The Falcons’ schedule: A final exam for Quinn?

It starts hard. Then it eases. Then it gets rough. Then it eases again, by which time it might be too late. There, in 22 words, is the Atlanta Falcons' 2019 schedule.

Oh, you want a few more words? Happy to oblige. We knew, thanks to CBS Sports, that this schedule ranks as the NFC's second-toughest, trailing only the Bears' slate. What we didn't know until 8 p.m. Wednesday was that the Falcons' first three games would take them to Minneapolis and Indianapolis, which covers the "polis" portion of the NFL landscape. In between comes a Sunday night date with the Eagles, for whom the Falcons invariably save their worst. It would take a raging optimist not to eyeball those first three games and not think, "This could be 0-3."

Next come the Titans here and the Texans and Cardinals there. Should be able to win at least two of those, don’t you think? Then comes the heavy lifting: Rams and Seahawks here, Saints and Panthers there. If the Falcons are 5-4 after those nine games, they’ll be playoff-bound. If they’re 3-6 or worse, they’ll be hiring a search firm to help locate yet another head coach.

Vegas has set the over/under on Falcons victories at 8.5, and it would take an exceptional team to notch double-figure W’s against this schedule. If you go on talent, the Falcons might well be an exceptional team. Trouble is, they’ve spent the past two years showing us they’re nothing special. Since winning the NFC title on Jan. 22, 2017, they’re 18-17, and that’s with winning their final three who-cares games last December.

Some schedules have “get-well season” written all over them. This isn’t one. This includes seven games against teams that made the playoffs, nine against teams that finished above .500. Of the other seven games, four are on the road. Not that the Falcons were especially good anywhere last season: They were 4-4 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 3-5  elsewhere.  They beat no team that qualified for the postseason. They were the definition of mediocre.

As we know, they have many new coaches now. Dan Quinn has anointed himself defensive coordinator. Dirk Koetter is making his Flowery Branch return, the expectation being that he’ll untangle Steve Sarkisian’s mess. The best you can say about the Falcons is that they have too many big-time players ever to be dismissed; the worst you can say is that those big-time players were 5-8 as of mid-December last year, which leads us to wonder if the coaching will ever rise to meet the talent on hand.

Given this schedule, it had better. A bad start could undo everything, as happened last season. Consecutive last-gasp home losses to the Saints and the Bengals left the Falcons fighting the current. They managed to get back to .500, but they spent all season at/below break-even. A team some saw as a Super Bowl favorite was never a factor. Ergo, new coaches. (But the same head coach.)

Maybe this will be the year the Falcons start winning games at the end. (The head coach has hired a game manager, which can’t hurt. Can it?) Maybe 2019 will remind us what all the fuss was back in the latter part of 2016, which in the wake of 28-3 has gotten lost. There was a time when the Falcons of Quinn looked to be the coming power in the NFC if not the whole wide NFL, but then Donta’ Hightower blew past Devonta Freeman and everything fell to pieces.

This figures to be the final exam for DQ and his DQ Guys. The Falcons didn’t lavish all that money on Freeman and Matt Ryan and Julio Jones so they could go 7-9 and hook the No. 14 draft pick. Their high-profile owner makes no pretense: He wants a ring, and his soccer team just won him one. Against this schedule, Arthur Blank’s football team will do well to make the playoffs.