Here’s how Falcons season will play out

According to ESPN Stats and Information, no seven-win team in NFL history had a worse point differential than the 2021 Falcons, who were outscored by 146 points. That’s not just because the league added a 17th game. No seven-win team had a worse point differential over a 16-game schedule, either.

Now the Falcons have less talent and a tougher schedule. They won’t be so fortunate in close games this season. Those are my guiding principles as I predict how their season plays out.

Sept. 11, vs. Saints

This is a bounce-back year for the Saints. Quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Michael Thomas are healthy after surgeries that ended their seasons early in 2021. Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave were added to the list of playmakers alongside Alvin Kamara. Winston throws a bad pick or two, but the Falcons lose because they struggle to score.

(0-1, 0-1 NFC South)

Sept. 18, at Rams

The Rams aren’t favored to repeat as Super Bowl champions. They still might be the NFC’s best team despite some personnel changes. The Falcons have problems handling Matthew Stafford’s deep collection of pass catchers: Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson and Van Jefferson. Aaron Donald continues to wreak havoc. The loss is expected, but it’s ugly.

(0-2, 0-1)

Sept. 25, at Seahawks

The Seahawks started their rebuild by trading away their best player, QB Russell Wilson. His replacement is Geno Smith. He’s better than the other option, Drew Lock. The Seahawks still are pretty good defensively. They pull out a close victory in an unsightly game.

(0-3, 0-1)

Oct. 2, vs. Browns

The Falcons are 0-3 for the second time in three seasons. They started with as many losses just five times over the franchise’s first 54 years. At least they won’t have to face suspended Browns QB Deshaun Watson. His backup, Jacoby Brissett, was a decent starter for the Colts in 2019, but now he’s a journeyman. Browns running back Nick Chubb gets his yards, but the Falcons win with good pass coverage.

(1-3, 0-1)

Oct. 9, at Buccaneers

There was a brief period during the offseason when it seemed as if things might not be so bad for the Falcons. Matt Ryan was still their quarterback, and Tom Brady said he was retiring. Then the Falcons traded Ryan for a draft pick, and Brady decided to play another year. Those developments scuttled whatever chance the Falcons had of winning this game.

(1-4, 0-2)

Oct. 16, vs. 49ers

The 49ers might slip this season because of a shaky offensive line. They’d have to fall very far to lose this game. The 49ers beat the Falcons 31-13 at home in December. The margin is closer this time. It’s still a loss for the Falcons because they can’t block San Francisco’s defensive front.

(1-5, 0-2)

Oct. 23, at Bengals

The Bengals are back home after consecutive road games against the Ravens and Saints. A visit from the Falcons is just what the Bengals need. Some regression should be expected for the defending AFC champions. They still are much too good to lose to the Falcons at home.

(1-6, 0-2)

Oct. 30, vs. Panthers

The Panthers and Falcons meet to decide who will get the edge on finishing third in the NFC South. This is probably the worst offensive team the Falcons will play this season. Then again, the Falcons might have the worst defense the Panthers will face. Something’s got to give. The Falcons win because QB Marcus Mariota plays better than Panthers counterpart Baker Mayfield.

(2-6, 1-2)

Nov. 6, vs. Chargers

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 and earned a Pro Bowl nod last season. Year 3 is when he makes the jump to playoff-caliber QB. The Falcons are not good on either side of the ball, and this game won’t be close enough for kicker Younghoe Koo to make a difference. The Chargers earn a no-sweat victory.

(2-7, 1-2)

Nov. 10, at Panthers

This game is on Thursday night for some reason. These are not prime-time teams. Each team won the road game in this series last year. They’ll flip-flop this season. Mayfield plays more under control in the rematch. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, finally healthy late in the season, goes off. The Falcons fall to 0-5 on the road.

(2-8, 1-3)

Nov. 20, vs. Bears

By now, Falcons fans have turned their attention to whether C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young should be the team’s next quarterback. And now here comes Justin Fields. The Falcons passed on Fields in the 2021 draft in favor of Kyle Pitts. Fields had the misfortune of being drafted by an organization that is not good with young quarterbacks. The Falcons give a much better effort at home to earn the victory.

(3-8, 1-3)

Nov. 27, at Commanders

Washington beat the Falcons on the road last season behind a great game from Taylor Heinicke (Collins Hill). He’s been replaced as the starter by Carson Wentz, formerly of the Eagles and Colts. Wentz is showing he’s not washed up, after all. The Falcons give their best defensive effort of the season. They score just enough points to earn their first road victory.

(4-8, 1-3)

Dec. 4, vs. Steelers

The Falcons are feeling good about their first winning streak of the season. Some of their young players have settled nicely into roles. Mariota is proving he’s still a competent NFL quarterback. The Steelers ruin the good vibes with an old-school victory. Running back Najee Harris pounds the Falcons, and Pittsburgh’s elite defense takes care of the rest.

(4-9, 1-3)

Dec. 18, at Saints

The Falcons won 27-25 at New Orleans in November. That was their best victory of the season. It also was one of the lucky ones. The Falcons blew an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter. They came back to win after the Saints blew a coverage in the final minute. This time the Saints never let the Falcons get a big lead and win going away.

(4-10, 1-4)

Dec. 24, at Ravens

QB Lamar Jackson’s injury sank Baltimore’s playoff chances in 2021. The Ravens were underachieving before that unlucky break. This year they are rolling into January. The Falcons are simply in the way. The Ravens dominate as the Falcons lose another road game.

(4-11, 1-4)

Jan. 1, vs. Cardinals

Many projections have the Cardinals slipping after they made the playoffs last season. Some of that is because of their tough schedule. QB Kyler Murray also has drawn criticism for his alleged reluctance to study film. This is the week the Cardinals play the worst team on their schedule and Murray faces a defense that’s wearing down. The Falcons lose again.

(4-12, 1-4)

Jan. 8, vs. Buccaneers

The Falcons won’t tank this game. That’s not how it works in the NFL, where players and coaches always show strong because no one’s job is secure. It’s possible the Buccaneers will sit their starters because they’re locked into their playoff position. But I’m thinking they’ll be ramping up Julio Jones for the playoff run. Jones has a big game no matter who is throwing him the ball, and the Bucs win for a fitting end to an awful Falcons season.

(4-13, 1-5)