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Falcons 2017 Schedule Even Tougher
Than In 2016?

 By Don Stone - Football Atlanta

   Last year as the 2016 season approached, I took a look at the upcoming schedule for the Falcons. And it didn't look pretty.
   The team was coming off one of the easiest schedules from the previous season and still only managed an 8-8 record. Very few were projecting much of an improvement considered what was perceived as a daunting lineup of teams that lay ahead. In 2015, the only difficult opponents were the pair with Carolina and one with Minnesota, Houston and Washington. None of the other nine teams made the playoffs or even had a winning record. The combined regular season records of all 2015 opponents was 118-122.
  So, in 2016, besides Carolina, who went to the Super Bowl, the Falcons had games against five other 2015 playoff teams, Green Bay (10-6), Denver (12-4), Kansas City (11-5) Arizona (13-3) and Seattle (10-6). Add all of that up and the non NFC South opponents had a combined record of 86-74. Thirty more wins with the 2016 teams over those faced in 2015. 
  And we all know what Atlanta did. They finished the regular season at 11-5 including wins over both teams from the previous Super Bowl. On a roll, the followed up with impressive home playoff shellacking's of Seattle (36-20) and Green Bay (44-21). They took that momentum into the Super Bowl jumping to a 28-3 lead before New England pulled off the biggest comeback in the game's history.
  So, as we look ahead at the 2017 schedule, how does it compare?
  Why should fans be confident, given that teams that lose the Super Bowl rarely return. Not since Buffalo's run in the early 90s. Many, like the 2016 Broncos and Panthers never even make it back to the playoffs.
  For starters, the defending NFC Champions have most of their record setting offense back including league MVP Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devote Freeman. They averaged 34.1 points per game scoring 58 touchdowns.
  And the defense appears to be better. Missing several games at the end of last season were DE Adrian Clay born and Pro Bowl CB Desmond Truant. Both are back.
  Let's take a look at what's ahead. Apparent winnable games include road games to start the season at the Bears (3-13) and Jets (5-11) with another at Detroit (9-7). Also manageable should be a home game with The Bills (7-9).
  But, numerous difficult matches lie along the way with a pair of other road games at Seattle (10-5-1) and a rematch at New England (14-2).
  An NFC Championship Game rematch at the Mercedes Benz Stadium with the Packers will be a challenge. Other tough opponents coming to town will be The Cowboys (13-3) Dolphins (10-6) and Vikings (8-8).
  Rounding out the rest of the schedule are six games with the NFC South. Carolina (6-10) looks to bounce back after losing both to Atlanta last year. The Buccaneers (9-7) were very good last year, just missing the playoffs and should be improved. Even though the Saints are going through a down cycle, they still had a (7-9) season and always play the Falcons tough. Nothing can be taken for granted there.
  The combined 2016 opponent record of 123-122 is deceptive with six matches against playoff teams including the Super Bowl Champions. Compare that to last season when the quality of opponents came in with a 142-114 record winning 24 more games and losing eight fewer than a year before and it appears that the coming schedule is not as difficult as last season. A lot of teams from 2016 like Denver and Carolina did not live up to preseason expectations. And that could be the same this year. Let's hope the Falcons are not one of them. I see a return to the playoffs with at least another 11 win season.

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