NFL schedule breakdown: Atlanta Falcons

Quarterback Matt Ryan is looking to lead the Atlanta Falcons back to the playoffs following a 4-12 season.

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Ever since Arthur Blank bought the Falcons in 2002, his goal has been to make them a relevant franchise in the NFL. That has mostly been the case in the past six seasons with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith at the helm. Including their Thursday night game last season, the Falcons were scheduled for five prime-time games in 2013 (they ended up getting flexed out of one of them).

However, following the Falcons’ 4-12 season in 2013, the Falcons have taken a major dive off the league’s relevancy meter, as reflected in the schedule that the league announced on Wednesday. The NFL mandates that every team play one Thursday night game in prime time. In addition to that Week 3 game — Atlanta hosts NFC South rival Tampa Bay — the Falcons only have one other: on Monday, Dec. 8 at Green Bay. The Falcons, it seems, will have to earn their way back to relevance.

New Orleans at home on Sept. 7: Playing such a key divisional opponent in the season opener makes for a loaded game. Last season, the Falcons lost to the Saints in the season opener in a close road game and that negative momentum might have tilted their season in the wrong direction. At least this time, they get quarterback Drew Brees and his explosive offense at home.

Four of the last six at home: If the Falcons can find a way to play .500 through the first 10 weeks of the season, they might have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs. Under Smith, they have excelled at home (36-12). If they can win three of their last four at home, they could go 10-6 and have a good shot to participate in postseason play. But it won’t be easy. Those games are against Cleveland, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Carolina.

Tampa Bay on the short week: The Buccaneers have a new coach in Lovie Smith and will likely have a new quarterback. If there’s a good time to catch an inexperienced team with a new staff, it’s early in the season and at home. The Falcons get both. This one should play in their favor.

Road warriors: The flip side of having four of the last six games at home — and also losing a home game to London — is that the Falcons will have to survive a gauntlet on the road for the first two and a half months of the season. Road games at Cincinnati (Sept. 14), at the New York Giants (Oct. 5), at Baltimore (Oct. 19) and at Carolina (Nov. 16) will be difficult tests against opponents that either have top defenses or a top quarterback. In the case of Carolina, the Panthers have both.

Green Bay in December again: Last season the Falcons played in Green Bay on Dec. 8 and lost, 22-21. One year to the date, the Falcons will visit Lambeau Field again. In 2013, the official temperature listed in the game book was nine degrees with a wind chill of minus-1. For a dome team like the Falcons, that does not play in their favor — even if they can deliver on their pledge to win the battle on the line of scrimmage more often.

Lions in London: If there are players that Falcons fans are going to want to see in person, it’s former University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford and former Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson. It’s a shame that of the home games on the schedule this particular game, with such high local fan interest, got moved. Now, Cleveland … that would have been the game to send across the Atlantic.

It’s going to be difficult for the Falcons to bounce all the way back from 4-12 to playoff contention. If some of the moves they made on the offensive and defensive lines work out to best-case scenarios and they find a star in the draft, then they could make in the playoffs. This looks like a 7-9 team. If they can split all of their divisional games and win a game like Arizona at home or Baltimore or New York on the road, maybe they earn a wildcard berth. But that’s a tall order.