With April just a few days away, it's already time to start thinking NFL football as the 2014 schedule will be released in April ahead of the draft. The Atlanta Falcons, a major disappointment in 2013, have opened with a '14 wins total of eight on NFL odds.
It may seem like forever ago already to Falcons backers, but Atlanta tied for the NFL lead with 13 regular-season wins in 2012 and was the top seed in the NFC. The Falcons were a potential Matt Ryan short TD pass away in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco from playing in the franchise's second-ever Super Bowl. Ryan's fourth-and-4 pass for Roddy White at the Niners 10 with just over a minute left was incomplete and San Francisco won 28-24 in the Georgia Dome.
By every regard, the Falcons were expected to be NFC contenders again last season, especially after talking future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez into coming back for one last season and apparently upgrading at running back by adding former Ram Steven Jackson.
Instead the Falcons finished 4-12 (7-9 ATS at sportsbooks) and tied for last in the division. The NFC South curse continued as no team has ever repeated as champion there. Gonzalez remained very good with 83 catches for 859 yards and eight TDs. Ryan threw for 4,515 yards and 26 touchdowns but also 17 interceptions. He finished with a rating of 89.6, his worst since 2009. It didn't help matters that star receiver Julio Jones was lost for the season in the fifth game; he was hurt in a crushing last-second 30-28 Monday night defeat to the visiting New York Jets that dropped Atlanta to 1-4 and all but ended the team's playoff hopes. Jackson was a monster disappointment, playing in only 12 games and rushing for 543 yards. The Falcons were dead last in rushing at 77.9 yards per game.
Defensively, the Falcons dropped to 27th in total yards allowed, 27th in points (27.7 ppg) and 31st in rushing (135.8 ypg). That group forced only 21 turnovers, managed a scant 32 sacks and was the league's worst in stopping teams on third down (allowing a 45.9 percent conversion rate).
The big loss offensively will be Gonzalez, the greatest receiving tight end in NFL history. Right now it looks like the Atlanta top tight end will be Levine Toilolo, who had 11 catches as a rookie last year. The team could still add a free agent or draft pick there. Otherwise it's largely counting on the return of Jones to improve the offense.
What Atlanta largely did was address both lines since they were largely pushed around last season on each side of the ball. On the offensive side, Atlanta added free-agent guard Jon Asamoah from the Chiefs. Defensively the club is expected to switch to a base 3-4 scheme this year under coordinator Mike Nolan. The Falcons re-signed tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry and inked former Chiefs end Tyson Jackson and ex-Dolphins tackle Paul Soliai. Jackson has never lived up to being the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft but did have a career-high four sacks in 2013.
Atlanta also signed stud kick and punt returner Devin Hester, formerly of the Bears. He has a record 18 career kick and punt returns for TDs. The Falcons last had a kick return for a touchdown in 2010. The team reportedly might use Hester a bit on offense as well.
Atlanta has the 11th-toughest 2014 schedule with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .512. Of course the Falcons have the six games inside the NFC South, with both Carolina and New Orleans coming off playoff seasons and the Tampa Bay Bucs looking like one of the most improved teams through free agency and the hiring of Coach Lovie Smith. Atlanta was 1-5 in the division last year.
The Falcons also host Detroit (in London), Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Arizona. No playoff clubs there. Atlanta will visit Green Bay, Minnesota, Baltimore, Cincinnati and the NY Giants, with the Packers and Bengals playoff clubs from last season. The Falcons' only road win in 2013 was in Buffalo.
Last season did seem somewhat like a fluke as Atlanta could have started 6-0 with a break or two. Its first four losses were by a combined 19 points. The team also played much better down the stretch, giving playoff teams Green Bay , San Francisco and Carolina all they could handle.
NFL free picks: Over eight wins -- barely -- on NFL odds. If the Falcons can finish no worse than 3-3 in the division as well as 7-1 at home, both doable, they should get to at least nine wins barring injury to Ryan.