This year's schedule is tough. That's what I would've said if I were an ESPN analyst, because every schedule looks like it could be tough during the offseason. But when you really look at the whole, the slate of games for 2012 could be much worse.
While the Falcons don't quite have the schedule luck of, say, UGA football, they have a fair balance of winnable games and some exciting prime-time matchups. Strangely enough, the team also alternates home and away games every single week. That's right: no back-to-back road games at all this year.
What's more, only five of this year's opponents made the playoffs this year (two of those being the Saints). While I'm sure a couple of team's on the list will improve after their sub-par 2011 campaigns, I think the Falcons absolutely still have what it takes to make a third-straight postseason appearance.
And it's in the season's first half that the Falcons should be able to jump ahead of the pack:
Week 1- @ Chiefs (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 2- vs Broncos (Monday, 8:30 PM)
Week 3- @ Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 PM)
Week 4- vs Panthers (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 5- @ Redskins (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 6- vs Raiders (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 7- BYE
What I see there are two tough games (Denver and at San Diego) and four very winnable games. The good news is that the Falcons get Denver at home, and a Monday Night matcup no less. Though they'll face on during week two, you can bet Peyton Manning hype will be in full effect. Don't forget, this is a team that made the playoffs with
God Danny Wuerffel Tim Tebow at the helm, and the defense is still solid. All eyes will be on Atlanta.
The Falcons also have yet another road game to open the season, this time against a Chiefs team that should prove much better than their 7-9 mark last season. Arrowhead is a tough place to play, and if the Falcons aren't careful they might have another Bears-caliber debacle on their hands.
But beyond that game, the Falcons can easily slip under the radar like they usually have and take care of the teams they should beat. While improved, I think the Panthers are still a bit outmatched because their defense hasn't seen much turnover. Washington and Oakland should be "taking care of business" matchups as well.
All in all, I could easily see the Falcons enter their week seven bye with four or five wins under their belt. That's a good thing, because the schedule becomes much more difficult afterwards:
Week 8- @ Eagles (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 9- vs Cowboys (Sunday, 8:20 PM)
Week 10- @ Saints (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 11- vs Cardinals (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 12- @ Buccaneers (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 13- vs Saints (Thursday, 8:20 PM)
Week 14- @ Panthers (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 15- vs Giants (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Week 16- @ Lions (Saturday, 8:20 PM)
Week 17- vs Buccaneers (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Much, much tougher. Dallas and Philly are two teams Atlanta never seems to play well, and Mike Smith will get them both back-to-back. They'll have the bye week to prepare, but Matt Ryan's luck in Philadelphia has yet to take a positive turn in his Falcons career.
To round off that tough stretch of games, they'll have to face the Joe Vitt-led Saints in the Superdome. For some reason, that game really unsettles me. Perhaps we'll see an extra fiery New Orleans defense, one that feels like they were wrongly targeted by Goodell. Maybe Ryan should invest in extra pads for when they inevitably spear him in the back.
Beyond that, we have a Thursday-night game with the Saints and a Saturday-night matchup with the Lions, two very tough teams. Oh yeah, and then there's that team that won the Superbowl scheduled for week 15. Every other game on the schedule, I believe, should be winnable.
What could be the two make-or-break games for the Falcons, however, are both matchups with Tampa Bay. The Bucs had a terrible 2011, but that was more of a coaching issue than player talent. With Greg Schiano now running the show in Raymond James and a slew of new free agents, I feel like they might be tougher than most predict. If there's any team that could ruin a playoff run, it's the Bucs.
I'll predict that the Falcons finish with a 9-7 record and squeak into the playoffs as a wild card again this season. But I'll also admit that's being very conservative, because I honestly believe that the Falcons could win as many as 12 games depending on how well Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan can utilize their players. That's the real make-or-break.