Editor's note: The Falcons' 2017 schedule is comprised of AFC East and NFC North opponents as well as their traditional NFC South opponents. The series continues with Week 7 and the New England Patriots.*
Over the next two weeks we're going to take a closer look at the Falcons' 13 opponents this season, with the final three scouting reports focusing on their NFC South rivals.
Scouting the Falcons schedule:
Next up:New England Patriots
All-time series record:Patriots lead, 7-6 (including postseason)
Last meeting:Patriots won 34-28 on Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston
When they play in 2017: Sunday, Oct. 22 in Foxborough, Mass.
Best draft pick:The Patriots had no first- or second-round picks and their first selection – Youngstown State defensive end Derek Rivers – was the 83rd overall pick. Leading up to the draft, some thought Rivers might sneak into the first round because some scouts really like him and productive pass rushers are highly coveted. The 6-foot-4, 248-pound pass rusher leaves Youngstown State as its all-time sack leader (41 total, 19 more than No. 2 on the list).
While there's a lot to like about Rivers' potential, he doesn't have a ton of experience against FBS competition (three career starts) and in those games he tallied just six tackles and two sacks. At the end of the day, Rivers (pictured below) is a third-round pick with boom-or-bust potential. Most teams can live with that.
Best free agent acquisition:The Patriots poached Stephon Gilmore from the rival Bills, widely considered to be the top cornerback available in free agency along with A.J. Bouye (who signed with the Jaguars).
Gilmore (pictured below) joins a growing list of players who played for the Bills, Dolphins or Jets one year – see Danny Woodhead, Chris Hogan, Wes Welker, Sammy Morris, Scott Chandler, Shaun Ellis, Alan Branch and Vinny Testaverde – only to join forces with the AFC East rival Patriots the next year either via free agency or trade. It's what the Patriots do.
The Patriots also signed free agents Rex Burkhead and Lawrence Guy while re-signing eight of their own players – including linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
Toughest matchup:The Patriots have so many offensive weapons that opposing teams cannot focus on stopping just one player or aspect of their offense. They're unpredictable and force defenses to play honest. Send an all-out blitz, stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run or double-up on a receiver and Tom Brady will usually make you pay dearly. That said, the biggest challenge for the Falcons will be slowing down that Patriots' passing game. Aside from Martellus Bennett leaving for Green Bay, the Patriots have virtually everyone returning for 2017 – plus they traded for another home-run hitter in receiver Brandin Cooks (pictured below) and will have a healthy Rob Gronkowski to start the season.
So how does Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel plan to attack the Patriots? Well, we don't know, but history shows the best way is to pressure Tom Brady. The Falcons must make him hold the ball, make him get rid of the ball early, frustrate him and knock him down as much as possible. If that occurs, the end result will be more negative plays for the Patriots.
Most favorable matchup: Even with the addition of Gilmore, the Falcons' pass offense still holds the advantage over the Patriots secondary. And heading into Super Bowl LI, most would agree that the Patriots' running game had the advantage vs. the Falcons' run defense. But that's changed following free agency and the draft. The addition of 6-foot-3, 346-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe (pictured below) wreaking havoc – providing pressure up the middle, clogging running lanes – could potentially disrupt the Patriots offense in a number of ways. It might also allow the Falcons to create just enough pressure without sacrificing coverage on the back end.
Unsung storyline:A national audience will be tuning in for this Sunday night showdown on the Patriots' home turf. Yes, it's Super Bowl rematch – and, while no win in this league comes easy, a road win here against the defending champs would be a huge boost for the Falcons. It's worth noting that Atlanta's last win against the Patriots came on the road in Foxborough – Jamal Anderson (pictured below) rushed for 104 yards and two scores as the Falcons cruised to a 41-10 victory on Nov. 8, 1998. Since then the Falcons have dropped five straight to the Patriots.
And one more thing:While there's really no such thing as an easy schedule in the NFL, the defending NFC champs have their work cut out for them with this slate. There's a brutal stretch from Oct. 22 to Nov. 20 when four of Atlanta's five games are on the road – and that one home game just happens to be the Cowboys. The Falcons also play three games in 12 days heading into the all-critical month of the December.
Speaking of that final stretch, five of Atlanta's final six games are against NFC South opponents. And chew on this: Just five of the 13 teams on the Falcons schedule had losing records in 2016. The other eight – the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Lions, Packers, Patriots, Seahawks, and Vikings – had an eye-catching 83-44-1 combined mark.