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Holloway: Don't bet on the Falcons
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Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. His columns appear on Friday.

The mood around Falcons camp is different this summer. Last year’s hope of avoiding further catastrophe has been replaced by the expectation of success.

They’ve got a hot, young quarterback, a bruiser at running back who has proven he can be one of the league’s best, a Pro Bowl caliber receiver, and they added the best tight end in the history of the game in the offseason.

And the defense ...

Hey, did I mention Tony Gonzalez?

There are questions defensively, but after the magic act Thomas Dimitroff & Co. managed in their inaugural season, it’s easy to believe them when they say affordable speed trumps expensive experience.

The national media is buying in. One publication has even predicted a trip to the NFC championship.

But fans who’ve been beaten down by unmet expectations in the past seem a little more cautious in their optimism.

For all that’s going right, there’s still plenty working against the Falcons in 2009, starting with history. As has been painstakingly documented, the Falcons have never, in their 43-year history as a franchise, experienced back-to-back winning seasons. They’ve only even come close twice (7-6-1 and 9-5 seasons were separated by a 7-7 mark under Norm Van Brocklin in the early 1970s, and Jim Mora Jr. followed his 11-5 debut with a disappointing 8-8 campaign in 2005).

There’s also the mystical sophomore slump, the unwritten law of professional sports that what rises must also fall. There’s the parity-producing NFL salary cap and scheduling method, a rubber band system designed to keep teams from separating from the pack.

There’s also Vegas.

The most jolting dose of offseason realism was delivered to Falcons fans this week when oddsmakers released their over/unders for total number of regular-season wins for 2009. Las Vegas, apparently, hasn’t been swept up by Matt Ryan mania. They’ve got the Falcons winning eight games. That’s it. Another 8-8 season. More frustration and mediocrity.

What’s unsettling for the Falcon fan is the oddsmakers are the most accurate predictor of these things, because they’ve got the most to lose. Whereas newspaper columnists and television commentators can only look dumber than usual when our predictions go awry, Las Vegas, quite literally, has money on the table. Jobs are at stake.

There’s a reason the house always wins — these people can’t afford to be wrong.

But even to the most objective observer, eight wins seems a little low. So how did oddsmakers arrive at that number?

All of the aforementioned probably plays at least some role. But in the NFL, history has little to do with the future, and odds are more about the personnel and schedule and less about superstition and sorcery.

So let’s take a look at the schedule. (Spoiler alert: It ain’t pretty.)

A year ago the Falcons had the benefit of a last-place schedule. The 2008 slate featured 10 teams with losing records in 2007, including the NFL’s fatted calves; Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland and St. Louis. Those four combined to win nine games.

No such luck this season.

Only two teams on the 2009 schedule had losing records last year and both went 7-9. A quarter of this year’s schedule is made up of 2008 division champions, and the Falcons open with three straight against teams that won at least 11 games last year.

Based on 2008 winning percentage, the Falcons’ schedule is the fourth toughest in the league.

None of that guarantees that the schedule will turn out to be as difficult as it looks now. A 4-2 record within the NFC South is certainly attainable, meaning the Falcons would need only a 5-5 record against the rest of the league to cash in for the true believers.

I think that’ll happen, but I’m not sure I’m confident enough in it to take on the house. The odds, afterall, are in their favor.


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