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Shutdown Countdown: The Atlanta Falcons face a tougher schedule in 2013

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Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan got the proverbial monkey off their backs by finally winning a playoff game in 2012. Of course, the Falcons blew a 20-point halftime lead to the Seattle Seahawks, who scored a go-ahead touchdown with just over 30 seconds remaining in the game. Two great passes from Ryan to Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez covered 41 yards and put the Falcons in field goal position, Matt Bryant delivered from 49 yards out, and Julio Jones intercepted a Russell Wilson heave at the goal-line on the final play to send the Falcons into the NFC championship game.

The following week, the Falcons would again start hot, storming out to a 17-0 lead over the San Francisco 49ers and would again have a double-digit lead at halftime. That lead was squandered, however, as Frank Gore scored two rushing touchdowns in the second half to give the 49ers a 28-24 lead with over eight minutes to play. Unlike the previous, there would be no rally from the Falcons as their seven-minute drive would end with two incomplete passes from Ryan to Roddy White.

Still, a 13-3 season and a playoff win made 2012 a successful for the Falcons. As a result, the rest of the league showed interest in key members of the organization. David Caldwell, the team's director of player personnel, was the only defection, turning down the New York Jets to accept the Jacksonville Jaguars' general manager position. All three of the Falcons' coordinators — Dirk Koetter, Mike Nolan and Keith Armstrong — were sought after to interview for head coaching vacancies throughout the league, but all will return in 2013.

The Falcons will need that continuity on the coaching staff as their schedule is arguably the toughest in the league and a lot of their wins last season were not of a convincing manner. Seven of the Falcons' wins last season were by a touchdown or less, including narrow wins over non-playoff teams like the Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals (who intercepted Ryan five times and still lost), Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same? Overall, the Falcons' roster is about the same. On offense, Steven Jackson provides an upgrade over Michael Turner, but the offensive line is less experienced as Todd McClure retired and Tyson Clabo was released for cap purposes. In their place are 2012 draft picks Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes. The defense got a (slightly) younger pass-rusher in Osi Umenyiora, who will be asked to replace John Abraham, who had over one-third of the team's 29 sacks last season. The Falcons also got younger in the secondary, drafting Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to replace Brent Grimes.

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Steven Jackson (USA Today Sports Images)

Best offseason acquisition: Signing a running back in free agency is always a bit of a gamble, but Michael Turner gave the Falcons four good-to-great seasons, topping 1,300 yards three times and scoring double-digit touchdowns in all five seasons. Unfortunately for Turner, leading the league in rushing attempts twice in four years may have contributed to a steep decline in a 2012 season where his yards per carry dropped nearly a full yard to 3.6. With a very high base salary in 2013, the Falcons cut Turner and have replaced him with 30-year-old Steven Jackson, who is coming off eight straight 1,000-yard seasons and has remained productive despite playing on some pretty bad offenses in St. Louis. Jackson is expected to be motivated by the opportunity to play for a team primed to make a deep run into the playoffs for the first time since he entered the league in 2004.

Biggest hole on the roster: Finding a weak spot on the Falcons' roster is an exercise in nit-picking. One quibble might be the depth at the tight end position. Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez is showing little signs of slowing down, but if that were to happen, the Falcons would be down to Chase Coffman or 2013 fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo. The five tight ends behind Gonzalez on the roster have combined for 10 receptions in their NFL careers. Gonzalez has had 13 games with 10 or more receptions during his career.

Position in flux: With Asante Samuel, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, the Falcons' secondary had a trio of established, veteran cornerbacks. Of the three, only Samuel remains, as the Falcons released Robinson for cap purposes and elected to not re-sign the 30-year-old Grimes, whose 2012 season under the franchise tag lasted just 52 plays before he went down with a torn Achilles. The Falcons are going young at the position, using their top two picks in the 2013 draft on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, both of whom could play major roles as rookies.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: 2012 third-round pick Lamar Holmes will be asked to replace reliable Tyson Clabo at right tackle. Holmes might have played last season, but a broken foot during his first training camp caused him to land on the inactive list throughout the season. Holmes appeared in just one game — a 34-0 blowout win over the New York Giants — and played just seven snaps as a rookie. Holmes is green as grass and will be asked to protect the $103.75 million investment the Falcons have made in Matt Ryan.

Stat fact: According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Falcons were the least aggressive team in the NFL on fourth down, going for it on just 0.62 percent of those opportunities. The Falcons ranked in the Top 10 during the previous four seasons under head coach Mike Smith.

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: The Falcons "rise up" to meet a tougher schedule than they had last season, win 11-12 games and, as a result, the NFC South. Ryan's performance in the playoffs continues to improve and the Falcons represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: : The young offensive linemen struggle to replace McClure and Clabo and Jackson shows his advanced age. Umenyiora isn't as effective as Abraham while the young starters in the secondary are victimized by a schedule that includes Drew Brees and Cam Newton twice, plus Sam Bradford (who has improved weapons around him), Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Robert Griffin and Aaron Rodgers.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: We'll go with players, plural, and point to the offensive line. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, the 2012 Falcons were 24th in "Adjusted Line Yards" and dead last in "Stuffed", which is defined as the "percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage". Football Outsiders' game charters counted 25.5 "blown blocks" on running plays in 2013, including 15 by left guard Justin Blalock and Konz, who shifts from right guard to center. The Falcons will need this unit to improve if they're going to make the playoffs this season.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants
11. Carolina Panthers
10. Washington Redskins
9. Cincinnati Bengals

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