Playing in the NFC South has made the Falcons’ schedule tougher than most in recent years. Having to the face the NFC East and AFC North this season only adds to the difficulty level.

Atlanta was faced with a similarly tough slate in 2017 and came out 10-6. With the 13th toughest schedule based on last year’s records, the Falcons have to hope for that same bit of good fortune this year. The six games against the Saints, Panthers and Bucs don’t give much room for error, and having to play the Steelers, Eagles and Packers only adds pressure. Such a tough schedule makes games against teams like the Cardinals and Ravens even more critical.

Atlanta Falcons game schedule

Below is a breakdown of the Falcons’ schedule in 2018.

Falcons regular-season schedule

Date Opponent Kickoff time TV network
Sept. 6 vs Philadelphia Eagles 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Sept. 16 vs Carolina Panthers 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sept. 23 vs New Orleans Saints 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sept. 30 vs Cincinnati Bengals 1 p.m. (CBS)
Oct. 7 at Pittsburgh Steelers 1 p.m. (FOX)
Oct. 14 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m. (FOX)
Oct. 22 vs New York Giants 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Oct. 28 BYE
Nov. 4 vs Washington Redskins 1 p.m. (FOX)
Nov. 11 vs Cleveland Browns 1 p.m. (FOX)
Nov. 18 vs Dallas Cowboys 1 p.m. (FOX)
Nov. 22 vs New Orleans Saints (Thanksgiving) 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Dec. 2 vs Baltimore Ravens 1 p.m. (CBS)
Dec. 9 vs Green Bay Packers 1 p.m. (FOX)
Dec. 16 vs Arizona Cardinals 1 p.m. (FOX)
Dec. 23 vs Carolina Panthers 1 p.m. (FOX)
Dec. 30 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m. (FOX)

Analysis

The Falcons entered the offseason in a tough spot. They have limited available cap space, which isn’t uncommon for a title-contending organization, but the front office also needed to plan for the future with an extension for quarterback Matt Ryan looming.

Therefore the roster is much the same as it was one year ago. The question is whether there will be enough internal player development to put the team over the top.

The offense should once again be among the NFL’s most explosive. Ryan has no shortage of weapons at his disposal with the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined with a receiving corps led by Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and emerging tight end Austin Hooper.

On defense, the focus will be generating more turnovers. Atlanta tied for 27th in takeaways with just 16 last season. Becoming more opportunistic on that side of the ball is crucial.

It starts with the secondary, led by Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, after the team finished last season with only eight interceptions.

Pivotal Matchups

The NFC South is one of the league’s most competitive divisions, and it will be even tougher if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bounce back from a down year. So games against the Bucs, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers are always critical.

Beyond that, the Falcons will want to take care of business at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

They face a tough road schedule that includes trips to face the Eagles (to open the season), Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers in addition to the divisional foes. So it’s possible they could finish the year with a .500 or worse record on the road.

That means Atlanta probably needs to go a minimum of 6-2 at home to put itself in the playoffs. That’s within the range of reason against what’s mostly a middling group of opponents, but the margin for error will be thin if the Falcons don’t exceed expectations away from the the ATL.

Toughest tests: Playing in the NFC South is tough enough, but away matchups against both the Packers and Steelers adds to that. Pittsburgh is part of the AFC North series, and drawing the toughest of those teams on the road is not a desirable outcome for the dome-dwelling Falcons. The matchup with Green Bay comes with both teams finishing third in their respective divisions. That normally would seem like a good draw, but not against a team led by Aaron Rodgers, who’s coming back from a broken collarbone suffered in 2017.

Biggest breaks: Playing against fellow NFC third-place teams gives the Falcons some bad luck, but also some good. They’ll get the Cardinals at home in what should be one of the more winnable matchups of the year; Atlanta scraped together a respectable 7-9 season in 2017 but is moving toward rebuild mode. And the Falcons getting the Browns on the road is always a nice addition to the schedule.

Bottom line: The breaks are few and far between for Atlanta. From top to bottom, start to finish, there are tough matchups throughout the year. The Falcons are a great team in their own right, though, and despite having to play a number of playoff teams from a year ago and a few that could make a run this year, Atlanta should be in good position to continue its recent success. Record prediction: 11-5