It was a disaster of a season for the Atlanta Falcons in 2013, but better days appear to be ahead for the once-proud franchise.
Following five straight winning seasons and three consecutive playoff appearances, the Falcons stumbled last season to a 4-12 record. Many of those struggles were due to injuries to key players like Julio Jones and uncharacteristic struggles of Roddy White due to different factors.
Despite the fact that Tony Gonzalez has now retired from the NFL, Atlanta has a multitude of talented players who can help it return to dominance in 2014. Add on the fact that the Falcons also hold the No. 6 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, and there are obvious signs of a turnaround for the 2012 NFC South winners.
The Falcons already have a tough division to contend with in the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, but they also have to worry about a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that made a lot of moves in free agency and has a fresh identity under new head coach Lovie Smith.
With several intriguing non-division opponents on the schedule as well—including a neutral-site game outside of the country—Atlanta has several games that could decide its season. Let's take a look at the full schedule and crucial matchups that could determine whether the Falcons return to the postseason in 2014.
|2014 Atlanta Falcons Regular-Season Schedule|
|1||Sept. 7||vs. New Orleans Saints||1 p.m.||Fox|
|2||Sept. 14||at Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sept. 18||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||8:25 p.m.||NFLN/CBS|
|4||Sept. 28||at Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||Fox|
|5||Oct. 5||at New York Giants||1 p.m.||Fox|
|6||Oct. 12||vs. Chicago Bears||1 p.m.||Fox|
|7||Oct. 19||at Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||Fox|
|8||Oct. 26||Detroit Lions (London)||9:30 a.m.||Fox|
|10||Nov. 9||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|11||Nov. 16||at Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|12||Nov. 23||vs. Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Nov. 30||vs. Arizona Cardinals||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|14||Dec. 8||at Green Bay Packers||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|15||Dec. 14||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 21||at New Orleans Saints||1 p.m.||Fox|
|17||Dec. 28||vs. Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||Fox|
On paper, this looks like a daunting schedule for the Falcons to return to dominance in the NFC South. Atlanta has just four games against playoff teams from last year, but it will play two of those teams twice in the Saints and Panthers.
But even after the franchise missed the postseason last year, Gil Brandt of NFL.com believes the team is primed to be a worst-to-first team this season:
Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback who had an off season on the road, where he threw 14 of his 17 picks. With Ryan and a healthy Julio Jones -- who missed most of 2013 with a foot injury -- the Falconshave a chance to take back the NFC South next season.
Atlanta, which will pick sixth in May's draft, needs to add a pass rusher and an offensive lineman. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who did a good job with young players in 2013, should help that unit improve.
Atlanta has a chance to be an elite team once again in the NFL and will prove that in 2014 if the entire team remains healthy. With an explosive offense and a defense that can contend in the NFC, the Falcons can prove they are back this season by knocking off some of the best teams in football.
It's never easy playing away from home, but playing in a stadium over 4,000 miles away from Atlanta could prove difficult for the Falcons. Then throw in the fact that it's against the Detroit Lions, and the matchup becomes even more titillating.
Both teams struggled through disappointing seasons in 2013 and missed the playoffs, but both offer intriguing offenses that should shine at Wembley Stadium in London.
NFL chief marketing officer Mark Waller spoke about the decision to play the Falcons-Lions game in London, along with two others, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com:
"We are excited about playing three regular-season games in the UK for the first time," Waller said, "and debuting a new game time that we expect to be a hit with fans on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world."
The game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. in London (9:30 a.m. ET), so Falcons fans might have to skip Sunday service to watch the entire game. Playing in Wembley will also be considered as a home game for Atlanta, so only seven "true" home games will be played in the Georgia Dome.
Along with the home-away-from-home game, the Falcons also clash with last year's NFC South champion Panthers and Saints twice, as usual, and play the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears in difficult games that could determine their playoff fate.
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter.