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Poised For Primetime


Get ready to clear your nights this fall, because the Atlanta Falcons are taking them over.

The 2011 NFL regular season schedule has been released and the Falcons come out as primetime players, scoring two Sunday Night Football games, one Monday Night Football game and a Thursday night game that will be shown nationally on NFL Network.

The Falcons will host the Philadelphia Eagles on NBC's Sunday Night Football, Sept. 18 to open the home slate. Three weeks later, on Oct. 9, the Falcons will host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football.

As if those two national appearances weren't enough, the Falcons will host Jacksonville on Thursday night, Dec. 15 and then travel to NFC South rival New Orleans for a Dec. 26 matchup on ESPN's Monday Night Football.

The four primetime games on the Falcons' slate in 2011 is the most on the original schedule — not including games that were flexed — of the Mike Smith era and most since playing in three during the 2007 season.

This year's schedule also marks the second consecutive time the Falcons will be facing the previous season's Super Bowl champion when Green Bay visits the Georgia Dome on Oct. 9.

Three of the Falcons' four primetime opponents were losses on the Falcons' brilliant 13-4 overall record last season — although Atlanta split the season series with New Orleans and defeated Green Bay in the regular season.

The Eagles handed the Falcons a 31-17 loss in Philadelphia early last season. After downing the Saints in New Orleans during Week 3, the Falcons fell to the Saints in the Georgia Dome in Week 16, snapping one of the longest home winning streaks in the NFL.

The Falcons beat the Packers during the regular season with some final-minute heroics at the Georgia Dome, but then met an early exit in the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs, losing to the Packers.

The Falcons will get the chance for some revenge on the national stage.

What's more is that the Falcons likely won't face too much in the way of cold weather on away trips this season. Atlanta will open the season at Chicago on Sept. 11, avoiding what can be a very harsh winter in the Windy City. The Falcons will also travel to Seattle on Oct. 2, and the weather likely will be much better than what Atlanta faced in Seattle last season in December when temperatures were in the low 30s.

After an Oct. 30 bye, the Falcons' road games include going to Indianapolis (inside Lucas Oil Stadium, which is an indoor stadium), to Houston, to Carolina and then to New Orleans for the Dec. 26, Week 16 game inside the Louisiana SuperDome that could have NFC South title implications.

Depending on how the season shapes up, the Falcons could be looking at the possibility of being flexed into the national spotlight some more. The Sept. 25 matchup at Tampa Bay is listed as a nationally televised game on Fox at 4:15 p.m. Later in the year, the Nov. 13 matchup against New Orleans at home and the Jan. 1, 2012 game against Tampa Bay at home hold the possibility of being flexed if division and season implications dictate.

Last season, the Falcons faced several difficult stretches on the road, including opening at Pittsburgh after finishing the final two weeks of the preseason at Miami and at Jacksonville, and a three-game road stint during the regular season that included trips to Tampa Bay, Carolina and wrapped up with a cross-country flight to Seattle.

This year, the Falcons won't have to endure anything longer than a road-road stint before returning to the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome. Atlanta will travel to Tampa Bay and then Seattle in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively. Then, the Falcons will hit the road for Houston and Carolina Dec. 4 and 11, respectively.

But again, the Falcons will have to prove their road mettle early on as they start four of the first seven games on the road.

Not only that, but the Falcons will have to worry about two short weeks during the 2011 season. The Falcons travel to Tampa Bay on Sept. 25 and then have to fly to Seattle for the Oct. 2 matchup with the Seahawks. Because of the travel involved to both cities, that will substantially reduce the amount of time the Falcons will have to prepare for Seattle.

Later in the year, the Falcons will travel to Carolina on Dec. 11 and then face Jacksonville at home four days later.

If it's any consolation, however, just like 2010, the Falcons will have a much-welcomed home stretch around the midseason point. Last year, the Falcons went through the first half of the season, hit the bye week and then played three consecutive home games before hitting the road again — more than a full month on the ground in Atlanta.

In 2011, the Falcons will head to Indianapolis after the bye, then play three consecutive at home, starting with the first of two matchups with the Saints, then Tennessee and Minnesota.

This season marks the first time that Smith will be playing the AFC South since coming to Atlanta in 2008. Smith was a defensive coordinator in the AFC South, with Jacksonville, before being named the Falcons' head coach, and he'll have some familiar competition on the schedule with Atlanta taking on the Jaguars, Indianapolis, Tennessee and Houston.

The Falcons are looking at facing six playoff teams — Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Green Bay, Indianapolis and New Orleans — from last year, which provides a formidable task.

Of the Falcons' opponents in 2011, only five have a losing season. All the teams on the Falcons' schedule in 2011, however, own a combined losing record — 126-130 for a .492 winning percentage — in the 2010 season.

That mark is extremely deceptive, however, because of the two games played against Carolina, which was a two-win team. Playing the Panthers twice means they only counted toward four wins of the 126 of the Falcons' 2011 opponents.

When Carolina is removed, that record goes to 122-102 — a .762 winning percentage.

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