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NFL Preview - Atlanta (0-0) at Chicago (0-0)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - One team reached the playoffs and was handed its head at home. The other beat a division champion and went to the wire in a bid for the Super Bowl.

But given the general perceptions of the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears, who will face one another Sunday at Soldier Field in the first meaningful game for each team since it was ousted in January, it'd be hard to tell which is which.

The Falcons entered the NFC playoffs as a No. 1 seed at the tail end of a 13- win regular season last winter, before their chance at a championship trip to Dallas disappeared in 60 minutes in the rubble of a 48-21 blowout by the eventual title-winning Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round.

But rather than wallowing in overhyped despair and patching up its defense, Atlanta boldly addressed offensive needs in the offseason by jumping up to make the University of Alabama's Julio Jones -- considered one of the top two wide receivers in this past draft's pool -- the sixth overall pick to compliment established standout Roddy White.

The Falcons traded five draft choices to the Cleveland Browns for the shot to choose Jones, a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who left the Crimson Tide after a junior season in which he caught 78 passes for 1,133 yards and seven touchdowns -- his best collegiate statistical output.

Jones signed a four-year deal worth $16.2 million, a contract that instantly made the rookie wealthy and gave Atlanta a wallet full of street cred from NFL experts as well.

"I think you can see the direction they're going," said television analyst Brian Billick, a former championship coach with the Baltimore Ravens, of the Falcons. "They needed help on defense in the draft, but instead they figured, ´┐ŻLet's make our offense even better. We're going to feed the stud'."

As for the Bears, the post-playoff afterglow has gone a little differently.

Rather than a prolonged celebration for the new "Monsters of the Midway", the days following the team's NFC title game loss to Green Bay became an opinion- filled referendum on quarterback Jay Cutler, who was erratic in a brief appearance against the Packers and eventually bowed out with a knee injury many deemed minor.

Unknown third-stringer Caleb Hanie ultimately got the Bears within a touchdown of a Super Bowl in the late going on that chilly Sunday, leaving Cutler -- a former first-round pick and 2008 Pro Bowler -- to spend a summer rehabbing his legs and rebuilding his reputation.

The Vanderbilt product was 10-5 in his second year as the Bears' starter and threw for 3,274 yards along with 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He completed 60.4 percent of 432 passes, the fourth straight season (two with Chicago, two with Denver) in which he's eclipsed the 60-percent threshold.

The Bears were 7-9 and wound up third in the NFC North in 2009, Cutler's first year with the team after the controversial trade with the Broncos, then picked up four more victories and climbed to the NFC North's regular-season penthouse, a game ahead of the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers.

"It's been kind of up and down this offseason with the lockout, and then having to rush through camp and have to squeeze everything in," Cutler said. "I think everyone is excited in the building to finally kick it off and get the season going.

"You know, it's only the second year for a lot of the guys in this offense and we've got some new guys that are just coming into it. We're still growing. We're still figuring things out. We're still learning by experience. We're going to mess up some plays and have some mental [errors] out there. We've just got to limit them."

SERIES HISTORY

The all-time series between the Bears and Falcons is deadlocked at 12-12, with Atlanta evening the set by virtue of a 21-14 home win in 2009. The Falcons also rallied for a 22-20 victory over Chicago at the Georgia Dome the previous year, but haven't produced any recent success in their trips to the Windy City. Atlanta has lost five straight times on the road to the Bears and hasn't prevailed at Soldier Field since a 20-17 verdict on Sep. 4, 1983.

The Bears' Lovie Smith is 1-2 against the Falcons as a head coach, while Atlanta's Mike Smith is 2-0 against both Chicago and his counterpart during his tenure with the Falcons.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan already has 33 wins as a starter, tying Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most by a signal-caller in his first three NFL seasons since 1970. He's also already posted a 100-plus rating 16 times, and the Falcons are 16-0 in those games -- including a 7-0 mark in 2010. Running back Michael Turner led the NFC with 1,371 rushing yards and tied for first with 12 rush touchdowns in 2010. Since joining Atlanta in 2008, he has 39 rushing scores, second-most in the NFL over that period. White set single-season club records for most receptions (an NFL-best 115) and receiving yards (an NFC-best 1,389) last season, while veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez had 70 receptions and is the only player in league history with 60-plus catches in 12 consecutive seasons. Elsewhere, Wide receiver/kick returner Eric Weems had a franchise- record 102-yard kickoff return touchdown as well as a 55-yard punt return score last year, becoming the only player in team history with both in a season.

For Chicago, veteran linebacker Brian Urlacher had 100 tackles for the 10th time in his 11-year career in 2010. Up front, defensive end Julius Peppers has racked up 89 sacks since entering the NFL in 2002, the third-most in the league during that stretch.

The Bears were fourth in the league in keeping the opposition off the scoreboard in 2010, while placing ninth in total yards allowed. Atlanta, meanwhile, was fifth in points scored and 16th in total offense.

WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL

The embattled Cutler's 3,274 passing yards last year were third-highest in team history, and he became the first Bears quarterback ever with consecutive 3,000- yard seasons. When he has a 100-plus rating, his teams are 22-0, which includes a 7-0 ledger in 2010. In the backfield, versatile threat Matt Forte had 1,616 yards from scrimmage (1,069 rushing, 547 receiving) last year and joined Hall of Famer Walter Payton (1983) as the only Bears player with 1,000-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards in a season. Forte and Hall of Famer Gale Sayers are the only Chicago players with 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of their first three seasons as well. Wide receiver/return specialist Devin Hester holds an NFL record with 14 career combined return scores -- 10 on punts and four on kickoffs, while speedy wideout Johnny Knox (51 receptions) averaged 18.8 yards per catch in 2010, the highest average in the NFC by a player with 50 or more catches.

For Atlanta, veteran defensive end John Abraham ranked third in the NFC with 13 sacks last year and is the only Falcon to register 13-plus sacks in two seasons, having compiled a team-record 16 1/2 in 2008. In the secondary, cornerback Brent Grimes led the team with 23 passes defensed and went to the Pro Bowl in 2010.

The offensively-challenged Bears were 21st in scoring and only 30th in total yards gained in 2010, while the Falcons were fifth in points allowed and 16th in total defense.

KEYS TO THE GAME

In his first Soldier Field appearance since the NFC title game loss to Green Bay, expect Cutler to be determined to win back an often-difficult fan base.

The Falcons chose not to significantly bolster a defense that was gashed for nearly 50 points by Green Bay in the playoffs, need to pressure Cutler and get the Bears off the field quickly. They'll hope end Ray Edwards, a free-agent pickup from Minnesota, can help accomplish that feat.

Ryan gets a first meaningful crack at the offensive controls with both White and Jones, not to mention the burly Turner and veteran Gonzalez, as weapons, but he'll also be trying to navigate a tough Chicago defense.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Picking against a playoff-returning Bears team in a home opener would seem ludicrous, but Ryan and Co. might just be a special commodity until someone proves otherwise. If the game were in December and more likely to be a slug-it- out affair, the circumstance would be different. But in mild temperatures on forgiving turf, the Falcons are tough to deny.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Bears 14

09/08 16:57:28 ET