The Georgia Dome opened in 1992, yet already the Atlanta Falcons will be playing their final season in the downtown Atlanta stadium this year. They are moving to the spectacular $1.4 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium (the roof is amazing) in 2017, but at least staying downtown unlike the Braves, who are moving to the suburbs.
Can the Falcons send out the Georgia Dome in style with their first playoff berth since losing the NFC Championship Game there in the 2012 season? I would have to say "no". I like this team's offense. Julio Jones might be the NFL's best receiver and he blew up last year in leading the league with 1,871 yards (second-most all time) and tying for first with Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown with 136 catches. Jones, when healthy, is just a monster. He has a new No. 2 counterpart in former Bengal Mohamed Sanu with Roddy White being released. Matt Ryan is a tad overrated and struggled at times last year, but I'd still take him over probably 18 other quarterbacks in the NFL. The Falcons have nice running back tandem in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
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The problems lie on the offensive line and pretty much everywhere on the defense. The Falcons hope they improved the line by giving a big contract to former Browns Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. On the other side of the ball, the Falcons need 2015 first-round pick pass-rusher Vic Beasley to take a step forward after the former Clemson star disappointed as a rookie. The team also addressed the secondary with this year's first-round pick, Keanu Neal. He could be joined by two other rookies, linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, in starting from Day 1. This isn't a bad team and not a good one. Really caught in the middle sort of like the NBA's Hawks usually are (and will be again in 2016-17 after losing Al Horford).
Atlanta was 4-4 at home last season, 3-5 against the spread and 1-7 "over/under." The Falcons host four 2015 playoff teams this year. That's about as high as you can go. Yet, scarily, I think the road schedule is harder. I project another 4-4 home record. Atlanta has a wins total of 7.5 for 2016, with the under a -140 favorite. I think this club goes 6-10. Overall, the Falcons' strength of schedule ranks as tied for the hardest in the NFL with an opponents' combined 2015 winning percentage of .555. Odds listed below for the home team.
Sept. 11 vs. Buccaneers (-3, 47.5): If anyone knows how to defend Ryan, Jones and Co., it would be new Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the former Falcons head coach. Atlanta lost 23-20 in overtime at home to Tampa in Week 8 last year. The Falcons were down 20-3 late in the third but tied it on a Jones 8-yard TD catch with 17 seconds left. However, after Tampa kicked a field goal on its first possession of OT, the Falcons could do nothing offensively. Key trend: Falcons 4-6 ATS in past 10 as home favorite in series.
Oct. 2 vs. Panthers (+3.5): First playoff team of the year that Atlanta faces and starts a murderous stretch that's followed by trips to Denver and Seattle. It's also a short week for the Falcons as they are in New Orleans on Monday in Week 3. Carolina is home to Minnesota the previous Sunday. The Panthers might want this one badly as their only regular-season loss last year was Week 16 in Atlanta, 20-13. Jones was great with nine catches for 178 yards and a 70-yard touchdown. Key trend: Falcons 5-2-1 ATS all time as home dog in series.
Oct. 23 vs. Chargers (-3): Atlanta off a Week 6 trip to Seattle. San Diego will have time to rest up a bit as it hosts Denver on Thursday in Week 6. I actually think the Chargers are almost a mirror image of the Falcons. Atlanta has won the past six meetings, last 27-3 in 2012. Key trend: Falcons 5-5 ATS in past 10 at home vs. AFC West.
Oct. 30 vs. Packers (+4): Green Bay off a Thursday home game vs. Chicago in Week 7. Interesting that's two straight home opponents that way for the Falcons. Atlanta has dropped four in a row in the series, last 43-37 at Lambeau Field in December 2014. I remember that Monday night game well as Jones was unstoppable with 11 catches for 259 yards (most ever against Green Bay) and a TD. He might have broken the single-game receiving record if he didn't get hurt. Key trend: Falcons 4-6 ATS in past 10 as home dog of at least 4 points.
Nov. 27 vs. Cardinals (+3.5): Atlanta is off its bye week. Arizona is in Minnesota in Week 11. Jones vs. Patrick Peterson? Sweet. The Falcons beat the visiting Cardinals 29-18 in Week 13 of the 2014 season. Peterson's great, but Jones torched him for 10 catches, 189 yards and a touchdown. Ryan threw for 361 yards and two scores. Key trend: Falcons 5-4-1 ATS in past 10 at home in series.
Dec. 4 vs. Chiefs (pick'em): Potential trap game for Kansas City off a Week 12 trip to Denver and Week 14 Thursday home game vs. Oakland. Atlanta has won two straight in the series, last 40-24 in Week 1 of the 2012 season in Kansas City. Key trend: Falcons 1-2 ATS all time in a pick'em home game.
Dec. 18 vs. 49ers (-5): Falcons off a trip to Los Angeles in Week 14. San Francisco is home to the Jets the previous Sunday. Atlanta lost 17-16 in San Francisco in Week 9 last year. Falcons coach Dan Quinn had a questionable decision not to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with about three minutes left. Instead, the Falcons opted for a field goal but couldn't stop the Niners and get the ball back. Jones had 10 catches for 137 yards. Key trend: Falcons 5-5 ATS in past 10 at home in series.
Jan. 1 vs. Saints (TBA): Again, no Week 17 lines with too much potentially up in the air on the final Sunday. New Orleans is off a Christmas Eve home game vs. Tampa Bay. Presumably this will be the Georgia Dome finale. The Falcons hosted the Saints in Week 17 last year and lost 20-17 on a final-second field goal. Ryan had a crucial pick at the Atlanta 25 with 1:47 left. Jones had nine catches for 149 yards. Ryan threw for 334 yards and two scores. Key trend: Falcons 5-5 ATS in past 10 at home in series.
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