Things we learned from the Falcons' 21-14 conquest of the Bears Sunday night at the Georgia Dome ...
1. The Falcons are more than just the talented triplets on offense. We're not suggesting that 4-1 Atlanta could win a bunch of games in which quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and lead receiver Roddy White aren't at their best; but on this night, the Falcons defense showed it can lead the way to victory when necessary.
Against Chicago, the Falcons punted the first four times they had the ball, and it wasn't until the middle of the second quarter that Ryan and Co. made any plays of which to speak. In the meantime, Atlanta's defense held Chicago in check, allowing an early second-quarter touchdown, but not letting the Bears establish any real dominance.
The Falcons defense was stout in the red zone all night, turning away three potential Bears scoring chances. Free safety Thomas DeCoud picked off Jay Cutler at the Atlanta 9 on Chicago's first possession of the game; linebacker Coy Wire recovered a Matt Forte fumble at the Falcons' 2 late in the third quarter, and Atlanta forced Chicago to turn the ball over on downs at the Falcons' 10 while holding a 21-14 lead with 29 second remaining.
All told, Atlanta picked off Cutler twice (both by DeCoud, his first two career interceptions), and forced two Bears fumbles (recovering one).
"We did a good job of sticking in the game,'' said Falcons defensive end JohnAbraham, who had a half-sack and a pair of quarterback hits on Cutler. "A lot of teams would have folded after the turnovers (two Ryan interceptions), but we played great, and in the red zone we did an outstanding job.''
Ryan was a decent 19 of 33 for 185 yards, but he had those two interceptions to go with his two scoring passes, and finished with a below-average 68.4 passer rating. Turner went nowhere most of the night, gaining just 30 yards on 13 carries, with the highlight exception being his game-winning 5-yard touchdown run with 3:06 remaining. White had four catches for a team-best 56 yards, but 40 of those came on his lone big play, a second-quarter touchdown catch that tied the game 7-7.
"Our offense wasn't really clicking on all cylinders,'' DeCoud said. "So it was kind of up to us as a defense and on special teams to pick up the slack and make the plays they were leaving out there, and get the ball back in their hands, so they could get into a rhythm.''
2. The Falcons have quickly developed a "Not-in-our-house'' mentality in the Mike Smith era. Atlanta is now 10-1 at the Georgia Dome since the start of 2008, and this year's 3-0 start at home, with tough, hard-fought wins over Miami, Carolina and Chicago, is building the foundation of another winning season for the Falcons. Atlanta's six-game home winning streak is currently the league's third longest.
"You've got to win the home games,'' Falcons veteran linebacker Mike Peterson said. "If you win your home games, then you pull together on the road, it doesn't matter where the game's played or what time the game's played, we're going to be together regardless.''
Atlanta has one of the weirdest schedules I can ever recall in covering the NFL, and it's going to test the Falcons at times over and above what a team normally goes through. Atlanta started the season with consecutive home games, then drew just two more games at the Georgia Dome in the span of next nine weeks. Sunday night's game against the Bears was the first, and a Week 9 home date with the Redskins is the other.
Sandwiched around those two, Atlanta has six road games and a bye in that nine-week span. Games at Dallas (Week 7), at New Orleans (Week 8), at Carolina (Week 10) and the Giants (Week 11) still loom. Once they're through that, the Falcons get to play four times at home in the regular season's final six weeks, including a three-week homestand in Weeks 12-14.
With both Tampa Bay (0-6) and Carolina (2-3) not a factor in the division race, for the Falcons (4-1) it's going to come down to how they fare in their two-game series with NFC South-leading Saints (5-0). Atlanta plays a Monday-nighter at New Orleans in Week 8, then gets a home rematch in Week 14.
"You just look at them and keep trying to chase them,'' Peterson said. "That's pretty much it. You don't want to put too much into that, but you notice where they are and just keep chasing. The good thing about it is we get a chance to play them twice. Me personally, I think it's in our hands.''
Oh, and if you're wondering, the only visitor to beat Atlanta since Smith became head coach was Denver last season. The Broncos were then quarterbacked by Cutler, and suffice to say, the Falcons settled that score Sunday night.
3. It's back to the drawing board for Bears second-year running back Matt Forte. Last year's standout rookie started painfully slow this season, but after his bust-out 121-yard rushing game against the Lions in Week 4 at Detroit -- Chicago's most recent game before Sunday night -- all appeared to be well.
