Nobody — well, nobody I know, this correspondent included — picked the Falcons to go 11-5 last season. They were coming off a bad 8-8, achieved as it was against the NFL’s second-weakest schedule. Last year, with one of the roughest-on-paper schedules, they won the NFC South and the NFC writ large. Heck, they should have won the Super Bowl.
Which brings us to now. The Falcons — again on paper — look good enough to make another mighty run. The history of Super Bowl losers, alas, teaches that it’s very hard to get back there. (Last to do it: The 1993 Buffalo Bills, and darned if they didn’t lose for a fourth consecutive year.) And no team, we say again, has ever lost a Super Bowl the way the Falcons did.
Which is another way of saying: Nobody knows anything. In today’s exercise, we’ll pretend we do. Here’s how the Falcons’ season could, but probably won’t, play out.
At Chicago, Sept. 10. The Bears drafted Mitch Trubisky No. 2 overall. He might be Ryan Leaf. He might not. John Fox might still be coaching the Bears come 2018. He might not. If Dan Quinn decides to rest all his starters for Week 2, Chicago could actually win this game. If DQ doesn’t do a mass DNP, no chance. Falcons 30, Bears 13.
Green Bay, Sept. 17. A Sunday night tilt under the (presumably) closed petal roof. A rematch of the NFC championship, in which the Falcons were so good the fearsome Packers practically no-showed. This should be a better game. Same result, though. Falcons 28, Packers 27.
At Detroit, Sept. 24. You heard that right. Matthew Stafford is now the NFL’s top-salaried quarterback. Is he one of the NFL’s five best quarterbacks? Well, no. But here’s guessing he has a big game at home against a team coming off a big victory the week before. Lions 24, Falcons 20.
Buffalo, Oct. 1. The bad thing about playing the entire AFC East is that New England’s in the division. The good thing is that the other teams are raging mediocrities or – as we’ll see in a bit – much worse. Falcons 35, Bills 17.
Miami, Oct. 15. The Falcons’ bye week doesn’t come at the most propitious moment – play four games, take a week off, then play 12 on the trot. No matter. The Dolphins lost Ryan Tannehill for the year and replaced him with Jay Cutler, who was set to call games for Fox. Fish fry at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Falcons 30, Dophins 21.
At New England, Oct. 22. Another Sunday nighter. In the rush to proclaim these Patriots the greatest team in the history of humankind, we forget this tiny detail: Had the Falcons stopped them on fourth-and-2 in the third quarter in NRG Stadium, Belichick and Brady would have spent that evening answering the question, “How does it feel to lose the Super Bowl by 35 points?” Nine months of pent-up fury is brought to bear in Foxborough. Falcons 27, Patriots 23.
At New York Jets, Oct. 29. We’d call this a trap game against almost any other team, but the Jets aren’t just any other team. They look fully capable of going 2-14 or worse. Even if the Falcons slop around – and coming off their victory in New England, they will – there’s no way they lose here. Falcons 33, Jets 0.
At Carolina, Nov. 5. The Panthers went from 15-1 to 6-10, which is really hard to do. They probably weren’t as good as their record in 2015, nor were they as bad as they looked last season. Christian McCaffrey could be the NFL’s rookie of the year, and word from Charlotte is that he’s exactly what Cam Newton needed. Panthers 24, Falcons 20.
Dallas, Nov. 12. Lots of folks wanted this to be the NFC title game, but Aaron Rodgers and Jared Cook intervened. Ezekiel Elliott should be reinstated by now, which complicates matters for the home side. But the home team should win, largely because it’s playing at home. Falcons 23, Cowboys 21.
At Seattle, Nov. 20. The schedule catches up to the Falcons here. They were good enough to beat the Patriots on the road and the Packers and Cowboys at home, but a Monday night date at CenturyLink Field is a different animal. And, as we know, the Seahawks get all the calls at their place. Seahawks 30, Falcons 20.
.Tampa Bay, Nov. 26. Short week. Thanksgiving week. With 10 games gone, the Falcons are a very good 7-3. But five of their final six games are against NFC South opposition, and they’re 0-1 in the division. They get to 1-1 here, if just. Falcons 30, Buccaneers 28.
Minnesota, Dec. 3. The Vikings appeared to be on to something. Then Teddy Bridgewater hurt his knee. He missed all of last season. He might miss all of this one. Even if he returns, it’s unclear if he’ll ever be the same. Football can be rough, man. Falcons 24, Vikings 14.
New Orleans, Dec. 7. A third consecutive home game, this one on a Thursday night, this one against the Old Enemy. The Old Enemy, however, is yesterday’s news. Falcons 40, Saints 20.
At Tampa Bay, Dec. 18. Making the Super Bowl one year means next year’s schedule, owing to TV, wobbles all over creation. Here’s another Monday nighter, and the Bucs figure to be running just behind the Falcons in the NFC South standings. They gain a game here. Buccaneers 31, Falcons 20.
At New Orleans, Dec. 24. What says Christmas Eve like Bourbon Street? If the Saints were any good, this would be a scary game. They aren’t. Merry Christmas. Falcons 29, Saints 17.
Carolina, Dec. 31. New Year’s Eve in MBS. Will the roof be open? Will the Giant Peach plop on the 50-yard line? The game itself should be excellent. Figure the Falcons win at home to clinch the division and, at 12-4 record, a Round 1 bye. Then the real fun begins. Falcons 24, Panthers 21.