When the NFL schedule was announced, optimism was mostly non-existent for the Falcons. A nasty schedule featuring the AFC and NFC West is a significant reason behind that. With brutal road trips to Seattle, Denver, and Oakland, this year is going to truly test the entire franchise. There aren't many favorable matchups compared to last year's cupcake schedule.
Instead of making unnecessary early predictions, we'll break down the schedule by looking at positions that will be impactful for these games. From wide receiver duos to nasty pass rushing pairs, here is an outlook of the challenges that Atlanta will face in 2016.
Six top-level quarterbacks
Instead of initiating outrage by using the word "elite," quarterbacks will be classified differently. A top-level quarterback can be described as someone with a resume of being productive on a consistent basis and leading their team to the playoffs during the course of their respective career. Drew Brees and Cam Newton are the first and last quarterbacks on the schedule. Atlanta will be facing them back-to-back on both occasions as well. Both quarterbacks have tormented them on several occasions over the past three seasons.
From week six to eight, the defense faces daunting tasks. Russell Wilson is the first test based on his speed and excellent decision-making. The questionable linebacker group will be tested heavily against the crafty dual threat. When the offense isn't decimated by injuries, Phillip Rivers is arguably a top-five quarterback. Matt Ryan needs to be ready to take advantage of a porous San Diego defense in a potential shootout.
Speaking of getting into shootouts, Aaron Rodgers returns to the Georgia Dome to end this gruesome stretch. His performance in the 2011 divisional playoff round will never be forgotten. The final quarterback is Carson Palmer. Some might question Palmer's status following his playoff debacle in Carolina, but nobody should count him out, especially after being considered as a MVP candidate last season.
Dates: Week Three: Brees, Week Four: Newton, Week Six: Wilson, Week Seven: Rivers, Week Eight: Rodgers, Week Twelve: Palmer, Week Sixteen: Newton, Week Seventeen: Brees
Five capable cornerbacks
Similar to claiming someone is an elite quarterback, the label "shutdown cornerback" is very controversial. When someone uses that phrase, they will likely receive major backlash. It also doesn't help that NFL referees are so inconsistent calling illegal contact penalties. That leaves cornerbacks at a major disadvantage, especially when covering outstanding wide receivers like Julio Jones.
There are still cornerbacks that can keep Jones from taking over a game. Sean Smith will be the first challenge based on his size, footwork, and flexibility. He may end up being Oakland's most valuable signing.
The well-documented difficult October stretch will start primarily against Aqib Talib. Denver is the only team in the NFL with three above-average cornerbacks. Bradley Roby made strides last season, while Chris Harris has locked down slot receivers for two seasons. Jones will receive a heavy dosage of quality cornerbacks during that stiff matchup.
Perhaps the most-anticipated matchup will happen in October between Jones and Richard Sherman. With Sherman's physicality and popularity, you would expect that to be the premier battle. Due to their extensive history, though, Patrick Peterson vs. Julioprovides the most thrilling matchup. Can Jones abuse him like he did in 2014? Marcus Peters still needs to prove himself, but he showed enough promise to make this list. His ball-hawking ability will make Jones work for every catch.
Dates: Week Two: Smith, Week Five: Talib, Week Six: Sherman, Week Twelve: Peterson, Week Thirteen: Peters
Four above average tight ends
Besides suffering from a limited pass rush, the Falcons inability to cover tight ends has been their biggest hindrance. A lack of versatile linebackers and instability at safety is the main reason behind this issue. Multiple rookies could be starting at those positions. If they manage to win starting jobs, Greg Olsen will be the first major assignment. Despite Kelvin Benjamin returning from a torn ACL, Olsen should remain Newton's favorite target.
A familiar foe could return against Atlanta. Although Jimmy Graham is coming off a torn patellar tendon and wasn't featured heavily in Seattle's offense, he needs to be included. One disappointing season doesn't nullify his career of punishing opposing defenses. Graham may start the season on the PUP list, which bodes well for Atlanta's sake. They'll need every possible advantage against Seattle.
At 35 years old, Antonio Gates still deserves acknowledgment. Rivers will always make sure to get him involved. He is still someone that every defense needs to account for on a weekly basis. Travis Kelce is set to join Jordan Reed as the next stars at tight end. His ability to create separation and catch passes in traffic makes him a matchup nightmare. Kansas City's conservative offense is the only thing preventing Kelce from developing into a top three tight end.
