The Atlanta Falcons’ 2017 regular-season schedule is quirky in its setup. So much so that their ability to improve upon their 11-5 record from a season ago may be difficult.
Their first three opponents all hail from the NFC North before the team is set to play all four AFC East teams with a bye sandwiched in the middle. The schedule also features five of their last six opponents being NFC South division rivals. There’s also a three-game road stand smack dab in the middle of the calendar that begins with a rematch against the New England Patriots and ends with divisional rival Carolina Panthers.
All in all, it’s not an ideal setup for the team to trying to improve as they seek to remain atop the NFC and avoid the “hangover” often associated with Super Bowl participants from the previous season. Even experts expecting the team exceed their Vegas-estimated win total of 9.5 still might mean that the Falcons don’t reach that improvement that head coach Dan Quinn constantly harps about.
It remains highly possible given expectations that the team was able to improve key areas of their roster during the offseason and draw upon new matchups this fall. A big part of the Falcons planned success will draw upon an improving defense that should help compensate for any dip that a historic offense might take this season.
Yet will the Falcons surging defense be enough to lift them above this year’s competition? Let’s break down their schedule to see how the Falcons match up with their various opponents this year. Instead of doing it the usual method of week-by-week, let’s group the teams by division to look at the overarching matchups that the Falcons will face against each set of opponents.
Falcons vs. NFC North
Week 1: at Chicago Bears
Week 2: vs. Green Bay Packers
Week 3: at Detroit Lions
Week 13: vs. Minnesota Vikings
While it may be easy to be dismissive of both the Bears and Lions, they remain competitive teams. To open the season, the Bears will hope to challenge the Falcons along the line of scrimmage, which is the strength of their team as they field one of the league’s premier interior offensive lines along with a solid front seven should all their defensive playmakers ever be healthy at the same time. Thus the Bears will be counting on second-year running back Jordan Howard to carry the load on offense to take pressure off whichever quarterback (Mike Glennon or Mitchell Trubisky) is starting for them.
Despite making the playoffs a season ago, the Lions seem to be in more dire straits when it comes to matching up with the Falcons. Although they have a number of solid playmakers like Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Ziggy Ansah and Darius Slay on either side of the ball, and a steadier Matt Stafford under the center, the team lacks much else beyond that. The Lions neither have the explosive offense to keep pace with the Falcons, nor the counter of a strong rushing attack to slow them down if need be. That’s not a great recipe for success.
So the Falcons should have a decided advantage over both opponents despite the fact that they will both be road games. It also helps that the Falcons get the two toughest NFC North matchups at home. The Packers game will be the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s inaugural regular-season game and also a rematch of the NFC Championship Game six months ago. In that game, the Falcons laid the smackdown on the Packers to the tune of 44-21, so the away team will certainly be incentivized to return the favor.
While one should never underestimate Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, especially with the addition of another weapon in tight end like Marcellus Bennett, the key to the Packers avenging their loss to the Falcons will likely rest along similar lines as the Bears’ key to success the week before. They’ll have to get more from their running game if they hope to slow down the Falcons offense. Utilizing three draft picks at the running back position is certainly one way to go about improving that spot, but it remains to be seen if incumbent Ty Montgomery or a rookie like Jamaal Williams will be ready to shoulder such a critical role so early in the season.
That leaves the Vikings as the team from the NFC North best suited to take down the Falcons. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer sports a 2-0 record against the Falcons and generally has dominated the NFC South over the past three seasons with a combined 5-1 record against them. The Vikings are led by a high-caliber defense and if any team is going to throw a wrench into the Falcons offensive works, it’s likely going to be a Vikings group that features Pro Bowlers at every position.
However the real key for the Vikings will be if their offense can shoulder some of the burden. Past victories over the Falcons were aided by the strong running of Adrian Peterson and solid play of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. In their steads in 2017, the team is likely to feature rookie Dalvin Cook and veteran passer Sam Bradford. While Cook certainly has the potential to be one of the league’s premier backs and will have three months of work to get ready for the Falcons, Bradford is the bigger question mark. But that has less to do with Bradford himself but rather with the team’s offensive line. The Vikings hope that additions like tackles Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein make a major difference up front. They don’t need to be necessarily amazing as the team’s defense can keep the scoreboard from getting out of hand.
Predicted Record: 3-1. If the Falcons are likely to slip to a team, it’s the Vikings that present the most dangerous matchup given how we’ve seen how a healthy ground attack and strong defense is a problematic combination for the Falcons in recent years.
Falcons vs. AFC East
Week 4: vs. Buffalo Bills
Week 6: vs. Miami Dolphins
Week 7: at New England Patriots
Week 8: at New York Jets
We can probably get it out of the way early in saying the Jets barely stand a chance against the Falcons. The biggest strength on their roster comes from a capable defensive line, but without viable options at quarterback, wide receiver and along the offensive line, they’ll struggle to win any game that requires an offensive output beyond two scores.
