The Falcons’ schedule is tough at the start and finish. Maybe too tough

Here's a look at the Falcons' six games against the NFC South in 2018.

With this schedule, a well-coached team might win 10 games. When last we saw the Atlanta Falcons, they were not a well-coached team. If that latter part changes, this club could dream realistic dreams of playing host to the Super Bowl. If it doesn’t, I doubt they’ll make the playoffs.

The kneejerk response is to say the Falcons could be pretty darn good and still start 0-3 – opener in Philly on Thursday night, then Carolina and New Orleans here, perhaps even under an open roof. (Hey, we can dream.) I’m guessing they don’t start 0-3. I figure they’ll win at least one of the two home games.

But the trouble with playing those two NFC South teams, both of which were postseason qualifiers last season, here early means – yep, you guessed it – is that the Falcons must visit two difficult places late. They’ll face the Saints at the other stadium named after a German automobile on Thanksgiving night and the Panthers outdoors on Dec. 23. Good luck with those.

Last year the Falcons started 4-4 and scraped into the playoffs on the season’s final weekend. I’m not sure they can survive a slow start – and even 1-2 wouldn’t be a fast one, would it? – this time. The final four games: Green Bay there, Arizona here, Carolina there, Tampa Bay there. That’s not a run-the-table scenario. They’d better not leave it until late again.

I’m sorry if this sounds overly negative. (Negative? Moi?) But I stopped trusting the Falcons – and if you’ve been around Atlanta the past few decades, trust never comes easy – last year. By my count, they played two games at/near peak capacity – the home opener against Green Bay and the playoff in L.A. They won nine other times, but those were a hodge-podge of narrow escapes and Matt Bryant kicking field goals. (I never thought the Dallas victory was a big deal because the Cowboys were without Ezekiel Elliott.)

I thought the 2017 Falcons were fortunate to make the playoffs. When the season began, Pro Football Focus ranked them the NFL’s most talented team. When it ended, Football Outsiders ranked them 15th-best in a 32-team league. Most of that talent is still in place. If it can again be brought to bear, there’s no reason the 2018 Falcons can’t win 10-plus games. The reason I’d pick them to fall short of 10 wins – given that it’s April 19, I reserve the right to revisit this – is that I have doubts that this team will play anywhere near its gifts.

There are some gimme games on this card – the Giants here on Monday night, the Browns in Cleveland, maybe the Bucs here as well. Only six of the 16 games will come against 2017 playoff teams. But there are six games against non-playoff qualifiers coming off seasons of 7-9 or better. There’s where the danger lies. Such teams could break either way. So could the Falcons, who were only 10-6 themselves.

Upset the reigning Super Bowl champ on Sept. 6 and this season could become something special. Start 0-3 and we’d be asking how a team that was itself almost a Super Bowl champ could have fallen so far so fast. In a way, the season ahead will shed more light on the one that ended with that lost 25-point lead: Was that Super run a harmonic convergence that, at the last possible moment, turned so discordant as to mess up everything in its immediate aftermath? Were the Falcons as good as they looked in the climb to the NFC title and 28-3? Were they as mediocre as they appeared for much of last season?

Come New Year’s Eve, we’ll have our answer. The Falcons will either be in the playoffs and the city will chanting, “Bring it home!”, or they won’t and the same city – and maybe the team’s owner – will be yelling, “Fire everybody!” It’s hard to imagine anything about the 2018 season occupying middle ground. The Falcons will either be good or bad. Even if they’re 9-7 and miss the postseason by a game, that’d be bad.

And that, not coincidentally, is the (early) projection here – 9-7, no playoffs. I say again: I lost faith in this team last fall/winter, and I’m guessing I wasn’t alone. The Falcons have within them the capacity to make us believers again, but as for me, as of this moment, I’m a skeptic.

Countdown to the NFL Draft: Starting Sunday the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will begin a five-part series taking an in-depth look at the Falcons' needs at defensive tackle, fullback, wide receiver, linebacker and offensive line and the players who might be available to them on each of the three days.

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