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A Look at the Falcons’ 2012 Opponents; Preseason/ First Quarter Regular Season Opponents

By Jake Saltzman

Preseason Opponents: Vs Baltimore, Vs Cincinnati, @Miami. @Jacksonville

Preseason Week 3: @Miami Dolphins

The most important week of the preseason matches the Falcons up with the Dolphins on a Friday night in Miami. Traditionally, starters play at least a full half in week three preseason games, and given the apparent makeup of the 2012 Falcons, Head coach Mike Smith shouldn’t have too difficult a time determining who the starting 25 will be. As always, special teams jobs will be on the line, as will reserve spots on both the offensive and defensive lines. First year players who remain on the active roster by late August will be well aware of what a poor performance could mean for their future, but by this point the Falcons should be pretty well set with the majority of their roster. This game will mean more for a young Miami team with a first year Head coach than it will for the Falcons.

First Quarter Regular Season Opponents; 1 Division Game/ 1 NFC East Game/ 3 AFC West Games

Week 1: @KC Chiefs

The Falcons open the season on the road for the third straight season when they travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. As with the rest of the AFC West opponents the Falcons will play this year, the Falcons haven’t played the Chiefs since 2008, when they beat KC 38-14 in the Georgia Dome. The Chiefs are contenders this year based upon their solid core of first, second and third year players, but will still have a tough time slowing down Matt Ryan and a veteran Atlanta offense. Though Arrowhead Stadium is hardly a welcoming venue for road teams, the Falcons luck out by not having to play there in the winter. If Matt Ryan is given the necessary pass protection and the Falcons win the turnover battle, this game should be very winnable. On the other hand, if the Chiefs can put points on the board early and keep the game tight into the fourth quarter, it may be another story. This is not a game in which Atlanta would be well served to fall behind in.

Week 2: Vs Denver Broncos

The Falcons take on the new-look Denver Broncos in a Monday night game in week two, marking Peyton Manning’s return to prime time. It’s difficult to imagine this game not being all about offense for both teams. While to their credit the Broncos have made some roster moves to address a lack of a consistent running game in 2010 and 2011, drafting Ronnie Hillman in round three of this year’s draft and bringing back veteran Lance Ball to compliment Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee, an offensive shootout should still favor the Falcons given their all around depth. Assuming Manning returns to 2010 form, even with him I’m not convinced Decker, McGahee and Tamme can keep up with White, Jones and Turner. That isn’t to say this isn’t a good matchup for the Broncos. John Fox coached in the NFC South from 2002-2010, so that alone works in Denver’s favor. If Fox’s team can keep up offensively, the Broncos could absolutely upset on the road.

Week 3: @San Diego Chargers

The final game of three straight against the AFC to open the year takes the Falcons to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, a place that has been anything but welcoming to teams from the NFC in recent seasons. This is the Falcons’ only 4:05 start-time this season, and it comes on the club’s only trip to the west coast. It may not be a friendly one. San Diego has been a dynamic underachiever really since the start of the 2000s, but particularly over the last two seasons, and Atlanta presents them with their first big test of the year. Norv Turner will have his team ready.

The Chargers have made quite a bit of noise already this off-season bringing in big names such as Atari Bigby, Melvin Ingram and Eddie Royal, but have actually done just as much to help their team quietly. Amidst the league-wide discussion about Ryan Mathews’ ability to be the Chargers’ every-down back, A.J. Smith brought in Le’Ron McClain and Ronnie Brown as free agents, and stole David Molk, 2011 winner of the Rimington trophy as College Football’s top center, in the seventh round of the draft. That gives the Chargers depth in the offensive backfield, while on special teams, a horrifically bad unit over the past two or three years, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Spurlock and Dante Rosario were added, while Richard Goodman and Andrew Gachkar remain under contract. While I don’t love their defense, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates should have enough around them this year to win at least a couple games such as this, a week three tilt against a reigning playoff team.

Week 4: Vs. Carolina Panthers

Atlanta’s first conference game of the year is also their first division game, as Cam Newton leads the Panthers into Atlanta on the final day of September. The Falcons swept the Panthers in both games last season, despite being challenged in both meetings. While the Panthers are a talented group offensively again this year, and have made big improvements to their defense, I like Atlanta’s chances if they can exploit the Carolina secondary. The Panthers were near the bottom of the league in pass yards per game last year and have done next to nothing this summer to bring in a playmaker at safety or corner. While the Panthers did acquire Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith from the Ravens and 49ers respectively, neither of those two recorded more tackles than games played last season, despite the fact that both played into the postseason. It would appear the Panthers are looking to give an increased role to those two, as well as third year player R.J. Stanford, who was impressive in games against the Texans and Saints late last season. The problem the Falcons will have with the Carolina defense involves the fact that the closer you get to the line of scrimmage, the stronger the Panthers become. Luke Kuechly should make an immediate impact in defending both the short-pass and the run, and Jon Beason returns after missing last season with injury. Up front Charles Johnson recorded 9 sacks a year ago, and enters his sixth pro season at the ripe age of 25.

Ultimately, though the Falcons are still a more talented team than Carolina, the Panthers should be able to make their games with Atlanta close again this season by playing to their strengths on defense. (And of course relying on Cam Newton on offense.)

Week 5: @Washington Redskins

From Cam Newton in Week four to Robert Griffin III in Week five. This game could take on more flavors than any other on the Falcon’s schedule, given how little we know about the Redskins and their look in 2012. There’s no rhyme or reason to analyzing the Redskins. They could go 10-6, and they could just as easily go 4-12.

What we can say is that if Mike Shanahan wants to keep his job, the Redskins will be competitive. Defensively, Washington is one of the better teams in the league at knocking down opposing quarterbacks. Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and Stephen Bowen combined for 22.5 sacks last season, and all three return for another go around this year. They’ll be joined by an overworked group of linebackers who figure to once again be led by London Fletcher, whose 166 tackles last season were nearly double the total recorded by Washington’s second highest tackler. The Redskins were middle of the pack in most major defensive categories a year ago and figure to be right there again this year. The signing of DeAngelo Hall last summer proved to be a very nice one, as Hall was tied for the team lead in interceptions and also forced a fumble. The Falcons are a very potent offense however, so it will be interesting to see which unit outdoes the other when the two meet in October.

On offense, injuries will again be key to success for the Redskins. Roy Helu had a surprising rookie season a year ago, but was never supposed to be the go-to option. He was forced into action by an injury to Tim Hightower, who will look to stay healthy for the first time ever in a Redskins jersey. If either one of those two go down, rookie sixth rounder Alfred Morris will be given a role similar to the one bestowed upon Helu last year. That doesn’t bode well for a rookie QB, even if he is RG3. Griffin himself arrived in DC with gifts, namely Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon. They figure to help, but are nowhere near as crucial to the success of the offense as are tight ends Fred Davis and Chris Cooley. If those two can stay healthy, they provide Griffin with the NFC’s best imitation of the Gronkowski/Hernandez duo in New England. The biggest name is of course Griffin himself. If he can win three or four games alone the way Cam Newton and Andy Dalton were able to last season, the Redskins could be a Wild card contender in a very tough division.

For now though, I’d say the Falcons have an edge over RG3 and Co.

Projected Record through First Quarter: 3-2

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