NFL Preview - Chicago (3-1) at Atlanta (3-1)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A pair of NFC contenders seeking to continue impressive rolls will get together this Sunday at the Georgia Dome, where the high-flying Atlanta Falcons host a rested Chicago Bears team in a key primetime showdown.
Chicago enters this appealing Week 6 matchup having won three straight games following a season-opening loss to rival Green Bay, most recently coming away with a convincing 48-24 rout of Detroit prior to last weekend's bye. The Bears have ridden the rocket right arm of new quarterback Jay Cutler during their current surge, with the offseason pickup overcoming a forgettable four- interception debut against the Packers by playing near-flawless football over the team's three victories.
Cutler has produced a passer rating of better than 100 in each of those wins, becoming the first Bears signal-caller to do so since 1970. Over the course of the streak, the confident 26-year-old has completed more than 70 percent of his throws and tossed seven touchdown passes against just one interception, a performance that has helped justify Chicago's bold move of acquiring him from the Denver Broncos in exchange for fellow signal-caller Kyle Orton and a pair of first-round picks back in April.
Atlanta is quite satisfied with its situation under center as well. Sophomore triggerman Matt Ryan has backed up his 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award with an even better beginning to this season, highlighted by a sensational showing in the Falcons' latest outing.
The former Boston College star threw for a personal-best 329 yards and connected with standout wide receiver Roddy White on a pair of long touchdowns to lead the way in Atlanta's 45-10 shellacking of NFC West leader San Francisco this past Sunday. White finished with a franchise-record 210 yards on eight catches to help the Falcons deal the 49ers their worst home loss since moving into Candlestick Park in 1971.
Atlanta, now 3-1 on the young season and one game behind undefeated New Orleans for first place in the NFC South, has usually been an even more formidable opponent at home under the combination of Ryan and second-year head coach Mike Smith. The Falcons have amassed a stellar 9-1 record at the Georgia Dome since the start of the 2008 campaign, including a 22-20 edging of the Bears during Week 6 of last season on a last-second 48-yard field goal by veteran kicker Jason Elam.
Atlanta's only home loss during the Smith/Ryan regime came to a Cutler-led Denver squad last November, a 24-20 setback in which the fourth-year quarterback engineered a go-ahead touchdown drive with under six minutes remaining.
Chicago has a 12-11 lead in its all-time series with Atlanta, but as mentioned, was a 22-20 road loser when the teams met in Week 6 of last season. The Bears scored a 16-3 home victory in the previous meeting, in Week 15 of the 2005 season. The Bears also won their two most trips to the Georgia Dome prior to last year's loss, in 2001 and 2002.
The Bears' Lovie Smith is 1-1 against the Falcons as a head coach, while Atlanta's Mike Smith is 1-0 against both the other Smith and Chicago as a head man.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The acquisition of Cutler (901 passing yards, 8 TD, 5 INT) has added a new dimension to a Chicago offense which had noticeably lacked a vertical presence in previous years. The strong-armed field general has made a modestly-talented receiving corps more effective in the process, as the group of second-year pro Earl Bennett (15 receptions), return dynamo Devin Hester (14 receptions, 2 TD) and promising rookie Johnny Knox (14 receptions, 2 TD) have all been solid contributors despite none having emerged as a true go-to threat. Tight end Greg Olson (10 receptions, 2 TD) is an under-used weapon for a passing attack that's averaged 213.8 yards per game (19th overall) so far this season. The Bears rank a lackluster 27th in the league in rushing offense (91.5 ypg) but did get top back Matt Forte (271 rushing yards, 1 TD, 13 receptions) untracked in their last game, as the previously-struggling workhorse ripped off 121 yards and a touchdown on just 12 attempts against a suspect Detroit defense after averaging a meager 2.5 yards per rush over the first three weeks.
