The Falcons defense will also need to show that their pass rush is much improved as it will be critical to put both sides of the ball in favorable situations thanks to an increased number of turnovers and takeaways.
So in a nutshell, Jones and Vic Beasley need to be the MVPs of the first quarter.
Opponents: (Week 5) at Denver Broncos, (6) at Seattle Seahawks, (7) San Diego Chargers and (8) Green Bay Packers
This is the true meat of the Falcons schedule and is arguably the toughest stretch of their season, facing three of the league’s best teams from a year ago. There is no shame if the Falcons manage to only go 1-3 during the second quarter of the regular season, as they will have opportunities to make it up in the second half of the year.
How to Beat the Broncos: Whomever is the Broncos quarterback this year, that person needs to play very badly. But then again, the Broncos got shoddy quarterback play throughout 2015 and still managed to win a Super Bowl. Thus, the real hope here is that the Broncos defense takes a huge step backwards thanks to the ability of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to carve them up.
How to Beat the Seahawks: The Seahawks’ Achilles heel is their offensive line, which means that the Falcons pass rush needs to take over another game in one of the toughest road venues in the league.
How to Beat the Chargers: Even though it may be heartbreaking to the city of San Diego, the Falcons may find themselves benefiting from a team and fan base that is only going through the motions before the team skedaddles in 2017. The Falcons merely might just have to show up to pull out this win.
How to Beat the Packers: Another game in which the Falcons pass rush is going to have to really get after the quarterback and hope that Julio Jones can have a similar performance to the 259-yard effort he had against the Packers in the second half of their 2014 game.
How Did the Falcons Win the Second Quarter?
While I don’t expect the Falcons to exactly “win” the second quarter with a 1-3 record, I do expect them to be highly competitive against opponents like the Broncos, Seahawks and Packers, who all have Super Bowl aspirations. The offense will be needing to click in games against the Seahawks, Chargers and Packers, who each have the capacity with their quarterbacks to put points on the scoreboard in bunches. Ideally, the Falcons defense can help keep some of those groups in check, with the pass rush once again headlining.
Opponents: (Week 9) at Buccaneers, (10) at Philadelphia Eagles, (11) bye, (12) Arizona Cardinals and (13) Kansas City Chiefs
After a tough second quarter, the Falcons need to bounce back and pull out the 3-1 record during this third portion of the 2016 season.
How to Beat the Buccaneers: The formula is the same as it was early in the season: slow down Doug Martin, attack Jameis Winston and show off Julio.
How to Beat the Eagles: The Eagles are a team that are hoping the introduction of Jim Schwartz to their defense will infuse their pass rush to new heights. The Falcons offensive line will have to hold up to that, which should allow Jones the opportunity to carve up their secondary as he did last season.
How to Beat the Cardinals: Coming off a bye, the Falcons are going to have to put the clamps on the Cardinals’ high-octane passing attack with constant pressure on quarterback Carson Palmer. They also need Jones to exploit the matchup with Patrick Peterson as he did two years ago.
How to Beat the Chiefs: Ideally Justin Houston will still be limited, which will take the wind out of the sails of the Chiefs’ front seven. That means that erratic second-year cornerback Marcus Peters should have his hands full if locked up against Jones.
How Did the Falcons Win the Third Quarter?
The Falcons will be able to prevail at this point in the season largely thanks to the abilities of Julio Jones. The Falcons need a healthy Jones and their offense needs to be starting to get into high gear as Jones should have all favorable matchups to counter what might have been a relatively rough second quarter. Defensively, the Falcons pass rush must continue to put steady heat on opposing quarterbacks, particularly at this point in the season where the relative quality of quarterback play was middling at best.
Opponents: (Week 14) at Los Angeles Rams, (15) San Francisco 49ers, (16) at Panthers and (17) Saints
The Falcons need to finish the year strong with another 3-1 record in the final quarter of the season. Against four NFC opponents, wining these games could have a significant impact on the outcome of any potential tiebreakers.
How to Beat the Rams: The Falcons offensive line needs to hold up to pass-rushers like Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald, and the Falcons need to once again exploit the favorable matchup presented to them with whomever is covering Jones. The Falcons run defense will also need to find a way to put the clamps on Todd Gurley’s explosiveness.
How to Beat the 49ers: Under Chip Kelly, the 49ers hope to exploit running back Carlos Hyde as their bellcow this season, so the Falcons run defense will once again be tested. If they do so, then the Falcons should be able to do a better job exploiting one of the weaker defensive units they’ll see this year than they did in 2015.
