To say the Atlanta Falcons underachieved last season would be a colossal understatement. A team that was listed on many preseason short lists for Super Bowl contention collapsed under the weight of the expectations, bumbling its way to a 4-12 record. Injuries were at least partly to blame, as Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Steven Jackson all went down for much of the season. A porous offensive line and a defensive line that consistently failed to apply pressure or stop the run likely would have kept Atlanta from going far had all their offensive weapons stayed healthy.
Luckily, the cupboard is far from bare. The Falcons, who added Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, Gabe Carimi, and Jon Asamoah to bolster their lines, also have the #6 overall draft pick. Devin Hester and Javier Arenas both have the ability to be game breakers on special teams and should provide a much needed bolt of electricity. Add in to all of this that the Falcons will face a far more friendly schedule and you have the recipe for a quick turnaround.
The Falcons will only face four playoff teams from last season, outside of their division schedule. New Orleans has reloaded in free agency, bringing in Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey to fortify their secondary. However, even in their weakened state in 2013, their two losses to the Saints came by a combined 10 points and it's not impossible to conceive that the Falcons will earn at least a split this time around. Carolina made a significant step forward last season, but has been besieged with departures this off-season, losing every contributing wide receiver and half their starting secondary to free agency. To make matters worse, stalwart offensive lineman Jordan Gross opted for retirement. It's not hard to predict that they will not be able to repeat last season's success. Tampa Bay does not seem to have moved the needle much during the free agency period, either. A 4-2 or 5-1 record in division play is well within Atlanta's grasp.
Now, let's take a look at their remaining opponents.
- Dallas Cowboys
- New York Giants
- Arizona Cardinals
- Denver Broncos
- Oakland Raiders
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Washington Redskins
- Detroit Lions
- Kansas City Chiefs
- San Diego Chargers
Looking at the home slate, the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys were all mediocre at best last season and none project to take an enormous step forward this coming season. All would seem to be winnable games for a healthy Falcons squad. The Cardinals only missed the playoffs due to the competitive nature of the NFC Conference, and by adding Antonio Cromartie to an already dynamic secondary, figure to maintain their level of performance. The Broncos, last year's Super Bowl finalists, are clearly the toughest out on the schedule. Atlanta benefits from getting them in their backyard, as opposed to traveling to Mile High Stadium, where Peyton Manning has only lost twice during his tenure as starting QB. And the Falcons will have the confidence of knowing they've already beaten Manning in their stadium, having won during Peyton's last visit in 2012.
As for the road schedule, while the Redskins figure to rebound from a miserable 2013 season and the Lions seem poised to improve, the Eagles, Chiefs and Chargers will all face far tougher schedules this season and could be in for disappointment. The NFL has now had a full year to study tape on Chip Kelly's up tempo offense and could have more answers this upcoming season. The Chiefs had a laughably easy schedule last year and went 1-5 against the playoff teams they did face, catching Kelly's Eagles in Week 3 before they found their stride under Nick Foles. The Chargers were the #6 seed in the AFC last season and only squeaked in by catching fire and winning their last 4 games. Philip Rivers had an unusually low turnover season and will be hard pressed to have that kind of luck again, as he is well known for his propensity to try to fit throws into tight windows.
While games are not won on paper and they will need time for the new members of the team to jell, there is no denying the potential for a 10 or 11 win season in 2014. Even the most pessimistic fan would agree, the table is set for the Atlanta Falcons to rebound in a big way and return to the NFC playoff picture.
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