Atlanta may still have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White, but the team has undergone an overhaul after missing the playoffs last season for the second straight year. The biggest change was hiring former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as the club's new head coach, replacing the fired Mike Smith. He brought in Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, so expect the Falcons to run a bit more with his new zone blocking scheme. Atlanta was very pass-happy the past two years. Ryan attempted a career-high 651 passes in 2013 then followed with 628 attempts last year. The Falcons ranked 24th in the league in rushing last season (93.6 yards per game) and last in 2013 (77.9 ypg.). They dumped ineffective veteran running back Steven Jackson and will use some sort of 1-2 punch with second-year Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman out of Indiana; I'm big on Coleman.
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The offense has plenty of weapons. The defense needs work. Last season the team had just 22 sacks, last in the NFL. League sack leader Justin Houston of Kansas City had that many by himself. The Falcons made fortifying the pass rush a priority, so they drafted Clemson's Vic Beasley in the first round and added some veterans: linebackers Justin Durant and Brooks Reed and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Tyson Jackson.
The Falcons were 3-5 on the road last season, 3-5 against the spread and 2-6 "over/under." The good news is that Atlanta's 2015 road schedule ranks as the easiest in the NFL with an opponents' combined 2014 winning percentage of just .371.
Here's the schedule with very early (opponent) odds. There are two road games against 2014 playoff teams.
Sept. 20 -- at Giants (-3.5): Short week for Atlanta as it hosts Philadelphia in the Monday night opener in Week 1, while New York is in Dallas on Sunday night. The Falcons lost at the Giants in Week 5 last season, 30-20. That was Odell Beckham's NFL debut for New York, and he had a TD catch. The Falcons led 20-10 late in the third quarter. Ryan was 29-for-45 for 316 yards with a touchdown and pick. Jones had 11 catches for 105 yards. Falcons lose this. Key trend: Falcons 4-5-1 ATS in past 10 at NFC East.
Sept. 27 -- at Cowboys (-5.5): The Falcons might catch the Cowboys sleeping here because Dallas opens with divisional games at home vs. the Giants and then at Philadelphia in Week 2. Free-agent addition Durant played for the Cowboys last season. First meeting between the teams since 2012. Falcons lose this. Key trend: Falcons 6-4 ATS in past 10 as road dog of at least 5.5 points.
Oct. 15 -- at Saints (-3.5): Thursday night game. Atlanta is off a Week 5 home game vs. Washington, while New Orleans is in Philadelphia the previous Sunday. The Falcons completed the season sweep of the Saints last season with a 30-14 win in New Orleans in Week 16 that ended the Saints' playoff hopes. Ryan completed 30-for-40 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown. Jones returned from a hip injury and had seven catches for 107 yards. Atlanta forced three Saints turnovers in the fourth quarter. Osi Umenyiora returned Drew Brees' fumble for an 86-yard TD as time expired. Falcons lose this. Key trend: Falcons 6-4 ATS in past 10 as road dog of at least 3 points in series.
Oct. 25 -- at Titans (+1): Tennessee is off a Week 8 game in Houston. Maybe this won't be as easy as I thought for Atlanta to win as Titans rookie QB Marcus Mariota reportedly has looked very good thus far in camp. Perhaps that's just indicative of the Tennessee defense. First meeting since 2011. Falcons win this. Key trend: Falcons 3-3 ATS in six road games at AFC South teams.
Nov. 8 -- at 49ers (-6): Atlanta is off a Week 8 home game vs. Tampa and ahead of its bye. San Francisco is in St. Louis the previous Sunday and ahead of its bye. First meeting since near the end of the 2013 season, a 34-24 49ers win that was the final game at Candlestick Park. Falcons lose this. Key trend: Falcons 7-3 ATS in past 10 before a bye (any location).
Dec. 6 -- at Buccaneers (+1): Atlanta is off a Week 12 home game vs. Minnesota, while Tampa Bay is in Indianapolis the previous Sunday. Could be the start of a great rivalry between Ryan and Jameis Winston? The Falcons won 27-17 in Tampa last season off their bye week and to end a five-game losing streak in 2014. Ryan was 20-for-31 for 219 yards with a TD while Jones caught eight passes for 119 yards. The Falcons forced three turnovers and didn't have any of their own. Falcons win this. Key trend: Falcons have covered six straight as road favorite in series.
Dec. 13 -- at Panthers (-3.5): Carolina is off a Week 13 game in New Orleans. The Panthers lost 19-17 at home to Atlanta in Week 11 last year. Ryan threw for 268 yards and a touchdown, and Matt Bryant added four field goals. His 44-yarder with 2:08 left was the winner. Carolina's Graham Gano missed a 46-yard field goal try with 1:27 remaining and had a 63-yarder blocked as time expired. The Falcons led 16-3 early in the fourth quarter. They lose here. Key trend: Falcons 5-5 ATS in past 10 as road dog in series.
Dec. 20 -- at Jaguars (+2): Potential trap game for Atlanta as it's the end of three straight away from home and ahead of division games vs. the Panthers and Saints to close out the season. Jacksonville is off a Week 14 home game vs. Indianapolis. First meeting since a Falcons blowout win in 2011. They win this. Key trend: Falcons 6-4 ATS in past 10 as road favorite vs. any team of at least 2 points.
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