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Atlanta Falcons 2021 schedule: Final five games will make or break season

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The Atlanta Falcons schedule was released along with the rest of the NFL slate on Wednesday.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET). ESPN’s Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 13 will feature the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET).

The NFL will change its schedule for the first time in 44 years, expanding to 17 regular-season games. The final regular-season games will be played January 9, 2022. The playoffs begin January 15, 2022 and continue through Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022 at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium.

Here's what's in store for the Falcons:

Schedule

Sept. 12: vs. Philadelphia

Sept. 19: at Tampa Bay

Sept. 26: at New York Giants

Oct. 3: vs. Washington

Oct. 10: vs. New York Jets (London)

Oct. 17: Bye

Oct. 24: at Miami

Oct. 31: vs. Carolina

Nov. 7: at Saints

Nov. 14: at Dallas

Nov. 18: vs. New England

Nov. 28: at Jacksonville

Dec. 5: vs. Tampa Bay

Dec. 12: at Carolina

Dec. 19: at San Francisco

Dec. 26: vs. Detroit

Jan. 2: at Buffalo

Jan. 9: vs. New Orleans

Strength of schedule (ranked hardest to easiest): .454, 30th

Biggest takeaway

December and late January are going to decide Atlanta’s 2021 fate. Three road games out of the final five – including an early January trip to Buffalo where temperatures could be 50 degrees colder than in Atlanta -- could prove incredibly tricky. Adding in a cross-country flight to San Francisco makes it a fascinating stretch in Arthur Smith’s first season. Even Atlanta’s preseason is going to be interesting, though, as the first game of Arthur Smith’s head-coaching career will come against his old team, the Tennessee Titans, on August 13.

One storyline to watch and/or one question that needs to be answered

The early bye (post-London) isn’t great and three of the first five games are away from Atlanta (two on the road and a game in London against the Jets) but the chance for a fast start to the season is there with all of the pre-bye opponents other than Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay having major question marks. Of course, the Falcons, with Smith as their head coach and an unpredictable defense, have their own problems to answer as well. But if Atlanta goes 3-2 or 4-1 to start the season, it should be in contention for the majority of the year.

What Vegas thinks

Vegas has the Falcons' win total at 7. That’s probably right on the money. While the offense might be Top 5 -- we’ll see what happens with a possible trade of Julio Jones -- the defense is still a giant question mark. If defensive coordinator Dean Pees can turn last year’s rough unit into a middle-of-the-road one, the Falcons could be over that number (perhaps well over it). If the defense continues to have issues, seven (or maybe six) is probably the right number of wins for Atlanta.

Bold prediction

Tight ends usually don’t have massive production as rookies. It’s a hard position to transition to from college to the NFL. But Kyle Pitts is a rare prospect and because he can be used so many different ways, he fits in seamlessly, hitting close to 800 yards and nine touchdowns, making him a strong contender for rookie of the year.