We know the Falcons' 2016 schedule, have digested what it means for the team, and are now looking ahead to the draft. Before we button up the season talk for a little while, though, let's take a look at some of the story lines we can suss out from the new schedule.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of the more interesting points I've been considering since mid-week.
Look, it's impossible for us to know how good every team on the Falcons' schedule is going to be in 2016. All we can do is look at the teams as currently constructed, consider their 2015 success, and try to figure out how good they'll be in 2016. On paper, at least, the Falcons are running into a schedule that promises to be many times more challenging than it was in 2015.
That matters for many reasons, including but not limited to the Falcons' final record, draft position going into next year, the likelihood of a playoff berth in the last Georgia Dome season, the fan base's satisfaction with the franchise heading into a new (and very expensive) stadium, and Thomas Dimitroff's status as the general manager, as well as the overall status of the front office. A losing season (or even .500 one that falls short of the playoffs) is like to have many ramifications, and the Falcons drew the kind of slate that suggests they'll hover there unless they're better than many of us think.
NFC South revenge
The Falcons were undone by many things in 2016, including a patchwork interior offensive line, too many mistakes (and bad playcalls) on offense, and a defense that couldn't cover tight ends and running backs for most of the season. What really killed their playoff chances, though, was the 1-5 record against the NFC South.
The Falcons will want to avenge those ugly losses, and they'll have the opportunity to do so. The Buccaneers are not significantly improved unless Jameis Winston is taking a leap forward, the Saints are marginally better but still have holes all over the roster, and the Panthers...well, they're probably going to kick Atlanta's ass, but we can hope for better. Even .500 ball in the NFC South would go a long way toward helping the Falcons improve on 2015.
Make or break stretch early
If the Falcons want to be taken seriously, they're going to have to get it done against quality football teams, and there's that three game stretch early in the season that should serve as their 2016 proving ground. If you can host the Panthers and hit the road against the Broncos and Seahawks and come out of that stretch at least 2-1, they'll be well-positioned the rest of the way and will have all the swagger they need. Lose all three of those—which is a distinct possibility—and you're in a hole you may not have the chance to recover from.
Only one brutal road swing
The Falcons have a pretty balanced schedule, with a little distance between their road trips, and only one truly difficult road trip. That would be the Broncos/Seahawks road trip early on, with an even earlier Raiders/Saints road swing looming as difficult but manageable, and the pre-bye Buccaneers/Eagles trip the most manageable of the group.
The Falcons don't even have back-to-back road games after the bye, which means if they head into the bye with a winning record, they might just have a shot at this thing.
Rookie quarterbacks loom
We know the Rams are going to have one of the top two rookie quarterbacks in the class, either NDSU's Carson Wentz or Cal's Jared Goff, which will present the Falcons with an interesting challenge and a chance to beat up the #1 pick in this year's class. We also know that the Broncos, 49ers, and even Eagles and Broncos could have rookie quarterbacks starting for them this year, so Atlanta might just get a whirlwind tour of this year's class. The good news? It's not supposed to be a great class.
Primetime on the road
For the third consecutive year, the Falcons wound up with two primetime games, and this year both are on the road. There's the always dangerous Saints road game in Week 3 on Monday Night Football, followed by the Buccaneers game (which should also be a Color Rush game) in Week 9. Not the ideal way to get primetime games, but after the Falcons lost all five of their primetime contests in 2013, you can see why the NFL has shied away from giving them more.