NFL Picks: Easiest Schedule in the League Will Help Falcons Finish Second in NFC South

Matthew Jordan

Friday, July 24, 2015 6:47 PM GMT

When the Falcons drafted QB Matt Ryan No. 3 overall in 2008, it began a five-year run of winning records. However, 2014 was Atlanta's second year straight below .500. We examine the Falcons' exact NFC South finishing odds.

Recapping Falcons' 2014 Season
The Atlanta Falcons were crazy inconsistent last season. For example, they played their best game of the year in Week 3, slaughtering visiting Tampa Bay 56-14 -- the game Devin Hester set an NFL record with his 20th career return touchdown. Atlanta was 2-1 and looked like a contender in the NFC South. So of course then the Falcons went on a five-game losing streak, four by double digits. Yet it was the fifth loss that was the worst, 22-21 to Detroit in London. The Falcons blew a 21-0 third-quarter lead.

At 2-6, it appeared Atlanta was done However, it won three of four out of the Week 9 bye, including impressive victories at Carolina and home to Arizona. Fast-forward to Week 16, essentially an NFC South elimination game in New Orleans. The Saints were favored, but Atlanta rolled 30-14 to set up a winner-take-all division game at home against Carolina in Week 17. A win perhaps saves Coach Mike Smith's job and gets the Falcons a home playoff game. Instead, the Falcons were slaughtered 34-3 as Ryan had two picks returned for scores. It just didn't look like a team ready to play. Atlanta finished third in the division at 6-10.

Atlanta was a good offensive team in 2014, ranking eighth in total yards and 12th in points (23.8 ppg). Ryan had one of his better seasons, completing 66.1 percent of his passes for 4,694 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Julio Jones emerged as one of the NFL's Top-5 receivers, catching 104 passes for 1,593 yards and six scores in a career year. Roddy White added 80 catches for 921 yards and seven scores. The running game was not good as the team relied on way-past-his prime Steven Jackson and rookie Devonta Freeman for the most part.

 

Falcons' Offseason Moves
Smith was fired after compiling a 66-46 record over seven seasons but 10-22 over the last two. He had a 1-4 postseason record. Team owner Arthur Blank admitted the decision might not have been  made had Atlanta won that Carolina game and the division. It was pretty clear the team was focused on Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn all along because Atlanta had to wait after the Super Bowl to hire him. What if Quinn had said no? Obviously there had to be a handshake agreement. Plus Quinn will have final say over the 53-man roster, which is pretty rare for a coach these days. That obviously undercuts GM Thomas Dimitroff, who kept his job and will have final say over the draft and free agency, etc.

The Falcons are fine on offense, but they needed a defensive guy because that side of the ball has been the problem the past two seasons. In 2014, the Falcons ranked dead last in total defense and 27th in scoring (26.1 ppg). Atlanta got less pressure than all but two teams last season, posting an Adjusted Sack Rate of just 4.5 percent. Quinn spent the past two seasons in charge of the best defense in football. The Seahawks played a 4-3 under Quinn but Atlanta was in a 3-4 last season. Expect a shift back.

Atlanta didn't make any huge splashes in free agency. The club added some defense in end Adrian Clayborn and linebackers Justin Durant and O'Brien Schofield, but really nothing to write home about. Offensively, the team signed receiver Leonard Hankerson and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki. Lost were Jackson, Rodgers, third wide receiver Harry Douglas and good but injury-prone linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

To boost the pass rush, Atlanta took Clemson outside linebacker Vic Beasley with its first-round pick. He should start from Day 1. I also like the third-round pick of Indiana running back Tevin Coleman, and he will push Freeman for the starting job.

 

Schedule Analysis
The good thing about playing in the NFL's worst division is that Atlanta has the NFL's easiest schedule this season as its opponents were 104-150-2 last season for a winning percentage of .409. There are only four games against 2014 playoff teams and two of those are vs. in-division Carolina.

The Falcons open Week 1 at home in the first game of the Monday night doubleheader against the new-look Philadelphia Eagles, who are currently 1-point favorites. Probably not the best team a weak defensive club wants to face out of the gate. A loss there could mean a 0-3 start as then Atlanta goes to the Giants and Cowboys and certainly the Falcons will be dogs in both.

October begins with winnable home games vs. Houston and Washington. Week 6 is a short turnaround on Thursday in New Orleans, followed by a trip to Tennessee, home game vs. Tampa and at San Francisco. So after the New Orleans Saints, that's a pretty easy stretch. Then comes the bye week.

Post-bye begins with home games vs. Indianapolis and Minnesota. Then it's three-game road trip but not exactly tough: at Tampa, at Carolina, at Jacksonville. Those three were a combined 12-35-1 last year. The season closes with home games vs. Carolina and New Orleans. I don't see an outdoor cold-weather game on the schedule. That's a plus for a dome team. It really is an easy schedule unless the NFC South teams are better than expected.

NFL Free Picks: The Falcons have a wins total of 8, with the 'over' a -145 favorite. They are +145 to make the playoffs and -175 not to. Atlanta's NFL odds to win the South are first at +200, second at +220, third at +225 and fourth at +600. Usually there are about four teams entering a season I have no clue about. This is one. If Quinn fixes the defense, the offense is good enough to make the playoffs. And that schedule is a beautiful thing. That Week 1 game vs. the Eagles is so important. I think 8 wins is a push, but I'll go 'under' and project 7-9 and second in the division.