That leaves the rest of the AFC East as potential challengers to the Falcons. The Bills have an underrated offense with running back LeSean McCoy, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and wide receiver Sammy Watkins being a potentially dangerous trio should three ever seem to be healthy at the same time. Overy the past two seasons, that trio has only taken the field together for a combined 17 games, barely more than half.
The Bills’ gameplan against the Falcons will likely lean heavily on controlling the ball with their ground attack and hoping that the big-armed Taylor and can heave some deep shots and big plays to Watkins and the rest of his receivers.
The Dolphins will likely employ a similar strategy, hoping a balanced rushing attack led by Jay Ajayi and a trio of capable receivers can elevate quarterback Ryan Tannehill to new heights this year. But what might hold back the Dolphins is a lackluster offensive line. Instead the Dolphins may have to hope their defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, can slow down the Falcons attack enough to keep things within reach for their offense.
The Patriots of course represent the class of this division and have done so for this entire century. Of course, this is a game that will have the Falcons all psyched up to seek their revenge for their dramatic loss six months ago in Super Bowl 51. But they’ll face new challenges from the Pats such as tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a new set of running backs led by Mike Gillislee. The Patriots also added cornerback Stephon Gilmore, seemingly to give them a high-level corner that can go toe-to-toe with a receiver like Julio Jones and they made upgrades to their pass rush as well.
The Patriots team the Falcons are set to face off against in late October could be wholly different from the team they faced this past February. Whether that leads to greater success remains to be seen. Facing them in Foxborough won’t be an easy challenge, especially in primetime as the Patriots sport a 24-8 record in such games under head coach Bill Belichick. But with greater offensive weapons and upgrades on defense, it will be the ultimate litmus test to see how much improvement the Falcons have made this year.
Predicted Record: 3-1. The Patriots represent a serious challenge for the Falcons to overcome. The rest of the division won’t be a cakewalk (except the Jets), but playing the Bills and Dolphins at home gives the Falcons a big edge.
Falcons vs. Other NFC Opponents
Week 10: Dallas Cowboys
Week 11: at Seattle Seahawks
The schedule makers did the Falcons no favors as they face two of the premier NFC opponents in back-to-back games. The Cowboys are coming off an NFC-best 13-3 season in 2016, but failed to live up to expectations in the postseason with a late-minute letdown against the Packers.
That loss dashed the hopes of many seeing a Falcons-Cowboys match up in the NFC Championship Game. Such a matchup could have proven problematic for the Falcons six months ago, given the questions surrounding their defense and the Cowboys’ steady rushing attack led by a world-class offensive line. However that unit has since taken a hit with the retirement of right tackle Doug Free. However that shouldn’t be a huge downgrade since Free was widely considered the weakest link up front. Regardless, 80 percent of the league’s premier line remains intact and the team should continue to see steady production from breakout running back Ezekiel Elliott entering his second season.
Like the Falcons, the 2016 Cowboys featured a high-powered offense coupled with an unproven, unspectacular defense. A big key to their success will be if the latter unit can improve to a relative level of competency. Holding them back could be a secondary that lost three of its four starters and a defensive line that is missing key pieces due to suspensions. The former won’t bode well against a dangerous group of Falcons receivers, which only puts greater emphasis on the Cowboys offense to carry much of the load by playing ball control. If any team is well-suited to achieving that against the Falcons, it certainly would be the Cowboys. Despite the addition of Dontari Poe and Takk McKinley up front, it remains to be seen if the Falcons defensive line is ready to go toe-to-toe with an offensive line as capable as the one the Cowboys feature.
While the strength of the Cowboys rests on their offensive line, the exact opposite is true with the Seahawks, who sport perhaps the league’s worst set of blockers. They’ll hope a few offseason additions and some reshuffling will help settle that unit and get the team back to the more balanced attack they featured a few years ago when they were the preeminent team in the NFC. Much of that will be contingent on the play of running back Eddie Lacy, who has struggled to stay in shape in recent years. The Seahawks hope that a set of bonuses will incentivize him to take it easy on the late-night snacks.
If so, that will take a lot of pressure off a still capable Seahawks defense, but one that by no means is the same dominant unit it was a few years ago. The team still sports a fearsome pass rush, but the Falcons were able to regularly expose vulnerabilities in their secondary in both matchups last season. Yet the Seahawks have a significant home-field advantage as they sport a 34-6 record at home since quarterback Russell Wilson arrived in 2012. But the Falcons’ regular-season matchup in Seattle came down to the wire, which should keep the team confident that the challenge of winning on the road this year won’t too big for them.
Predicted Record: 2-0. These two games could very well be pivotal to the team’s potential playoff seeding ahead of the bulk of their division schedule. While winning both games will be a huge challenge, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities given some areas where their opponents will struggle to match up.
