- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter
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Breakdown: For the Atlanta Falcons to get off to a strong start, they need to be able to compete against the NFC East. Besides starting the season at home on Monday Night Football against the high-octane offense of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Falcons also make consecutive road trips to the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 2 and 3. There will likely be some growing pains as new coach Dan Quinn tries to implement his style of defense and as offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan tries to get his offensive linemen adjusted to an outside zone-blocking scheme. The defense could struggle to keep pace with the Eagles in the opener. Whatever the case, the Falcons showed at the start of last season how dominant they could be offensively with Matt Ryan protected and playing his best and having weapons such as Julio Jones at his disposal. The Falcons statistically have the weakest schedule of any team in the league based on last year's records. If the NFC South race is close, the Falcons could benefit from finishing the season with consecutive division games at the Georgia Dome against Carolina and New Orleans. A Week 11 home matchup with Andrew Luck at the Colts should be fun to watch, and the timing of the game allows the Falcons defense to evolve under Quinn in preparation for an explosive Indianapolis offense.
Complaint department: The Falcons shouldn't have too much to complain about other than those consecutive road trips to New York and Dallas at the start of the season, but that's part of it. They make the trip out to San Francisco in Week 8, but have a bye following that game, giving them ample time to recover from the long trek. And the Falcons are at home against Tampa Bay before that West Coast trip. It's a little odd to see Carolina on the schedule in Weeks 14 and 16, but not everything can align perfectly. The short turnaround on the schedule is a Week 5 home matchup against the Washington Redskins followed by a Week 6 Thursday night matchup with the rival New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the second of two prime-time games currently on the schedule following the season-opener on Monday night.
Keeping Ryan clean: One of the big storylines to follow early in the season is how Ryan survives the pass-rushers he'll face at the start of the season. Philadelphia's Connor Barwin, Houston's J.J. Watt, the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul and Dallas' Greg Hardy all are capable of giving the Falcons absolute fits and getting after Ryan. That's why the Falcons have to stick to their preseason talk and really make a conscious effort to have more balance with the run game. They could get lucky and not have to face Hardy, who will likely face an NFL suspension because of the domestic violence arrest that ended his 2014 season. Hardy sacked Ryan four times and hit him eight times when he last faced the Falcons while with Carolina in 2013. The Falcons don't want to have to turn to their backup plan in T.J. Yates.
Strength of schedule: 32nd, .410
Falcons Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Monday, Sep. 14, Philadelphia, 7:10 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 20, at NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 27, at Dallas, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 4, Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 11, Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Thursday, Oct. 15, at New Orleans, 8:25 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 25, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Nov. 1, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 8, at San Francisco, 4:05 PM
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 22, Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 29, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 6, at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 13, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 20, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 27, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 3, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
The Falcons will play their first three games against the NFC East and their tough pass-rushers, but have a favorable finish.