Every year we see a team light September on fire only to fade down the stretch. Last year the Eagles and Vikings appeared to be Super Bowl contenders before both faltered over the second half of the season and failed to even make the playoffs. The 2017 season will be no different. A franchise will climb toward the top of everyone’s power rankings by Week 5 only to be on the outside looking in at the playoff race by Week 17.
The most likely contender for that title this season is none other than the Atlanta Falcons, a team that’s been the hot starter/slow finisher as recently as 2015 when they came out the gates 5-0 before finishing 3-8 over their next 11 games. The biggest reason why is simply the difficulty of the second half of their season. From Weeks 9 to 17 the Falcons have to play all six of their division games as well as face the Cowboys, Seahawks and Vikings – three teams with a combined record of 31-16-1 last year. Let’s break it down further though to get a picture of how the Falcons season could play out.
Over the first eight weeks of the season, the Falcons will play four playoff teams from a season ago, but don’t mistake that for a difficult schedule. In fact, two of those teams – the Dolphins and the Lions – I highlighted last week as the most likely playoff teams from last year to not return to the postseason in 2017. They also face the likes of the Bears, Bills and Jets over that span.
The two worrisome games will be the Packers at home in Week 2 and the Patriots at Foxboro in Week 7. In both games the Falcons will be without cornerback Jalen Collins as he’s suspended for the first 10 games. On the other hand, they’ve already beaten the Packers this calendar year and will most certainly be looking for revenge when they travel to New England.
Even if they were to drop both, they’d still very realistically be 5-2 through the first eight weeks of the season and in the driver’s seat of the NFC South. But after that is when things start to get a little tricky.
The strength of the NFC South is by far the biggest concern facing the Falcons in 2017. The division features the best collection of starting quarterbacks of any in the NFL – all of whom could catch fire in any given week. Can Newton was the lowest-graded of the group a season ago and he’s only one year removed from his MVP season.
Because of a scheduling oddity, the Falcons get to face the likes of Newton, Jameis Winston and Drew Brees six times over the last nine weeks of the season. They also face the Bucs (Weeks 12 and 15) and the Saints (Weeks 14 and 16) off of some very quick turnarounds. The Falcons know first-hand how difficult it is to beat a team twice in such a short span. In 2015, Atlanta traveled to Carolina in Week 14 and got trounced, 38-0. Two weeks later at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons handed the Panthers their first loss of the season in a 20-13 win for the home team.
The quarterbacks aren’t the only reason for the Falcons to worry inside the division. All the opposing pass defenses appear to have improved on paper. The Panthers’ rookie starting corners from a season ago are now second-year starting corners and the secondary as a whole should be improved. The same can be said for the Bucs, where Vernon Hargreaves took his lumps as a rookie and led the league in yards allowed (1,069). The Saints are banking on Marshon Lattimore stepping in game-ready to boost their secondary. The rookie first-rounder has looked the part through the preseason, when he was targeted four times, allowed only two catches for 20 yards and had a pass breakup.
Add matchups with the Cowboys (Week 10 at home), Seahawks (Week 11 at Seattle), and Vikings (Week 13 at home) on top of those six division games and the Falcons own one of the toughest schedules in football over the second half of the season. Even if they do start hot, the Falcons will have an uphill climb to make it back to the playoffs.
Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.