We begin this game-by-game look at the Atlanta Falcons’ season with a bit of boilerplate: The NFL isn’t college football. Bad pro teams can and do beat good pro teams, whereas Vanderbilt never beats Alabama. In this realm, home field doesn’t always hold sway. (Not since 2015 has an NFL team gone 8-0 at its place.)
More to the point, a schedule isn’t just a list of names/dates/places. It’s an ongoing tale, where momentum sometimes matters and sometimes does not. (That vague enough for you?) Here I’ve gone by preseason expectations, but also by feel. The feeling now -- which is different from that of April, when I was especially grumpy -- is that the Falcons will finish 11-5.
Sept. 6, at Philadelphia: The Eagles will raise their improbable Super Bowl banner, further stoking a charged atmosphere. But Carson Wentz hasn’t played since December, and Super MVP Nick Foles was nicked in preseason. The Falcons should have won here in January. They will now. Falcons 20, Eagles 16.
Sept. 16, Carolina: This is the middle game in testing early run, and some will see it as the easiest of the three. The Panthers, however, are never easy. After the win in Philly, the Falcons became the team to beat in the NFC. Cam Newton will derive much glee from beating them. Panthers 20, Falcons 13.
Sept. 23, New Orleans: Duly chastised, the Falcons tend to business against their old foe. The Saints last year found a defense to go with their offense, but some wonder if 2017 was the exception that proved the rule. For the first time in 2018, Steve Sarkisian’s offense holds up its end. Falcons 31, Saints 23.
Sept. 30, Cincinnati: Three tough opponents down, with another awaiting in Pittsburgh. Know what that makes this? (All together now.) “A trap game!” If the Bengals were just a bit better, they’d abscond with a victory. As is, Matt Ryan saves the day. Falcons 26, Bengals 23 in overtime.
Oct. 6, at Pittsburgh: Super Bowl preview? (Wait. Is it possible to have a Super Bowl without New England?) The Steelers have settled, almost too comfortably, into their role as the AFC’s second-best team. With Ben Roethlisberger on the high side of 35, it’s getting close to now or never. Steelers 24, Falcons 17.
Oct. 14, Tampa Bay: The early grind softens, which mightn’t be the greatest thing for Dan Quinn’s team. Remember the consecutive home losses to Buffalo and Miami last year? But the Buccaneers of Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith, soon to be looking for work, seem a mess. Falcons 34, Bucs 20.
Oct. 22, New York Giants: A Monday night meeting with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. carries some curiosity. The Giants tried to move beyond Eli last year, which cost Ben McAdoo his job. Pat Shurmur is now the man charged with rebuilding, never an easy task in the Big Apple. Falcons 35, Giants 13.
Nov. 4, at Washington: The string of five home games in six ends, but with a soft landing. The Redskins are without Kirk Cousins, who fled to Minnesota, and Derrius Guice, the rookie runner hurt in preseason. No NFL road game is easy, but this meets the definition of “winnable.” Falcons 24, Redskins 16.
Nov. 11, at Cleveland: The advent of Baker Mayfield has led some to believe the bedraggled Browns might, wonder of wonders, be bound for something approaching a decent. season. Mayfield, however, is a rookie. He’s also overrated. The Baker Backlash will have by now. Falcons 31, Browns 14.
Nov. 18, Dallas: Stock-taking time. The Falcons are 7-2, having won four in a row. The idea of winning the Super Bowl without having to leave town for the playoffs is a national talking point. But the NFL has a way of humbling the highest fliers. The Falcons are 2-0 against Big D under DQ. Make it 2-1. Cowboys 30, Falcons 28.
Nov. 22, at New Orleans: So what says Thanksgiving like a night in NOLA? The other stadium named for Mercedes-Benz isn’t the place to go coming off a short week, not to mention a loss, but the schedule is what it is. And this is where the Saints square the season series at 1-all. Saints 30, Falcons 20.
Dec. 2, Baltimore: Forget being a Super Bowl shoo-in. At 7-4, the Falcons are no longer a playoff lock. The Ravens arrive, but they’re not what they were. They’ve become a mid-tier team, leaving the futures of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco in question. Falcons 33, Ravens 23.
Dec. 9, at Green Bay: No visitor loves the thought of a December game on the frozen tundra. No opponent delights at seeing Aaron Rodgers across the way. Under Quinn, however, the Falcons have handled the matchless Rodgers as well as any team ever does. Upset alert. Falcons 28, Packers 27.
Dec. 16, Arizona: The Cardinals came close to a Super Bowl with Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer, but the former resigned and the latter retired. This is a team starting over, and nobody is sure if the retread Sam Bradford or the rookie Josh Rosen is an answer at quarterback. Falcons 31, Cardinals 10.
Dec. 23, at Carolina: At 10-4, a playoff berth is all but assured. Good thing. The Panthers are themselves in the hunt, and that urgency will prevail on a chilly day in Charlotte. Cam again does the Cam Thing, and the usual bruising game ends the way it often does up there. Panthers 19, Falcons 17.
Dec. 30, at Tampa Bay: The loss in Charlotte means the Falcons must win to clinch the NFC South. By now, the Black Monday sacking of Koetter/Smitty is taken as a fait accompli. There will be no last hurrah for the former Falcon employees. Just a second division title for DQ’s crew. Falcons 40, Bucs 10.