How to Beat the Panthers: The Panthers may or may not have a firm hold of first place by this point in the season. Typically the race for the NFC South crown goes down to the wire, so it’s likely that another strong day from the Falcons run defense will put the team in position to steal a win.
How to Beat the Saints: The Falcons simply have to harness any and all emotions of closing out the Georgia Dome into a dominant performance over their biggest rival.
How Did the Falcons Win the Fourth Quarter?
They should do so with continued strong play from the defense and despite Julio Jones being their primary weapon, hopefully have also established some balance in their offense with the running game and other receiving options.
How Did the Falcons Make the Playoffs in 2016?
If all this occurs, the Falcons have the ability to finish the season with a 10-6 record, which should be good enough to get them into the playoffs as a wildcard team or potentially a division-winner.
It’s hard imagining the Falcons making the playoffs without a healthy year from Jones. Even if he gets nicked up for a couple of games here or there, it could have a severely detrimental effect on their season. That is unless other players can step up in his absence and be the sort of difference-makers that can easily exploit vulnerable matchups.
Devonta Freeman had several big games last year and the Falcons sported a 3-1 record when he reached 100 yards on the ground. The Falcons are likely going to need more than four such performances this year. And if he isn’t able to provide it, then Tevin Coleman must fill that void.
Mohamed Sanu is going to have play at a level higher than what he’s seen thus far in his short NFL career. If Jones is to be limited at any point, which is likely based off his history, then Sanu will have to step up and be the No. 1 target in the passing attack. And unlike the case with Harry Douglas in 2013, production is not the end all, be all. Sanu’s production has to result in wins, which was not the case during the middle portion of 2013 when Douglas was the de facto top receiver. When Jones plays well, the Falcons often win. The same has to apply to Sanu’s game as well.
If Sanu is going to play at a high level, he’ll need help from the quarterback. Matt Ryan is coming off arguably his worst season as a starter. He’ll have to do a better job protecting the football, which likely means that the Falcons are going to be a bit more conservative on offense.
That of course means that the aforementioned running game is going to have to step up, which is going to lean heavily on the play of the offensive line. Another year adjusting to the zone-blocking scheme along with the addition of center Alex Mack certainly can make one hopeful. But the Falcons are facing a lot better defenses and fronts this year than they did a year ago. This unit too will have to step up its play to a significant level.
More importantly, the Falcons are going to have to rely heavily on their pass rush to spearhead any defensive improvement. It’s unlikely that the Falcons are going to make substantial improvements to their linebacker and safety group given that they are likely to rely heavily on rookies this year. Thus the team will need the rush to put opposing quarterbacks under frequent duress, preventing them from exploiting the middle of the Falcons defense.
It’s critical that Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman ascend to new levels of effectiveness rushing the quarterback. It’s also important that veterans Adrian Clayborn, Jonathan Babineaux, Derrick Shelby and anybody else also do their part to provide constant heat.
If the Falcons pass rush doesn’t make a significant leap into one of the better units in the league, and thus take a group that was 26th in third-down defense to one that is much, much better, then the Falcons are going to have a rougher go of things defensively in 2016.
They’re unlikely to feature as many games against backup quarterbacks this year as they were able to see a year ago. They’ll likely see a couple of bad quarterbacks and a rookie here or there, but they will also see some of the best quarterbacks in the league. And if the Falcons are going to make the playoffs, they will need to defeat those passers. And everyone knows the best way to affect the quarterback is by pressuring and hitting him frequently.
There just aren’t enough pass-rushers currently on the Falcons to love their chances at massive improvement. Beasley is going to have to be their lead dog, and it’s hard imagining them having the defensive success necessary to make a playoff run if he doesn’t have a 10-sack season.
Frankly beyond the potential of Beasley and that pass rush, there isn’t a lot to like about the Falcons defensively at this point. Perhaps that changes after the 2016 NFL Draft, but it’s hard to be overly optimistic about multiple rookies impacting early.
So the Falcons’ 2016 playoff hopes rest largely on the same things that their 2015 playoff hopes relied upon: Julio Jones and a much-improved pass rush. It’s probably not a coincidence that after the first quarter of the 2015 season, Jones dealt with injuries and the Falcons pass rush was unable to take advantage of more favorable matchups and the team subsequently began to lose many games, ruining their 5-0 start.
Other areas of the roster also need to improve this year, but it’s clear that if the Falcons cannot get those two initial components firing on all cylinders, then the other stuff becomes increasingly inconsequential.
Bottom line is this season could boil down to whether Vic Beasley joins Julio Jones as one of the better players in the NFL. If it happens, then the Falcons stand a chance to surprising many with a playoff season. If not, then there’s always next year…