Tough early stretch will test young Falcons players

We already knew the Falcons would have a difficult schedule in 2020. The NFL’s formula determined opponents long ago, and the Falcons have dates with plenty of good teams. The full schedule released Thursday was about seeing whether the Falcons might find some relief with the order of their games, the rest days between them and the timing of their bye week.

The answers to those questions: no, yes and sort of.

The Falcons are set to play three NFC playoff contenders within the first month, two of them on the road. The Falcons will rely on young players at several key positions. It’s not ideal for those players to learn on the job against the Seahawks, Cowboys and Packers.

The Falcons will face Tom Brady’s Buccaneers twice over the final three weeks. Those games are sandwiched around a date at defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City. If the Falcons are in playoff contention that late in the season, they possibility would need to beat the NFL’s best quarterback now (KC’s Patrick Mahomes) and an all-time great who snatched a Super Bowl from them.

The Falcons have a bye in Week 10. The timing might be good for them. The off week follows a stretch of games that doesn’t seem too formidable: vs. Detroit, at Carolina and vs. Denver. And it gives the Falcons extra time to get ready for a Week 11 game at the Saints. They’ve dominated the South for two consecutive years and are Super Bowl contenders again.

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