Why Falcons schedule could be harder than it looks

One good reason to believe the Falcons will return to the playoffs this season is that so many teams on their schedule figure to be bad. There are six games against seemingly lesser opponents: two each against NFC South foes Carolina and Tampa Bay and at San Francisco and Arizona. Five of those games are Week 11 or later, providing the Falcons an opportunity to make a late run if they stumble early.

If those teams are better than expected, which happens in a league engineered for quick turnarounds, then the Falcons' outlook becomes murkier. And now here's ESPN's Bill Barnwell identifying the Panthers, Buccaneers and 49ers as among the five NFL teams most likely to improve in 2019.  Barnwell's prognostications are worth paying attention to because, as he notes:

"Over the past two years, I've identified 11 teams whose underlying statistics seemed to portend future improvement in this column. Nine of those 11 teams have improved, with the average team's record jumping by nearly four wins from the previous season."

Barnwell’s reasoning for the five potential overachievers in 2019 include last season’s point differentials and records in close games. Point differential tends to be a truer measure of team quality than record. Results in close games tend to be random and even out over the long term.

That’s the big picture of why those teams could be better. Barnwell also cites reasons specific to the Panthers, 49ers and Bucs.

Carolina’s offensive line is healthier and its defensive line is deeper. The 49ers should get more takeaways on pure chance after they somehow had just two interceptions all last season. Tampa Bay’s kicking can’t be any worse, which should help in close games.

I think the 49ers could be better in 2019. I’m not buying significant improvement for Carolina and Tampa Bay.

There is talk that Panthers QB Cam Newton's accuracy will improve with new mechanics. They hope this also will alleviate the stress on his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder. I'll believe it when I see it.

In Tampa Bay, the narrative is that new coach Bruce Arians will get more out of QB Jameis Winston. Perhaps, but I don't see Winston overcoming his tendency to commit boneheaded turnovers at the worst possible times. There is nothing to suggest drastic improvement for probably the only defense worse than the Falcons' in 2018, especially with edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul on the shelf with a neck injury until at least October.

I could be wrong about all that. The NFL’s obsession with parity means at least some of those teams are likely to overachieve because there’s a lot of luck involved. Barnwell provides logical reasons for why those teams might improve, and he’s got a track record of being right about this.

But if the 49ers, Panthers and Bucs all improve it doesn't mean they'll be better than the Falcons. The betting markets put Falcons a notch above them with an over/under of 8.5 victories (the under is even money and the over pays  $10 for every $12). San Francisco's over-under is at eight victories, the Panthers and Jets are at 7.5 and the Bucs are at 6.5.

Two good reasons to like the Falcons to win more than eight games are better health on defense and a revamped offensive line. I think the schedule is another incentive to take the over on Falcons victories. But if Barnwell is right and those three teams are in line for significant improvement, then a playoff run for the Falcons could be harder than it looks.