The Falcons have many things to look forward to in the second half of the season.
The eventual return of rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, the emergance of a strong running game again and a defense that is beginning to rear its head are all positives heading into the latter part of the season.
One of the brightest spots for the Falcons is the schedule. After a gauntlet of a first seven games, the Falcons have some games on the horizon that appear on the surface to be games they can use to continue to right their 4-3 ship.
The combined schedule of the opponents that remain on the Falcons' schedule is currently 21-34 and it features only three teams with winning records. Tennessee checks in at 3-3.
The Falcons begin their trek to the playoffs in Indianapolis in Week 9. In previous years a trip to Indy was a daunting task with Peyton Manning at the controls of the Colts' offense. This season's seen him miss the entire year so far and there's no talk of him being ready in time for the Falcons. At 0-7 the Colts are struggling, but teams with winning histories that are winless are not teams to overlook.
In Week 10 the Falcons host the Saints with an opportunity to gain some ground on the NFC South leaders. It'll be the first of two meetings remaining this season and a win at home over the division-leading rivals would be huge for Atlanta's playoff chances. The Falcons are currently tied with the Bucs at 4-3 and for the final NFC wildcard playoff spot. The Bucs hold the head-to-head tie-breaker so the Falcons need to gain an edge anywhere they can.
The home stretch comes in Week 11 as the Falcons welcome the Titans. After an impressive start the Titans have stumbled to 3-3. Injuries and inconsistent performances have deflated the positive hopes from the beginning of the season for Tennessee.
The third straight Georgia Dome game comes in Week 12 with the 1-6 Vikings coming to play. Minnesota has been in many of their losses this season, unable to pull things out in the end. They've found a spark in their rookie quarterback Christian Ponder and and their running game is always dangerous with the All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson in the backfield.
The Falcons head to Houston in Week 13 to face the impressive Texans, first place in the AFC South at 4-3. The Texans have long featured a potent offensive attack, but this year they've got the defense playing on a similar level making Houston potentially one of the most well-rounded and dangerous teams they'll face in the second half. A quality win over a team with eyes on the playoffs on the road would have a similar impact as the win over Detroit.
Carolina is the team on the schedule in Week 14 and Atlanta will be meeting them in Charlotte. The Panthers will be looking for some revenge over the Falcons after their 31-17 win in Week 6. The Panthers are young and have shown flashes of promise this season. One would expect them to continue to gel as a team and they'll always be a tough opponent for the Falcons.
Jacksonville will be welcomed to Atlanta in Week 15 and the 2-5 Jags are a curious team to play at that point in the season. They've shown a lot of positives on defense, but the offense under rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert has struggled at times. The defense was dominant in Week 7's 12-7 Monday night win over the Baltimore Ravens.
Atlanta's two final games will be critical, both division matchups with teams that currently appear to be contenders. In Week 16 the Falcons travel to New Orleans for a Monday night game on the day after Christmas. This game figures to have a lot of implications and the drama will be high. The Falcons have played well in the Superdome and facing a possible trip back to the playoffs, they'll bring their best for the nation.
The final game of the season comes at home in a rematch with the Bucs. Tampa played one of their best games of the season against the Falcons in their Week 3 win. The Bucs are young and talented but have played inconsistently. Regardless of where the Bucs fit into the playoff equation when this game rolls around, it will likely have significant implications for the Falcons' playoff chances.
One of the trends in the second half to feel good about is the Falcons' play inside domes, home or away. Under head coach Mike Smith the Falcons are 25-8 in games played indoors. Eight of Atlanta's final nine games will be played inside a dome. The Falcons will host five of them and they'll visit domes in Indianapolis, Houston and New Orleans.
When you're a winning organization the schedule year-to-year can get tougher. The Falcons are facing that fact this season after their 13-3 finish last year. Five of Atlanta's first seven opponents were in the playoff hunt or in the playoffs in the final week of the season last year. The second half of the schedule lightens up for the Falcons, but Smith will never let his team look too far ahead.
Once they return from their bye week off, they'll begin to prepare for the Colts. Regardless of the Colts' record, Smith knows a team needs to quickly regain its focus coming off a bye. Under Smith the Falcons are 2-1 after a bye and there's no reason to believe the Falcons won't be ready for the Colts next Sunday and beyond.