For starters, I have to give a huge thanks to Pudge from FalcBlog, the blog portion of the excellent Falcons fansite FalcFans. Pudge is the first of hopefully a couple of Falcon bloggers to lend his time to write up a preview, and it's way more in depth than anything you'll be getting from my lazy ass. Here goes:
When looking at the schedule, I really think we play a majority of teams that are about even with us in terms of talent and skill. Where all the little things like turnovers, injuries, all that jazz that coaches are constantly talking about in their pressers will determine if we win. And without knowing what those things are now, of course any prediction is a shot in the dark.
Our Strengths: Although the running game hasn't popped yet in the preseason, I think it will be generally good this year. It won't be as good as it has been in the past three years, but it still should be above average at the very least. I think our passing game will close the gap offensively speaking, and they may be plenty of times this year where we are reliant on that phase to move the football. Defensively, I think our run defense should be solid, not great, but solid. I'm a bit concerned about Grady Jackson and his ability to return to his 2006 form. But if he gets close to that, then we should be fine.
Our Weaknesses: I really don't see us being dominant in one particular area offensively as we were in recent years. Sure, that means we won't be one-dimensional, but it also means that I don't think either our passing game nor our ground attack is going to be reliably good. But our main weakness will be our pass defense. I'm sorry, but I don't think a secondary that starts Lew Sanders can be considered a good one even if it was Champ Bailey, Troy Polamalu, and Bob Sanders playing beside him.
Week 1: at Minnesota
I think this will be a very interesting matchup. The Vikings are one of those teams in the NFC this year, that I think could surprise and be a wildcard team. They simply are a team that reminds me of the Falcons circa 2004, where they will live and die by the run. Plus they have a pretty good defense, so it's not like that's a bad approach.
This is one of those games where the matchups are pretty even. And I would take the Vikings on the home field, but since it's a dome, it shouldn't be that signficant. I'll chalk this one up as a Falcons WIN simply because of Tarvaris Jackson will be shaking off early season jitters and may be liable to cause some turnovers.
Week 2: at Jacksonville
The Jags are just like the Vikings. Good running game, good defense, average to bad QB and WR play. But unlike the Vikings, I do think the Jags passing game is much more capable of putting up 200 yards against our secondary. Their big ol' receivers will be tough matchup for our undersized corners, even if they do suck.
Same as before with the Vikings in terms of matchups, but this time, I have a bit more confidence in David Garrard and the Jags home field advantage.
Week 3: Carolina
Ah, the home opener against a nice division rival. To be honest, I think the Panthers will win the division this year. That alone means they should win this game. The Panthers still have a solid defense, and if they can get improved play from their QB and RB they could be a force to be reckoned with. I love division games because it doesn't matter if one team is clearly better than the other, it doesn't mean an automatic win. Yet...
Week 4: Houston
Oh boy, I can see all the headlines now about Matt Schaub and how great he's doing in Houston despite the Texans having a 1-2 record, the same as the Falcons at this point in the year. And how the Falcons should have never traded him, blah blah blah. I like Schaub but I'm not going to lose any sleep over that trade, unless the Texans manage to make the playoffs this year. Otherwise, we got what we wanted out of the trade, which was two 2nd round picks. The Texans are a team that I think could have an explosive offense, but defensively will struggle. Great, this will be the first Falcon matchup against a pretty bad defense. Which means...
Week 5: at Tennessee
Pound for pound, the Titans might be the worse team in the NFL. Their O-line is good, but that's just about it. I suspect Vince Young will have that patented sophomore slump this year, if for no other reason than the rest of the team stinks. A 6-10 record with this team would be a great accomplishment for Jeff Fisher. Young of course is always the X Factor, but I'll say that I don't think he'll be one in this game.
Week 6: New York Giants
Ooh, another Monday Night game so we can hear more about Vick's absence being a huge black mark on our 3-2 record. I believe the road team has won in the past 5 or so meetings between these two teams, which doesn't bode well for the Falcons. It also doesn't bode well for us that Justin Blalock's presence alone won't mean that the Giants D-line won't tee off on our O-line like they did last year. More big games from Umenyiora, Barry Cofield, and probably Strahan for the second straight year.
