The numbers-crunching site Football Outsiders ranks the Falcons’ 2013 schedule as the NFL’s most difficult, and it’s hard to argue the point. They’ll play five games against teams that qualified for the playoffs last season. They’ll play eight games against teams that went 7-9 (or 7-8-1) last season.
They’ll play on three different days. They’ll play in two different countries. They’ll play five night games. They’ll play six of their final 10 games on the road. Who made this schedule, Magellan?
On logistics alone, it’s hard to imagine a team that went 13-3 last season coming anywhere close to that record this season. Which isn’t to say the Falcons will be bad. They’ll be good again. But with a schedule like this, you could be great and not go 13-3.
Sept. 8, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.: The Falcons would love to spoil coach Sean Payton’s return from bounty exile. Trouble is, the Falcons managed to lose in the Superdome last season when Payton wasn’t coaching. This ballyhooed game will be even tougher for the visitors. Falcons lose.
Sept. 15, St. Louis, 1 p.m.: The Georgia Dome remains the site of the Rams’ — at least in their St. Louis manifestation — greatest victory. (Super Bowl XXXIV, Jan. 30, 2000.) There was an ice storm in Atlanta that weekend. Here’s guessing there won’t be one this time. Falcons win.
Sept. 22, at Miami, 4:05 p.m.: The Dolphins spent a lot of money in free agency, a chunk of it on former Falcons. Cornerback Brent Grimes and right tackle Tyson Clabo now play here. Some people think Miami now looks like a playoff team. Color me unconvinced. Falcons win.
Sept. 29: New England, 8:30 p.m.: The first of five night games for the Falcons is a rather attractive one. The Patriots come to town. The Patriots have the famous Tom Brady and score a lot of points. The Falcons, who have the renowned Matt Ryan, should score more. Falcons win.
Oct. 7, New York Jets, 8:40 p.m.: A week after playing on Sunday night, the Falcons grace “Monday Night Football.” The level of opposition, however, isn’t the same. Even without Tim Tebow, the Jets remain the NFL’s biggest sideshow. Again the Falcons will dazzle a national audience. Falcons win.
Oct. 20, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.: Coming off a bye week, the 4-1 Falcons move to 5-1 by winning their fifth in a row. It won’t be easy — the Buccaneers, who played the Falcons tough twice last season, will be even better in Year 2 under Greg Schiano — but it will happen. Falcons win.
Oct. 27, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.: Just when the national pundits are starting to ask (albeit grudgingly), “Is this the year the Falcons are really for real?”, the schedule takes a wicked turn. Winning at Phoenix won’t be easy. The next four games will be much, much harder. Falcons win.
Nov. 3, at Carolina, 1 p.m.: Even when the Panthers aren’t very good, this is a terribly difficult road game. Some folks think Carolina could win the NFC South in 2013. I’m not among that number, but I do think the Panthers will end the Falcons’ six-game winning streak. Falcons lose.
Nov. 10, Seattle, 1 p.m.: Know how many times the Falcons have lost two in a row under Mike Smith? Three, with all of those mini-skids coming in 2009, the Falcons’ worst season under this coach. But the Seahawks nearly won in the Dome in January, and they will win in November. Falcons lose.
Nov. 17, at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m.: Know how many times the Falcons have lost three in a row under Mike Smith? Never. But there’s a first time for everything. Even in going 13-3 last season, the Falcons only went .500 against NFC South opposition. That trend continues. Falcons lose.
Nov. 21, New Orleans, 8:25 p.m.: Having slid from 6-1 to 6-4, the Falcons face a fairly significant Thursday night game against the hated Saints. In sum, this is gut-check time. By midnight, we’ll discover that there’s nothing wrong with the Falcons’, er, gastrointestinal tract. Falcons win.
Dec. 1, Buffalo in Toronto, 1 p.m.: Because nothing says “Thanksgiving weekend” like a trip to Canada, right? The Bills are a mediocre team under new management — no more Chan Gailey — and even they don’t like having to play an annual game in Toronto. They’ll like it even less after this. Falcons win.
Dec. 8, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m: Whoa, Nellie! A Sunday night tilt on the frozen tundra! The Falcons once won a famous night game at Lambeau Field — in the playoffs, no less — and might up and win this. But the weight of a wayfaring schedule is starting to show. Falcons lose.
Dec. 15, Washington, 1 p.m.: Just who a team that has lost four of six doesn’t need to see coming — Robert Griffin III. But the Falcons, fighting to make the playoffs, can’t afford another home loss. (Not with a trip to San Francisco eight days away.) They need this one badly. They’ll get it. Falcons win.
Dec. 23, at San Francisco, 8:40 p.m.: Just before Christmas, the Falcons have to fly across country to play the team they couldn’t beat 11 months earlier for the NFC title. This would seem to be the scheduling equivalent of a lump of coal in the ol’ stocking. Falcons lose.
Dec. 29, Carolina, 1 p.m.: At 9-6, the Falcons have two choices — win the division or miss the playoffs. They’ll play their best game of the season and claim the NFC South title for the third time in four years. They’ll finish 10-6, which, given the degree of difficulty, isn’t bad. Falcons win.