By Robert Zeglinski
If you’re the Bears, who are trying to move on from one of the worst seasons in franchise history, there’s likely no bigger first challenge on paper than playing the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in the season opener.
Even after losing wunderkind offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers, Atlanta is one of the most complete teams in the NFL, largely possessing no weaknesses and bringing back the same team that famously blew a 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI.
Meanwhile, the Bears are attempting to integrate a placeholder quarterback in Mike Glennon who may or may not be successful while Mitchell Trubisky develops, just lost their No. 1 receiver in Cameron Meredith for the season which leaves behind an abysmal receiving core, and are potentially working with a lame-duck head coach in John Fox. At face value, you couldn’t script a worse cataclysm of events in a matchup of a rebuilding team against a contender any better.
So, all hope is lost for a quality start for Chicago, right?
Not so fast.
The infamous “Super Bowl curse” is, indeed, measurable. There’s enough history to suggest that the Falcons of last year will regress to a degree – how much remains to be determined. There’s enough to suggest that the Falcons could’ve outplayed their historic output in 2016 due to superior coaching. How tangible that history will be applied to here remains to be seen.
In the modern era i.e. the last 16 years, since that’s what’s most relevant in this context, eight Super Bowl losers failed to make the playoffs the following season and didn’t even finish over .500 record-wise. Ten missed the playoffs altogether. Extenuating roster turnover and management no doubt played a factor in each of these contender’s downfalls – as it always does.
But it doesn’t take away from the immense difficulty of maintaining transcendent performance and getting back to the big February game in itself. Considering the continuity of the Falcons’ coaching loss in Shanahan, the number of guys offensively enjoying career years such as receivers Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and even reigning MVP, Offensive Player Of The Year, and First-Team All-Pro, Matt Ryan – who has occasionally had as up-and-down of a career as any current NFL franchise quarterback – and the potential downturn is already visible in Atlanta.
And an aspect concerning the Falcons that no one will be able to properly gauge until at least a few weeks of the season have passed by: the mental effect of their historic collapse in the Super Bowl.
This is an Atlanta squad that will either be motivated by their monumental failure in front of the entire country or fall victim to the pressure as soon as adversity hits them in the face for the first time in 2017. A delicate balance of the human psyche that could have the Falcons teetering on either side of the brink.
Perhaps the Bears will be the ones to offer that first taste of adversity for Atlanta with their own strengths despite mentioned flaws.
For example, Chicago’s greatest asset is a physical, athletic, and deep front seven lead by Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, and Jerrell Freeman — three Pro Bowl-level players this year. This piece of the team is also being buoyed by the return of Pernell McPhee from the physically-unable-to-perform-list (in what capacity remains to be seen) and a possible return of stalwart linebacker, Danny Trevathan. It’s plenty enough to get excited about in any matchup against any opposition.
The Bears’ front seven is so good and so deep (when you factor in guys like Eddie Goldman and Jonathan Bullard), it will most of the time be enough to keep the whole team competitive in games as a massive underdog and even pull off the occasional surprise upset against a heavyweight: like say these very Falcons.
A defensive grit team also needs a star runner with a stable of quality complements. That’s where second-year running back Jordan Howard comes in—refined and ready to improve upon a rookie season that saw him come in second in the league in rushing. The “Human Joystick” or “Big Daddy” (it depends on your preference) Tarik Cohen will effectively offer an excellent, explosive look whenever he gets to spell Howard.
The best way to beat a dynamic offense such as the Falcons is by keeping the ball away from them and Chicago certainly possesses that capability. Anything less than an element of surprise (a play action game set up by a solid ground game) and ball control should be seen as a shock.
Under center, there’s some underlying fan dissent behind now official Week 1 starter in Glennon, but he’s enjoyed himself when playing against the Falcons in his short career.
The 27-year-old Glennon has had the opportunity to play against Atlanta four times, accumulating six touchdown passes to zero interceptions in those contests, all with the Buccaneers in his previous stint. Now while Tampa Bay only won one of those games, it still points to some kind of comfort the veteran could enjoy against one of the best teams in the league, contrary to early popular belief.
Who better than Glennon, the man most in the city have the lowest of expectations for, to help pull the massive opening upset? What a plot twist. Crazier things have happened, no doubt.
Finally, as far as Bears’ team history, look no further than a 54-43 all-time opening game record. Only the rival just-as-old Packers can match that mark (also at 54 wins). More recently to keep in mind: The last time Chicago opened at home against a Ryan-led Falcons team, they blew them out 30-12 in 2011 at Soldier Field. That was a Bears squad admittedly at peak Lovie Smith swagger with Hall of Fame level players in Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, and Charles Tillman at their best, but the precedent is there. Six years later, the guys in place of those superstars is the new face of the defense in the uber-fast Floyd, the MAC-truck built Hicks, and sideline-to-sideline freak, Freeman.
Eventually, superior talent and coaching always wins out in the NFL, especially long-term. It’s the nature of the realistic beast. But anything can happen in Week 1. Those inside Halas Hall however, like Hicks, know what they expect these overlooked Bears to do both against the Falcons and through the rest of the 2017 season.
“To win. To win a lot.” R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.