With Atlanta's 2012 season officially over, it's never too early to get excited about next season. We're all eager to see how the Falcons brain trust addresses this team's weaknesses in free agency and the draft, and which players will stay, or go, or be added via free agency. The Falcons actually have a first round draft pick this season--last year's first round pick went to Cleveland as part of the deal to draft Julio Jones.
It's also never too early to start looking ahead at next year's slate of opponents. The Falcons will obviously play the rest of the NFC South at home and on the road, because that's the way football works. In addition, Atlanta will face the AFC East, the NFC West, which means rematches with recent playoff opponents the Seahawks and the 49ers, and they'll travel to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers.
Let's look at the opponents Atlanta will face in the Georgia Dome next season, and check back on Tuesday for a preview of road opponents for the Falcons in 2013.
Going into the 2012 season, the Panthers were widely expected to contend for the NFC South title. It did not work out that way, but they did win five of their last six games, finishing strong in 2012. Mike Shula, previously the Panthers quarterbacks coach in 2011 and 2012, is taking the reins as offensive coordinator. Regardless of win/loss record, Cam Newton has had very strong performances in the first two years of his NFL career. 2013 could be the year that the Panthers are a legitimate threat.
Sean Payton was reinstated this week following a season-long suspension for Bountygate, and according to Saints fans, this means that the Saints have automatically won the NFC South in 2013. While the return of Payton will undoubtedly make a difference offensively, the Saints offense wasn't really the problem in 2012. It was their historically poor defense. Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was relieved of his duties yesterday, and Payton announced that the team intends to move to a 3-4 defensive scheme. At this point, the team doesn't necessarily have the defensive personnel in place to effectively run a 3-4, and they're currently estimated to be around $16 million over the salary cap, so it will be interesting to see how they manage that.
The Bucs started strong last season, and kind of imploded, losing five in a row until they beat the Falcons in week 17. It's hard to predict what the Bucs are going to look like. This will be their second year with head coach Greg Schiano. They did make a splash in free agency prior to the 2012 season, and they still have quite a bit of salary cap room to play with heading into 2013.
This will be Jeff Fisher's second year in St. Louis, and he's an excellent coach. The Rams also just hired Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator. In 2011, the Rams finished 2-14, so they improved significantly in 2012, and were quite competitive in division, winning against and tying with the 49ers, and beating Seattle and then losing a close game to them in their two meetings.
The Seahawks do have a couple of notable free agents in LB Leroy Hill and CB Marcus Trufant, and DE Chris Clemons will be recovering from surgery to repair the torn ACL and meniscus he suffered on FedEx field in the wildcard playoff round. Former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has departed to become the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and there's no doubt that Bradley greatly influenced the team's success. Regardless, the Seahawks are a tough, talented team. This should be a great game.
The Patriots are really annoying, because they're always good. Tom Brady is a great quarterback, and Bill Belichick is a great coach. We don't have to like it, but it's true. It's good to be hosting them in the hostile Georgia Dome. The Pats do have a ton of free agents, including Wes Welker, OT Sebastian Vollmer, Danny Woodhead, and more. Belichick's not worried, as he already mentioned that cap space is fluid and not a huge concern. They'll be good next season, because they always are.
The circus is coming to town! The Jets will be Tim Tebow-less, and they may actually be Darrelle Revis-less, according to trade rumors. The Jets definitely struggled in 2012, and they have quite a few notable free agents--tight end Dustin Keller, safety Yeremiah Bell, running back Shonn Greene come to mind--as well as some salary cap issues to address, and a lot of personnel needs on both sides of the ball.
The Redskins, with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin, III, finished the 2012 season strong and won the competitive NFC East. RGIII's status for 2013 is a little uncertain, especially early in the season, as he recovers from recent knee surgery. The Redskins have some significant salary cap issues, including another $18 million penalty for being over the cap during a capless season.
The Falcons should have a more challenging schedule in 2013 than they did in 2012. Of course, heading into 2012, it looked like Atlanta's schedule would be tough. At home, the Falcons will face three teams that made the playoffs in the 2012 season, and three division opponents, which always present unique challenges from familiarity alone. The total 2012 winning percentage of Atlanta's 2013 home opponents is .523. It won't be an easy road for the Falcons in 2013.
What games are you most excited about in 2013? Which opponents do you dread facing next season?