The Falcons have struggled in defending the run for much of this season, but did hold 49ers rookie Glen Coffee to a non-threatening 45 yards on 12 rushes a week ago after making a lineup change up front. The team moved usual left end Jamaal Anderson (5 tackles) inside to tackle and inserted pass-rush specialist Kroy Biermann (14 tackles, 3 sacks) into the starting lineup in an attempt to better utilize the talents of both players. Biermann teams with veteran John Abraham (11 tackles, 3 sacks), who's fresh off a career-best 16 1/2-sack season, to give Atlanta two quality edge rushers to complement a secondary that's yielded only three touchdown passes in four games and allowed San Francisco's Shaun Hill to complete just 15-of-38 throws in last Sunday's win. Outside linebacker Mike Peterson (30 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerback Brian Williams (16 tackles, 1 INT), two former Jaguars who played under Mike Smith when the latter was Jacksonville's defensive coordinator, have lent needed stability and leadership to a unit that ranks 20th overall in total yards allowed (355.8 ypg) but has surrendered just 15.8 points per game.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta finally got its dangerous offense firing on all cylinders last week, as White (23 receptions, 329 yards, 3 TD) broke out in a big way after a slow start and running back Michael Turner (323 rushing yards, 3 TD) put up 97 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries after being held in check for much of the early portion of the season. The Falcons compiled 148 yards on the ground against San Francisco but rank just 15th in that category (106.3 ypg) for the season, a sharp drop-off from the 152.7 rushing yards per game the club averaged during its 2008 breakthrough. While the running game has been somewhat inconsistent, Ryan (997 passing yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) has been remarkably steady as the offense's leader. The 24-year-old is completing two- thirds of his passes and has thrown for at least two scores in each of the team's three wins, although he's been helped out by the astute offseason pickup of perennial All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez (19 receptions, 2 TD) as well as a good front line that's given up just two sacks thus far.
The Bears have been pretty sturdy against the run, having permitted an average of 93.5 yards per week (9th overall) while not letting an enemy back eclipse the century mark in any of the first four games. That's quite an achievement considering star middle linebacker Brian Urlacher suffered a season-ending dislocated wrist in the season opener and strongside starter Pisa Tinoisamoa has been out since spraining his right knee in the Week 1 loss to the Packers. Fill-in Nick Roach (17 tackles, 1 sack) has done a fine job in place of Urlacher, however, and Chicago still has a pair of difference-makers along the front seven in weakside linebacker Lance Briggs (27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and three-time Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris (6 tackles, 1 INT). Tinoisamoa is expected to return to the lineup for Sunday's tilt. The Bears' 13th-rated defense (319.5 ypg) has also received excellent work out of end Adewale Ogunleye (11 tackles, 4.5), who posted 2 1/2 sacks in a dominating display against the Lions.
Turner owners finally got the big-time game they've been looking for out of the probable first-round fantasy choice last week. While a repeat appears unlikely against a tough Chicago defense, keep in mind that the powerful running back scored 14 of his 17 touchdowns at home last season. White will also have a tough time duplicating his most recent stat line, but both he and Gonzalez remain mainstays in lineups. Forte's still a good choice as well despite his somewhat disappointing beginning, as the second-year pro will get virtually all of the touches out of the Chicago backfield. Both Cutler and Ryan are no longer unproven commodities at the quarterback position, and each has progressed enough that they can be started with confidence regardless of the opponent. All of the Bears' wide receivers carry risk due to their week- to-week inconsistency, but Olson is a usable alternative at the tight end spot. Both teams have shown the ability to put up points, making neither defense a recommended play.
Cutler's outstanding play over the past few weeks has made the Bears a definite team to watch in the NFC playoff picture, and the fact that he went into the Georgia Dome and beat the Falcons less than a year ago certainly gives Chicago a fighting chance here. Atlanta looked awesome in taking apart a pretty good San Francisco team last week, however, and that's a good sign for a group that usually hasn't performed at its peak in enemy venues under the current coaching regime. Look for the momentum from that victory to carry over in an opportunity for the Falcons to showcase their skills in front of a national audience on Sunday, with Atlanta delivering another complete effort to take down a Bears squad that's still relying a little too much on their new quarterback's arm.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Bears 17
10/15 17:52:22 ET