Week 7: at New Orleans
Oh, a trip back to the Bayou to avenge ourselves on that atrocious showing last year. I think the Saints were a cinderella team last year, and won't be as good as they were then. They'll still be a formidable opponent, but I think this is another matchup between relatively even teams. They have a very good offense, but their defense is bad. And I'll just say right now, any time we face a questionable defense, I'm going to lean towards us to pull out the victory. And the revenge factor will also be present for most of the team.
Week 8: bye
So we go into the by week with a 4-3 record. Not bad. Which makes us by all accounts still in playoff contention, although we'll need to have a better second half to pull it off.
Week 9: San Francisco
I think the 49ers are overrated. I don't think all the spending they did this off-season is going to give them some great edge. It's going to take time for this group of mercenaries to gel, and I don't think 9 weeks is enough time. Not to mention, I think Alex Smith and Mr. Glass AKA Frank Gore are going to suffer now that Norv Turner is gone. Plus they have Ashley Lelie on their team.
Week 10: at Carolina
I think the Falcons are more than capable of splitting with the Panthers, but I just don't think it's going to happen. I see the Panthers walking away with 2 wins in 2 very close games. Unfortunately, we don't have Kevin Mathis anymore in case these games go into overtime.
Week 11: Tampa Bay
Okay, I hate the Bucs. My heart says we'll crush them. My brain says probably not. I think they'll be a vastly improved team this year, particularly on offense, which was their main downfall last year, despite having a bad defense. But since this is a home game, I think we'll pull it out.
Week 12: Indianapolis
Ooh, a short week against the Colts at home. Means we have a chance. Pssh, yeah right. Unless Peyton Manning is hurt, the Falcons have no shot at winning this game. We just aren't in the Colts league yet. During the regular season, there is no team as good and as consistent as the Colts. They could probably get 2 days rest and still beat us. You think our secondary is ready to stop their passing game? All I know is if I had Harrison or Wayne or Gonzo on my fantasy team, I'm definitely starting them this week.
Week 13: at St. Louis
Here comes another team that is about even with us. Their strength lies of course in their skill position players: QB, RB, and WR. Their D-line is decent now that they have Simeon Rice, but besides that there isn't much here going for this team. It's a road game, and their receivers will be a difficult matchup for our so-so secondary.
Week 14: New Orleans
Now we're entering the critical time of year. We are 6-6 at this point and probably need to win 3 of our final 4 to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, I don't see us sweeping the Saints this year, which means this one is going to be a loss.
Week 15: at Tampa Bay
Oh my gosh, we've lost 3 straight, is this a repeat of previous years second half meltdowns. I'm sure that will be the buzz in Atlanta at this point, and frankly it's not going to get any better with another loss. Again, I don't see the Falcons sweeping any division opponents this year. At best I see us splitting with all three teams.
Week 16: at Arizona
Oh no, history is repeating. Four straight losses, and our playoff hopes are dashed unless we win these final two and hope that some other pieces fall into place. Well, we'll beat the Cards. Honestly, this team is probably about even with us in terms of talent. They have a good passing game, and an underrated defense. But I think their running game and O-line are still iffy, and also I don't expect the defensive transition to the 3-4 to go so smoothly up front as they hope this year.
Week 17: Seattle
So now our only chance to go the playoffs is by beating the Seahawks and hoping like 2 or 3 other teams lose. Well, I'm sorry it ain't happening. If you ask me (and by reading this, you are), the Seahawks are the second best team we face this year behind the Colts and the best team in the NFC. If Hasselbeck and Alexander are only slightly better and healthy this year, they could easily win 12 or so games. Their defense is still strong, and they shouldn't have the injury issues they had last year to slow them down. Our best hope is that we can win this one because the Seahawks are resting their starters for the playoffs, having locked up their division 2 or 3 weeks prior. But I'd still expect Seneca Wallace and Mo Morris to give us some trouble.
I have the Falcons finishing this year with a 7-9 record. They have a 3-5 record at home, and a 4-4 record on the road. They finish 2-4 against division opponents, 5-7 against NFC opponents, and 2-2 against the AFC.
I honestly think that all our opponents besides the Seahawks and Colts are about even with us. And since divisional games are also pretty even, I do think there is potential for the Falcons do better. As I said before, it really all depends on those little things that cause teams to win/lose individual games like turnovers, third down conversions, red zone defense, etc. Which means that with 14 relatively even opponents, I would expect us to split those games, and win 7. If things bounce our way, a 9-7 record is certainly in the cards, but just as easily a 5-11 record is possible.