Frank Doyle thinks Birds can beat Bears when Atlanta visits Soldier Field on Sunday.
Chicago is one of four home underdogs in the NFL on opening weekend – St Louis, Washington and Miami are the other three. It’s not very exalted company for a team that was 11-5 last year, won its division and got to the Conference Championship Game but the closer you study the line the harder it becomes to make a case against the handicap.
Not least as the Bears aren’t hosting the Bills or the Panthers. It’s Atlanta that’s coming to Chicago – Atlanta, who went 13-3 last year, the best record in the NFC and a team that got better over the summer.
Atlanta’s strength is its offensive line. Michael Turner is a fine player and a huge addition to the Falcons since he arrived from San Diego but the Burner wouldn’t be able to run between the tackles like he does if the tackles weren’t able to clear the way first.
On passing plays, the Falcons conceded only 23 sacks last year, which is three in every two games. That gives Matt Ryan all the time in the world to find his receivers. By contrast, the Bears lead the League in sacks conceded with 56. Jay Cutler was sacked three and a half times per game, every game. It’s amazing the Bears won eleven games in the first place.
The defenses were evenly matched last year, but the Falcons have to wonder how exactly it was that they got cut apart so badly in the divisional semi-final against the Packers. Aaron Rodgers completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions had something to do with it, and the Falcons will hope that’s all it was. You can’t legislate for career days, and the Falcons know that the League isn’t shoulder to shoulder with players like Rodgers.
For the Bears, the issues go deeper. The line that conceded 56 sacks last year is now without its veteran center and the Bears have nobody like Michael Turner in the backfield to take some of the heat off Cutler.
On the other side of the ball, the arrival of Brandon Merriweather from New England is counterbalanced by Lance Briggs’ unhappiness with his contract. There will be a lot of pressure on the Bears’ defense on Sunday, not least because Atlanta drafted Alabama’s Julio Jones to give the Falcons’ even more offensive firepower. Atlanta’s 2011 offense is set up to be one of the most multi-dimensional in the NFL.
Chicago can upset the NFL odds if Cutler can deliver big plays. Whatever else has been said about him, no-one’s ever doubted Jay Cutler’s arm. But he’ll have to stay upright to make those plays, and that doesn’t look likely behind a struggling offensive line.
Atlanta has surrounded Matt Ryan with so many more weapons, it’s hard to see anything other than an Atlanta win and cover at Soldier Field on Saturday.