This is all assuming the NFL’s schedule isn’t disrupted by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. If it’s played as planned, I expect that the opening month could make or break the Falcons. They lost more talent than they gained in free agency, so unless those young players are ready fast there’s a real chance the Falcons stumble out of the gate.
Their candidates for the important position of No. 1 cornerback include a new first-round draft pick (A.J. Terrell) and player who struggled in his first season as a starter (Isaiah Oliver). The offensive line, bad in 2019, hopes to be better with a rookie added to the same group of players. Veteran addition Dante Fowler should help the pass rush, but it’s not a deep group.
The Falcons will be tested immediately with a Week 1 home game against Seattle. The next week they go on the road to face Dallas, another playoff contender. In week 3 the Falcons host the Bears, who are OK, before going to Green Bay for a Monday night game in Week 4. That’s three games against potential playoff teams within the first four weeks.
At least the Falcons caught a break with their rest days. Carolina, the worst team in the NFC South, is the opponent for both of their short weeks. After a Monday night game at Green Bay in Week 4, the Falcons face Carolina at home the next Sunday. The Falcons face the rebuilding Lions in Week 7 before playing at Carolina the following Thursday.
And, in some ways, the Falcons catch a break playing opponents from the AFC West. Yes, it means a game against the Chiefs. But the AFC West might be the NFL’s only division with only one good team. The Falcons get Denver, its second-best team, at home in Week 9.
The NFC South was looking like the AFC West until the Bucs added Brady. The Falcons have won six of seven against the Bucs, including four consecutive games in Tampa. But not only can they no longer depend on turnover machine Jameis Winston to throw away the game, they must deal with Brady motivated to show he’s still got it.
The South slate and the tough first month make for a difficult Falcons schedule. There are numerous methods for gauging schedule strength. The simplest formula is to look at last season’s records. By that measure, the Falcons are tied for the fifth-toughest slate in the NFL. By comparison the Saints (24th), Panthers (18th) and Bucs (16th) have relatively easy schedules.
Last year’s record can mean little in the NFL. Rosters constantly churn, and luck plays a big role in results from year to year. But I’m inclined to think last season’s records mean something when looking at this season’s Falcons schedule, at least when it comes to the better teams. The teams that were good in 2019 figure to be good again.
The Falcons will play eight games, five of them away, against teams that are among the top 10 betting favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Chiefs (6-1 odds) are favored to repeat. The Saints and Bucs, both even odds to win the NFC South, are tied for the fourth-shortest Super Bowl odds (12-1). The Seahawks (20-1) are tied with the Patriots for sixth-shortest odds. The Cowboys and Packers are tied for the ninth-shortest odds (22-1).
Those are the six best teams on the Falcons’ schedule, according to the betting markets. The Falcons play three of them within the first four weeks. They play two others in each of the final three weeks.
The Falcons already were set to play tough opponents. The order in which they’ll play them just makes it harder.
Falcons 2020 schedule
Sunday, Sept. 13: vs. Seahawks, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Sept. 20: at Cowboys, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Sept. 27: vs. Bears, 1 p.m., Fox
Monday, Oct. 5: at Packers, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
Sunday, Oct. 11: vs. Panthers, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Oct. 18: at Vikings, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Oct. 25: vs. Lions, 1 p.m., Fox
Thursday, Oct. 29: at Panthers, 8:20 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Nov. 8: vs. Broncos, 1 p.m., CBS
Sunday, Nov. 22: at Saints, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Nov. 29: vs. Raiders, 1 p.m., CBS
Sunday, Dec. 6: vs. Saints, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Dec. 13: at Chargers, 4:25 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Dec. 20: vs. Buccaneers, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Dec. 27: at Chiefs, 1 p.m., Fox
Sunday, Jan. 3: at Bucs, 1 p.m., Fox