Falcons vs. NFC South
Week 9: at Carolina Panthers
Week 12: vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 14: vs. New Orleans Saints
Week 15: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 16: at New Orleans Saints
Week 17: vs. Carolina Panthers
While the Falcons sported an impressive 5-1 record against their division opponents in 2016, that was a flip of their 1-5 record from the previous season, so nothing is guaranteed. Their clean sweep a season ago of the Panthers and Saints featured a quartet of one-sided affairs, outscoring them by a combined 164 to 113. And that latter mark was greatly aided by both teams’ ability to score late during garbage time to make them look a bit less lopsided.
Seemingly the key for both Carolina and New Orleans to overcome the Falcons in 2017 is to show their defenses have taken the necessary steps to slow down the latter. In the case of the Panthers, such steps seem a lot more manageable given that they had a firm grip on the title of the division’s best defense for much of the past few years. The Panthers finished second and sixth in scoring defense in 2013 and 2015, with finishes of 21st and 26th in 2014 and 2016, respectively. It would seem that if that pattern holds, the team is due to have one of the better defenses in the league in the odd year of 2017.
However there are reasons besides coincidence to suggest that Carolina will field a sturdier unit this year. A healthy return of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly will be huge, along with the continued development of a very young secondary with cornerback James Bradberry flashed potential a year ago in his matchups against Jones. But that unit will be greatly aided if the Panthers pass rush, headed by Kawann Short and Julius Peppers, can take pressure off them.
But despite expectations that the Panthers defense will improve, their success in 2017 may boil down to whether or not the offense can take significant strides forward. The team is expected to revamp their offensive philosophy, with a greater emphasis on a short, timing-based passing attack rather than the deep ball previously installed under offensvie coordinator Mike Shula. It remains to be seen if quarterback Cam Newton will mesh with that change and if jack-of-all-trades rookie running back Christian McCaffrey can help facilitate that fit.
The Saints on the other hand have very few questions surrounding their offense. As long as Drew Brees is under center, they are going to be just fine. Wide receiver Michael Thomas had a breakout rookie campaign and the additions of running backs Alvin Kamara and Adrian Peterson are expected to beef up a fairly middling rushing attack. One area of concern could rest along the offensive line where an injury has already sidelined left tackle Terron Armstead. In his stead will be rookie Ryan Ramczyk, whose also trying to recover from a hip injury that kept him limited during the offseason.
Yet the Saints defense will likely determine how successful the team will be. Draft-day additions like cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams along with a bevy of free-agent linebackers will need to impact right away if the Saints hope to contend within the division. Whether their back seven can match up with the Falcons remains to be seen, and the loss of defensive tackle Nick Fairley to a heart ailment hurts their front’s ability to offset any weakness.
If any team within the NFC South can stand face-to-face with the Falcons and not blink, it’s likely the Buccaneers, who ran roughshod over the Falcons in last season’s season opener. The Bucs are hoping that the addition of wide receiver DeSean Jackson will add a potent playmaker to their passing game that already features one of the game’s best wideouts in Mike Evans. If their running game can get on track and third-year quarterback Jameis Winston can make a big leap forward this year in his development, there’s reason to believe that the Bucs could be one of the more fearsome offenses within the conference.
Coupled with an improving defense that will be relying heavily on the development of second-year cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence to carve out bigger roles, you have a recipe for success with the Bucs potentially challenging the Falcons.
Holding them back however will be questionable offensive line with only one proven high-level starter in Ali Marpet, who will be making the move from guard to center this year. That’s a potential weakness that an improving Falcons defensive line might be able to take full advantage of.
Predicted Record: 4-2. With the improvements the Bucs have made and a possible rebound season from the Panthers, the chances of the Falcons knifing through this division in a repeat of 2016 are lower. Throw in the fact that the Falcons will have nearly all their division games sandwiched at the end of the season could make them a bit more worn down than usual.
Based off these breakdowns, the Falcons could and should see an improvement in their record to 12-4 in 2017. It won’t be an easy task given the various unseen obstacles that will come their way during the course of any given NFL regular season. The team is also burdened with the challenge of trying to overcome a disappointing loss to end their 2016 season as well as the fact that their success a year ago paints a huge target on their back.
Eight of the past 10 teams that lost the Super Bowl the previous year did manage to return to the postseason the following year, giving the Falcons some precedent that they won’t suffer any “hangover” this year. However five of those teams returning to the playoffs saw their win totals decrease the following year with a sixth seeing no difference. That leaves only the 2008-09 Arizona Cardinals and 2012-13 San Francisco 49ers as the only two Super Bowl losers to improve their records the following year. The Cardinals did so by a single game while the 49ers managed a half-game thanks to avoiding a tie in 2013.
So a one-game improvement is not unprecedented, but statistically unlikely. Even though it’s unlikely that the Falcons can repeat with a historic offense, they can make history by bucking previous trends and finding ways to get better. The team certainly has the talent and desire to do so.