The Atlanta Falcons have officially punched their ticket into the ranks of the NFL's elite. Last season, they managed to sneak past the Seattle Seahawks and into the NFC Championship game, where Matt Ryan and the offense couldn't overcome Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers. But it's progress, and the Falcons are once again looking to be Super Bowl contenders.
This season, they're the clear favorites to win the NFC South ahead of the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers. The Saints and the Buccaneers are expected to be their chief competition, but the Falcons will be more concerned with games outside of their division, with multiple winning teams on the docket.
Atlanta has one of the tougher schedules in the league. We'll take a look at it below:
|1||Sept. 8||@ New Orleans||1 p.m.||FOX|
|2||Sept. 15||vs. St. Louis||1 p.m.||FOX|
|3||Sept. 22||@ Miami||4:05 p.m.||FOX|
|4||Sept. 29||vs. New England||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|5||Oct. 7||vs. New York Jets||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7||Oct. 20||vs. Tampa Bay||1 p.m.||FOX|
|8||Oct. 27||@ Arizona||4:25 p.m.||FOX|
|9||Nov. 3||@ Carolina||1 p.m.||FOX|
|10||Nov. 10||vs. Seattle||1 p.m.||FOX|
|11||Nov. 17||@ Tampa Bay||1 p.m.||FOX|
|12||Nov. 21||vs. New Orleans||8:25 p.m.||NFL|
|13||Dec. 1||@ Buffalo||4:05 p.m.||FOX|
|14||Dec. 8||@ Green Bay||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. Washington||1 p.m.||FOX|
|16||Dec. 23||@ San Francisco||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|17||Dec. 29||vs. Carolina||1 p.m.||FOX|
Toughest out: San Francisco 49ers
In the NFC Championship game, the 49ers entered the second half down 24-14, but managed two touchdowns in the second half to take the lead and eventually win. Atlanta's defense couldn't hang on late, which was likely due to the long season and the long playoff games. They'll end up taking on the 49ers in the regular season this year in Week 16. That's awfully late into the season, and it's a road game at Candlestick Park. The Falcons have a great shot at winning this one, of course, but the circumstances are rough.
Must win: Arizona Cardnals
This is kind of an odd pick for the "must win," admittedly. That said, the Falcons play the entire NFC West this year, and two of the games -- against the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams -- come at home, while the other two are on the road. The Falcons probably can't afford to go 2-2 against this division, and if they feel they can win the two home games, then they need to best the Cardinals on the road in Week 8. Failing to do so could be the difference between an extra playoff game and a bye week. On top of that, this is a game that they'll be favored to win.
Don't overlook: Miami Dolphins
It might be tempting to list the Dolphins as a sure-fire win on Atlanta's record, but they could end up surprising people this season. Miami came up just short of finishing .500 last year, they believe they have their franchise quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, and now he's got some new weapons. The primary new weapon is wide receiver Mike Wallace, who could easily make life tough on the Falcons. They can't afford to lose to Miami on the road before returning home to take on the New England Patriots.