The Falcons will finish 12-4 and win the NFC South. Here’s how:
At Pittsburgh, Sept. 12: You don’t like playing these guys anywhere, especially up there on Opening Day with the Steelers coming off a dud season. But if you have to do it, this is the year. Because Ben Roethlisberger won’t be playing. Falcons 21, Steelers 16.
Arizona, Sept. 19: The great receiver Larry Fizgerald sprained a knee ligament in an exhibition game but is expected back for the regular season. Won’t matter. He no longer has Kurt Warner throwing to him. He has Matt Leinart, who hasn’t done a thing since college. Falcons 30, Cardinals 14.
At New Orleans, Sept. 26: Here’s where the watching world starts to take the Birds seriously. The Falcons nearly won in the Superdome last November at a time when the Saints were unbeaten. This time they’ll render the Saints unbeaten no more. Falcons 26, Saints 24.
San Francisco, Oct. 3: A potential misstep. The Falcons are coming off a win that has led NFL pundits — and there are only 10 zillion — to wonder if they’re the new power in the NFC. The Niners are improving incrementally. A tough game, but still a win. Falcons 23, Niners 17.
At Cleveland, Oct. 10: Mike Holmgren is running the Browns. This will help — eventually. Right now this is an NFL irritants: A road game against a lousy team when you’re 4-0 with everyone singing your praises. Falcons 24, Browns 14.
At Philadelphia, Oct. 17: Here’s where Mercury Morris and the rest of the 1972 Miami Dolphins stop sweating the 2010 Falcons. The Eagles are in post-Donovan McNabb mode, but they’re still an OK team. And the Falcons are due to lose. Eagles 20, Falcons 17.
Cincinnati, Oct. 24: The Bengals have found themselves again, but you never know how long a roster that includes Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco can co-exist. Lots of national chatter about this one. Lots more about the Falcons when they win. Falcons 34, Bengals 24.
Tampa Bay, Nov. 7: The Falcons exit their bye week atop the NFC South. They consolidate their hold against the only division opponent they swept last season. Falcons 35, Bucs 3.
Baltimore, Nov. 11: This is more like it. A Thursday night game against a tough AFC bunch. Some will see this as the game that proves Joe Flacco is better than Matt Ryan. (The two were first-round picks in 2008.) Scoreboard suggests otherwise. Falcons 20, Ravens 13.
At St. Louis, Nov. 21: Sam Bradford, the No. 1 pick in the April draft, should be starting by now, assuming he hasn’t already been chased out of the lineup by the utter lack of support around him. The Falcons have nine days to prepare, not that they’ll need it. Falcons 31, Rams 10.
Green Bay, Nov. 28: Another delicious Dome date. The Packers and Falcons are two of the NFC’s three best teams. (The Cowboys being the third.) They could well meet in January. If so, the Falcons had better hope for a different result. Packers 24, Falcons 20.
At Tampa Bay, Dec. 5: Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Just an angry team hammering a lousy opponent. Falcons 31, Bucs 10.
At Carolina, Dec. 12: The Panthers are where they usually are in December — trying to slide into the playoff chase. This is a must win for Carolina, and it won’t be for the Falcons, who are 10-2 and a postseason cinch. Desperation carries the day. Panthers 17, Falcons 14.
At Seattle, Dec. 19: The third of three consecutive road games involves a long trip. It also involves an accommodating opponent less talented than the pro-style (heh, heh) teams Pete Carroll coached at Southern Cal. Falcons clinch their division. Falcons 27, Seahawks 14.
New Orleans, Dec. 27: Two nights after Christmas, only one team has much on the table. The Falcons have won the NFC South and need one victory in their final two games to secure a first-round bye. The Saints have to win. And do. Saints 30, Falcons 24.
Carolina, Jan. 2: Here it is, folks, the culmination of the finest regular season this franchise has seen since 1998. Those Birds wound up in the Super Bowl. These Birds just might. Falcons 24, Panthers 10.