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Falcons ready for rematch with Chicago


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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – As gut-wrenching as it must have been for the Chicago Bears to lose to the Atlanta Falcons as time expired last October, it must have hurt even worse when the season ended and the Bears looked at the final standings.

The Falcons finished 11-5 and the Bears finished 9-7. If the Bears had been able to hold on to their lead for the final 11 seconds last Oct. 12 in the Falcons’ dramatic 22-20 victory at the Georgia Dome, both teams would have finished 10-6 and Chicago would have earned an NFL Wildcard berth instead of the 9-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles.

“It was just another loss we had last year,” Bears head coach Lovie Smith said on Wednesday, downplaying the significance. “We didn’t finish the job. Hopefully, this year we can finish the job.”

Just the same this season, both teams enter Sunday’s 8:20 p.m. game at the Dome with 3-1 records and poised to make playoff runs. So it also could be this season that the loser misses the playoffs and the winner makes it.

Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith wasn’t looking back to the 2008 game much either on Thursday.

“We’re a different team,” he said. “We got a lot of different personnel and they’re a different team. They’ve got a new quarterback, they’ve got a couple of new wide receivers, three new offensive linemen. It’s always good to think about successes you’ve had in the past, but in our mind it doesn’t really have any bearing on this ballgame.”

The Bears’ new quarterback, Jay Cutler, is of special significance. The franchise paid a heavy price to get Cutler, a 2008 Pro-Bowler and the only quarterback to defeat the Falcons at the dome in Smith’s brief tenure.

Chicago sent quarterback Kyle Orton, currently 5-0 as Denver’s starter this season, and two first-round picks (2009 and 2010) and a 2009 third-rounder to the Broncos for Cutler.

Cutler, who has completed 64.3 percent of his passes (83 of 120) for 901 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions for an 89.3 rating, is different from the quarterbacks that the Falcons have faced this season because of his mobility.

“He can extend the play with his feet and it’s going to be very important for us to be very disciplined in our rush lanes,” Smith said. “It’s also going to be very important for the secondary and the linebackers to cover longer because he can extend the play.

“The normal play goes four to six seconds. There’s plays that go seven, eight nine seconds because of his ability and the strength that he has to throw the ball even when people are on him, so it’s going to be important that the mental clock in our heads knows we can keep playing and keep playing because he can throw the ball. And he’s got a strong enough arm to throw it deep.”

The Falcons got their pass rush back on track in last Sunday’s 45-10 win over San Francisco with three sacks after only one in the prior two games. The Bears, who have allowed eight in four games, might be vulnerable in that area.

Lovie Smith said he noticed the Falcons changed their approach last week and elected to bring more pressure. Mike Smith said that was a game-planning decision based on the match-up, so whether the Falcons choose to do the same this week remains to be seen.

Falcons defensive end John Abraham, the team’s co-sack leader with three, said other factors were involved in the performance, as well.

“We had a nice lead so we pinned our ears back,” he said. “But we also challenged ourselves to step it up as to how we played against New England. Three sacks is a good total and we feel like we can have five or six a game.”

In terms of running the ball, the Bears have not been as adept this season. Their 91.5 yards per game average ranks sixth from the bottom in the NFL.

Matt Forte, who has 271 yards this season, is coming off his best game with 121 yards on 12 carries in a 48-24 win over Detroit in Week 4 (the Bears are coming off a bye this week).

“Early on we’ve been struggling, but this past game we had a really good game running the ball,” Forte said. “I think it’s a preview of things to come.”

Despite an offense that ranks 22nd in total offense, the Bears have scored a lot (26.3 points per game, seventh-best in the NFL) because of their special teams. Mike Smith said he considers Chicago the league’s best at special teams.

The Bears boast returner Devin Hester, whose 11 returns for touchdowns (seven on punts, four on kickoffs) rank him third all-time in league history despite being in only his fourth season.

In addition, Bears rookie Johnny Knox returned a kickoff 102 yards for a kickoff against Detroit and his 35.8 yards-per-kickoff-return average is best in the NFL among those with more than one return.

“It should be a real good challenge for our coverage units,” Mike Smith said.

And just like last week, the Falcons face one of the NFL’s top defenses. The Bears’ 14 sacks rank them fourth in the NFL, but they have played one less game than the three teams ahead of them.

End Adewale Ogunleye leads the Bears with 4.5 sacks and tackle Tommie Harris, a three-time Pro-Bowler, had 13 quarterback hits -- an area that concerned Falcons offensive line coach Paul Boudreau with the team’s performance against the 49ers in allowing two -- and five sacks last season. Harris was been limited in his participation in Wednesday and Thursday practices with a knee injury.

The Bears have given up their share of passing yards this season (an average of 226 per game, ranking them 20th) but that might be in part because of opponents’ difficulty in running it against them.

Chicago is ninth against the run, limiting opponents to 93.5 yards per game. Seemingly then they have gone unaffected by the absence of linebacker Brian Urlacher, the 2006 NFL Defensive Player of the Year who will miss the entire season after undergoing surgery on his right wrist.

His replacement, Hunter Hillenmeyer, did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday because of a rib injury. If Hillenmeyer cannot play, Nick Roach would take his spot. Roach has played in three of four games and totaled 17 tackles, 1 sack and 2 passes defended.

“So we’re not really sure who’s going to be playing at the ‘Mike’ linebacker,” Mike Smith said. “But they’ve got a very deep group of linebackers and they’re very physical and that front seven is very strong.”

Also, it remains unknown as to whether one of the Falcons’ top run blockers, fullback Ovie Mughelli (calf), will play, as he had not practiced as of Thursday.

In facing a defense that is somewhat similar to what the Falcons faced last week, quarterback Matt Ryan is hopeful his offensive line can replicate their performance against the 49ers. It might not hurt if wide receiver Roddy White, with 210 yards and two touchdowns, does, too.

“Specifically, last week going against a good front seven last week, they stepped up and opened some holes and provided me with some great time in the pocket to be able to throw the ball downfield,” Ryan said, “and when you do that -- when you have an offensive line that can protect and give you some time -- we have the kind of weapons on the outside that can take advantage of that.”

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