If I could think of one game on the Falcons schedule that jumps out at you and screams "this is huge," well, a Monday Night Football matchup at home against the Denver Broncos would be really hard to top.
2011 Finish: 8-8 (45-10 loss to New England in playoffs)
Noteworthy Stats: Had No. 1 rushing offense, No. 31 passing offense in the NFL
Key Additions: Some guy with a big head, CB Tracy Porter, TE Joel Dreessen, TE Jacob Tamme
Key Losses: Some Christian quarterback, S Brian Dawkins, CB Andre Goodman, DT Broderick Bunkley, WR Eddie Royal, FB Spencer Larsen
Denver is down one Tim Tebow, but they added a Peyton Manning to replace him at quarterback. This was a team that made the playoffs and possessed a very capable defense in 2011, but an offense that boggled minds with its inconsistency and inability to score before the fourth quarter.
That offense is now commanded by perhaps the best QB to ever play the game. But will he be the MVP Manning of the 2000s, or will we bear witness to a hollow version of the all-time great?
To answer this question, I'll turn to baseball for help. Adam Wainwright, a pitcher whom was considered by many to be a Cy Young snub two years ago (20 wins, 2.42 ERA), missed all of the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery.
He came into 2012 "fully healthy," according to his manager, but (predictably) started off slow. His velocity was there, but the control wasn't. An ERA of 4.56 before the All-Star break, compared to a 2.32 ERA afterwards, tells it all. It took Wainwright almost four months before he was finally pitching at the expected level, at peak performance.
And that was one surgery. Manning had four surgeries on his neck, at age 36 no less. Four! He missed an entire season of football. He's playing for a new coach on a new team with new receivers. Chances are, he'll be rusty.
With dome-field advantage and the national spotlight on Atlanta, look for the Falcons to step up big.
The new-look offense and the red-hot Julio Jones should match up well against a secondary that features an aging Champ Bailey, Porter, and two unproven guys at safety. And the defense should be able to contain Manning just enough to win by a score or two.
Another close one, but a rusty Manning combined with home-field noise should be the difference for the Falcons.