Dates: Week Four: Olsen, Week Six: Graham, Week Seven: Gates, Week Thirteen: Kelce, Week Sixteen: Olsen
Three dynamic wide receiver duos
One positive note about Atlanta's schedule is the lack of high-powered passing attacks. They don't face many elite receivers that can take over games. While Desmond Trufant continues to validate himself as a top-tier cornerback, Mike Evans gave him fits last season. Evans drew multiple penalties in both matchups that went for big yardage. With Vincent Jackson on the other side, Tampa Bay features the tallest wide receiver duo in the league.
Following that opening day matchup, the Falcons will travel to Oakland. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree have developed into one of the most unlikely productive combos. Crabtree looked rejuvenated, while Cooper immediately excelled at the pro level. Denver's unclear quarterback situation doesn't keep their special receivers off this list. Demaryius Thomas didn't play up to his standards last season, but he uses his body in tight coverage better than almost any receiver. Emmanuel Sanders' route running and speed gives the Broncos an excellent balance.
There are several duos that can be considered on this list. Teams like San Diego and Green Bay possess dangerous wide receivers, though they don't pose a noteworthy threat that can overwhelm Atlanta's cornerbacks. Since this section focuses on duos, Arizona doesn't make this list either. Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd are an impressive unified trio. All three players excel off one another by exploiting one-on-one matchups. With Palmer's remarkable deep ball accuracy, you never know which player will produce a 100-yard game. Atlanta will have their hands full during that game.
Dates: Week One: Evans and Jackson, Week Two: Cooper and Crabtree, Week Five: Thomas and Sanders, Week Nine: Evans and Jackson
Three special running backs
Tampa Bay could be an intimidating offense, though their success depends on Jameis Winston's progression and Doug Martin's health. When he isn't sidelined by ankle injuries, Martin's shiftiness and breakaway speed makes him a unique threat. Although the Falcons contained him last season, the explosive playmaker is so gifted with the ball in his hands. He can embarrass linebackers in the open field and turn a five-yard run into a twenty-five yard gain.
With more offenses utilizing a two-back system, not many workhorse running backs still exist. There are exceptional running backs that don't need many carries or much space to bust open a sixty-yard run. Jamaal Charles falls into that category, despite coming off another torn ACL.
After coping with Charles' game-breaking ability, Atlanta will face the new rushing phenom. It's only a matter of time before Todd Gurley replaces Adrian Peterson as the NFL's best running back. This game will occur in December, so there is a possibility that Jeff Fisher runs Gurley into the ground again. That is the only saving grace when facing such an unstoppable force. St. Louis' below average offensive line didn't prevent Gurley from running all over a plethora of defenses.
Dates: Week One: Martin, Week Nine: Martin, Week Thirteen: Charles, Week Fourteen: Gurley
Two stellar pass rushing combos
There are several defenses that have great pass rushers. Oakland, St. Louis, and Kansas City (if Justin Houston is healthy) will cause many opposing offensive tackles problems. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder are better than most tackle pairings, though. While Kahlil Mack and Robert Quinn are ferocious pass rushers, they don't have an edge rusher of the same caliber beside them. Bruce Irvin and William Hayes aren't consistent enough to be ranked in the upper echelon of pass rushers, to say the least.
Matthews and Schraeder will be tested in October. The cruel West Coast trip against Seattle and Denver in October features two dynamic duos. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril have taken over games in the past. They become even more productive, when Bennett slides inside. No pass rushing duo is more intimidating than Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Along with their outstanding cornerback trio, both pass rushers essentially carried Denver to a Super Bowl. Ryan will be watched closely against two premier defenses, but both tackles need to be held just as accountable for Atlanta's success during a tough stretch.
Dates: Week Five: Miller and Ware, Week Six: Bennett and Avril
One monstrous offensive line
Terrific offensive lines rarely receive enough recognition. Dallas is the only offensive line that gets acknowledged. Many analysts have talked about the decline of offensive line play across the entire league. Oakland is one of the few exceptions from their play last season, as they followed their promising season by signing versatile guard Kelechi Osemele. He will be inserted alongside dependable left tackle Donald Penn and top center Rodney Hudson.
With Gabe Jackson emerging as one of the NFL's best guards, Oakland's offensive line will compete with Dallas as the best unit in the league. After Atlanta's front seven was manhandled during the first half in their victory over Dallas, it will be critical for them to not get overwhelmed again. They were extremely fortunate that long-term injuries sidelined Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Derek Carr will make them pay with a clean pocket. Ezekiel Elliot could join Latavius Murray to form an explosive rushing combination
Dates: Week Two: Oakland