Not so fast, No. 22. Against the Falcons, Forte had another low-impact game, and when he did make an impact, it was the wrong kind. The Bears ran Forte 15 times, but he gained just 23 yards (1.5 average), with a long gain of five. He also caught five passes for 37 yards, but it was his shaky play around the goal line that he'll remember about this one.
With the Falcons up 14-7 and the Bears facing a 2nd-and-goal from the Atlanta 1 late in the third quarter, Forte fumbled when he tried to dive over the Falcons line and into the end zone. He somehow recovered his own fumble when his back landed on the ball, securing it with his body more than his hands.
On the very next play, 3rd-and-goal from the 1, the Bears tried Forte again, and he fumbled once more, letting Atlanta defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux separate him from the ball. This time, Wire recovered for the Falcons, and a great Bears scoring opportunity was squandered.
Forte was instant offense last season for the Bears, with 1,238 yards rushing and another 477 yards receiving on 63 catches. He scored a combined 12 touchdowns in 2008, 11 more than he has through five games this year.
Forte fumbled just once last season, but he already has three this year. His rushing total is just 294 yards on 86 carries (3.4), and his 18 catches have produced 129 yards (7.2), with a long gain of 13. It's hard to see Chicago (3-2) really challenging to overtake Minnesota (6-0) in the NFC North if Forte continues his sophomore slump.
4. If I had to put a dollar down on which coordinator might get a head coaching job based on his work in 2009, I'd slide my chip to Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
The former Buffalo head coach (2004-2005) generated a sense of momentum for himself with his role in Atlanta's surprising success last season, and he has kept it going nicely this year. I was impressed Sunday night with how Mularkey quickly adapted to the reality that Atlanta's Turner-led running game wasn't working against the Bears in the early going, reacting with a deft switch to the no-huddle offense and a quick jump-start for the Falcons.
"It wasn't going the way we expected, but we're lucky in that we have an offense we can go to that kind of disrupts what they're trying to do on defense,'' Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "The no-huddle kind of slows the pass rush down, and [Mularkey] came up big for us today. When things are not working, you've got to go to something else. That's why we tried the no-huddle. To throw off their [defensive] rhythm a little bit. It was very effective.''
It's pertinent to remember that Mularkey wasn't fired from the Bills job, he resigned rather than accept owner Ralph Wilson's offer to return for the 2006 season. His reputation is very good within the league, and his work with Ryan especially has helped put him back on the radar among the league's highly regarded offensive coordinators. I don't believe he'll leave Atlanta and forfeit the chance to keep working with Ryan for just any head coaching offer; but the right job, in an organization that has a real chance to win, might tempt him this hiring season. Stay tuned.
5. I'm not breaking news here, but it has become obvious that Tony Gonzalez is Matt Ryan's new security blanket. What a gift the longtime Chiefs tight end has been for Ryan, Atlanta's second-year franchise QB. It seems whenever the Falcons get anywhere near the red zone, Ryan looks for Gonzalez and usually finds him open and ready to make another big play.
Gonzalez caught four passes for 52 yards in Sunday's win -- all big yards. Gonzalez's first catch went for 10 yards and the 79th touchdown catch of his career, furthering his own record for NFL tight ends. It gave Atlanta its first lead of the game, at 14-7, with just four seconds left in the half.
On the play, Gonzalez put an out-and-up move on Bears linebacker Nick Roach and found a spot near the back line of the end zone to await Ryan's perfect pass.
With the game tied at 14-14 in the fourth quarter, Ryan looked Gonzalez's way again. First, he hit No. 88 for 16 yards on a key third-and-6 from the Bears' 37, with Gonzalez losing rookie strong safety Al Afalava in coverage. Two plays later, it was Ryan to Gonzalez on a 15-yard hookup to the Bears' 5. Two plays after that, Turner burst through a sizable hole on the right side of Atlanta's line and scored the game-winning touchdown with 3:06 remaining.
At 33, and in his 13th NFL season, Gonzalez might rate as one of the best acquisitions of last offseason. In the five games he has played as a Falcon, he has 23 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns, posting four or more receptions for 50 or more yards in four of his five appearances.
"Getting it into Tony's hands a couple times was big,'' said Ryan, who targeted Gonzalez a team-high nine times against the Bears.
Get ready to hear a version of that same quote many times this season. Ryan can't seem to look Gonzalez's way enough.