It was so close to being the perfect ending to a perfect season for the Falcons. Although they weren’t highly-regarded before the 2016 season, they cruised to an 11-5 record and an NFC South championship. Matt Ryan put up a career year at quarterback with 38 touchdown passes en route to an NFL MVP award, as he led the league’s highest-scoring offense. A young, fast, opportunistic defense helped as well, especially in the NFC playoffs as the Falcons crushed their two opponents. They seemed on the way to a Super Bowl LI blowout as well, only to watch the Patriots score 31 unanswered points and take the championship away once again.
For the Bears, the 2016 season was largely about finding out which pieces fit their rebuilding project. Winning wasn’t really ever in the cards, as they struggled to the basement of the NFC North with a 3-13 record. Still, there were bright spots, like rookie running back Jordan Howard, who tallied over 1,500 yards of total offense and seven touchdowns, and receiver Cameron Meredith, a former college quarterback who came from nowhere to lead the team in receiving. Rookie linebacker Leonard Floyd tallied seven sacks, even as he suffered through multiple injuries.
New offensive leadership – The Falcons return most of their on-the-field pieces to an offense that lit up opponents for nearly 34 points a game a year ago. But the guy behind the scenes, Kyle Shanahan, moved on from his coordinator’s role to take the head coaching job in San Francisco. New coordinator Steve Sarkisian will be tasked with keeping this offense a juggernaut, and a dominating performance right off the bat would answer any lingering questions about his qualifications for the job.
Howard is fine – If the Bears are to have any chance of pulling off the major upset, Jordan Howard will need to be superb. He managed to stay productive all throughout last season even when the Bears were struggling as a team to stay in games, which is not an easy feat for running backs. The Falcons lightning-fast defense will try to take away his outside, cutback lanes, so look for him to run behind solid guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton on the inside.
Glennon’s debut – One of the interesting storylines of the Bears offseason was how they handled their vacant quarterback position. They signed former Tampa Bay reserve Mike Glennon to a lucrative free agent contract, then turned around and made North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky the second overall pick in the NFL draft. Trubisky will sit and watch for now, but if Glennon sputters out of the gate at home, it might not be long before he is back on the bench.
Matchup to watch
Falcons WR Julio Jones vs Bears CBs Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper – Jones is one of the premier receivers in the NFL and is primed for another monster season provided a nagging foot injury is kept at bay. Amukamara would probably get the assignment, but the former Giant has been banged up this preseason, meaning Cooper, who arrives from Arizona and has the size (6’2”) to match up better with Jones, might be given the unenviable task of shadowing him.
Fantasy football tip
WR Kevin White – An injury knocked out Cameron Meredith for the season, meaning that White, a former first-round pick who’s been injured for most of his first two seasons, becomes the go-to guy in Chicago. In a game where the Bears will likely be in catch-up mode, White could have a chance to rack up big numbers.
Prediction: Atlanta Falcons 24-20 Chicago Bears
The Falcons will be heavily favored, but it could take them some time to get in gear against a Chicago defense which has a decent pass rush and some playmakers in the secondary. Look for the Bears to hang for a while before Ryan and Jones make plays down the stretch to salt away a Falcons win.
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