Dirty Birds’ schedule offers daunting start but chance for strong finish

Dirty Birds’ schedule offers daunting start but chance for strong finish

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Atlanta Falcons

Vaughn McClure
ESPN Staff Writer

Game-by-game prediction

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure is predicting a 10-6 finish:

Sept. 8: at Minnesota, Loss

Sept. 15: vs. Philadelphia, Win­­­­­­

S­­­­ept. 22: at Indianapolis, Loss

Sept. 29: vs. Tennessee, Win

Oct. 6: at Houston, Win

Oct. 13: at Arizona, Win

Oct. 20: vs. Los Angeles Rams, Loss

Oct. 27: vs. Seattle, Win

Nov. 10: at New Orleans, Loss

Nov. 17: at Carolina, Loss

Nov. 24: vs. Tampa Bay, Win

Nov. 28: vs. New Orleans, Win

Dec. 8: vs. Carolina, Win

Dec. 15: at San Francisco, Loss

Dec. 22: vs. Jacksonville, Win

Dec. 29: at Tampa Bay, Win

Strength of schedule: T-8th, .518

Breakdown

FILE – Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) runs during an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The Falcons don’t exactly have it easy with six of the first nine games against 2018 playoff teams and four of the first six games on the road, starting with a season-opening trip to face the Minnesota Vikings. They won’t even play a division game until visiting the rival New Orleans Saints on Nov. 10, a week after the bye. That matchup marks the start of a critical five-game NFC South stretch, ending with a Thanksgiving night affair at home against Drew Brees and the Saints. At least the Falcons get to play indoors for eight home games and four road games at Minnesota, Indianapolis, Houston and Arizona. Playing four of the last six at home paves the way for a strong finish.

Over the season, Matt Ryan and a potentially high-powered offense that averaged 25.9 points per game will face five top-10 scoring defenses from a year ago in the Titans, Jaguars, Texans, Vikings and Colts.

Prime-time matchup

The Falcons started last season with a Thursday night matchup on the road against the Eagles, a game that ended on a failed final play in the end zone to Julio Jones and an Eagles victory. The Falcons’ first prime-time game of 2019 once again is against the Eagles, but this time at home. How the Falcons’ trio of running back Devonta Freeman (groin), strong safety Keanu Neal (ACL), and free safety Ricardo Allen (Achilles) looks in their first home game since suffering season-ending injuries last year bears watching. It also will be interesting to see if Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is at full strength coming off a back injury. The Falcons faced Nick Foles last season, and Foles is now in Jacksonville (Dec. 22). The only other prime-time game for the Falcons, as of right now, is Thanksgiving night against the Saints.

QB challenge

As if the Falcons didn’t have enough of a challenge dealing with Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and, to some degree, Jameis Winston in the division, there is an early stretch of games that will test their ability to slow down mobile quarterbacks. Between Sept. 29 and Oct. 27, they take on Marcus Mariota, Deshaun Watson, 111possibly Kyler Murray — if the Cardinals draft the Heisman Trophy winner first overall — and Russell Wilson.

That’s going to put a lot of pressure on the Falcons’ defense to not only contain those quarterbacks but to play with enough discipline in covering the receivers down the field when those quarterbacks improvise and try to make plays out of the pocket. Expect the Falcons to play a lot of zone in those games to get eyes on the quarterback at the second level. Remember, Falcons coach Dan Quinn takes over the defensive playcalling this season after that unit yielded 26.4 points per game a year ago. Quinn should be familiar with everything Wilson does based on his time as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks.