It’s always a bright idea to take the initial schedule releases with a grain of salt. A lot of these schedules that look disadvantageous today might look like cake walks six months from now. That’s the type of parity that exists in the NFL. However, at first glance, the Falcons’ road to the playoffs looks about as grueling as it gets.
Three of the first five teams they play made the playoffs in 2018 and all five of them finished with a record above .500. The Vikings, Eagles, Colts, Titans, and Texans all have high expectations heading into the new year. Looking even further down the road, five of the first eight teams on the Falcons schedule made the playoffs, and seven of them finished with a record over .500. The only outlier is the Cardinals, who will probably turn out to be a must-win if the Falcons plan on returning to the playoffs in 2019. The stretch ends with a week eight matchup versus the defending NFC Champions – Los Angeles Rams – before the Falcons bye week in week nine.
Things lighten up a little bit in the season’s second half, but not enough for the Falcons to ever take their foot off the pedal. They play all six of their divisional games, which are never easy, including five in a row, starting in week 10 with the Saints and ending at home against the Panthers in week 14. In the middle of that is a Thanksgiving night matchup with New Orleans in Atlanta. This will be the fourth Thanksgiving Day game in franchise history. Last year, they lost to the Saints 31-17 in New Orleans.
The Falcons final three games take place against the 49ers, Jaguars, and Bucs. On paper, this looks like an opportunity for the Falcons to finish strong, but all of these teams will be substantially better in 2019. This time last year, everyone thought the 49ers were going to be a breakout team. That didn’t come to fruition after Jimmy Garappolo suffered a torn ACL in week three of season. The Jags are only a year removed from being in the AFC Championship game, and the Bucs have plenty of talent and an excellent new head coach in Bruce Arians. There will be nothing easy about the Falcons final three games.
Atlanta will enter their fourth straight season with Super Bowl aspirations. That comes with the territory when Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are on the roster. But it will be a grueling road even to make the playoffs, at least it looks that way now. The key to the season will likely come down to those five divisional matchups in weeks ten through fourteen. If the Falcons can’t squeak out three wins or more over that stretch, they may be in a similar situation by week 15 as last season – well out of the playoff race looking at their draft position.