2018 schedule: Falcons' toughest stretch of season might come right out of the gates

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons' 2018 schedule has finally been released, and there will be no easing into the year. The Falcons have a slate of heavyweight bouts right off the bat.

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Atlanta will help kick off the NFL regular season with an NFC divisional-round rematch on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 6 at 8:15 p.m. ET. The Falcons gave the Eagles their toughest game in last year's playoffs, coming within just 2 yards of taking a late lead in the fourth quarter, but ultimately falling short and losing 15-10 in Philadelphia.

Now, they've got the chance to make a statement to start the season and beat the Eagles for the first time since a 26-24 win in the 2015 season-opener.

Win or lose, the Falcons will have to quickly put their Week 1 contest behind them. Following that opening-night clash, the Falcons will face three playoff teams in their next four games. Two of those games come against division opponents, where the Falcons place a great emphasis.

Back-to-back games vs. NFC South foes

In Week 2, the Falcons will host the Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. ET. Atlanta split its season series with its 1-85 rival in 2017, but the Falcons did earn an impressive 22-10 victory over the Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the regular-season finale to clinch their spot in the postseason. The Falcons' home schedule will begin the same way it ended last season: against the Panthers.

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Following their first NFC South matchup, the Falcons will immediately have to prepare for another as the New Orleans Saints come to Atlanta in Week 3 for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff.

As they did against the Panthers, the Falcons split their series against the Saints last year – winning at home in a dramatic Thursday night game and losing on the road on Christmas Eve. This rivalry has been a bitter one from the very beginning and it's become one of the best in the NFL over the past decade.  

After not playing its first NFC South game until Week 9 in 2017, and ending the year with four straight division games, the Falcons will play two division teams in the first three weeks of the season this year.

Bengals visit and a trip to the Steel City

Those first three games pose quite a challenge, but the Falcons then face two quality non-conference opponents in the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who they will play in Weeks 4 and 5, respectively.

The Bengals, who finished 7-9 last season but have made five playoff appearances in the last seven years, will come to Atlanta for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff against the Falcons. Atlanta and Cincinnati last played each other in 2014, a 24-10 loss for the Falcons on the road. The Falcons' last victory against the Bengals came in 2010, when they earned a tough 39-32 win at home.

Atlanta's second game away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium will come in Week 5 against Pittsburgh. The Steelers finished with a 13-3 record last season, earning the No. 2 seed in the AFC. One of the NFL's perennial contenders, the Steelers are always a tough challenge for teams. It should be exciting, however, to watch the Falcons' defense match up against the likes of LeVeon Bell, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Three of the last four games between these two teams have gone into overtime. The Steelers and the Falcons last met in 2014, which resulted in a 27-20 win for Pittsburgh in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta's last win against Pittsburgh came in 2006, a 41-38 overtime victory for the Falcons at home. Dropping a few games early hardly dooms any team's season, and there is always a chance to make up ground later, but the Falcons toughest stretch of the year may come right at the start. Of course, every team goes through something similar, and Atlanta can truly make a statement and gain solid footing in the division by starting fast in 2018.

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