Over the last four games, the Falcons and Bears are both 1-3. Their trajectories, however, have been very different over that span.
Chicago was a team left for dead until a recent resurgence that has seen them transform into a squad nobody wants to face, mostly thanks to a borderline unstoppable rushing attack led by Justin Fields. They’ve scored at least 29 points in four straight games and have rushed for over 200 yards in five straight, being undone by a shaky defense that has allowed at least 30 points in three straight weeks.
Atlanta, meanwhile, has gone from a 3-3 squad with balance and a punishing ground game of their own to a listless offense that has cratered their chances. The defense hasn’t been good over the past four weeks—nobody who saw D’Onta Foreman do unspeakable things to them twice in three weeks could think that—but they don’t have much of a chance when the offense has scored 17 or fewer points in three of their past four weeks.
Those two teams will collide Sunday with pretty high stakes for Atlanta, which is probably dead in the NFC South if they drop three in a row and can’t get past the Bears. This is no longer the pushover matchup it looked like several weeks ago when Chicago was feckless and Atlanta was rolling, and that’s enough to make you nervous.
Falcons - Bears comparison
These rankings are very high level, but they don’t tell a particularly flattering story about the Falcons. Atlanta’s done an impressive job of scoring, especially versus a year ago, and they’re one of the best rushing attacks in the league. In every other aspect, they’re somewhere between mediocre to terrible, and that helps to explain why they’re two games under .500 and seemingly scuffling mightily with teams having time to take a longer look at them.
The Bears, of course, don’t look any better. They’re starting to score in gobs, which is going to have them in Atlanta’s neighborhood there soon enough, and they’re actually quite good against opposing passing attacks, maintaining a top 10 defense by most measures. They really hang their hat on their rushing attack, the league’s most productive and arguably most dangerous, but they’re not good enough to win a bunch of games with it just yet. The best version of this team stops high-flying attacks and bludgeons defenses to death with a deadly Justin Fields/David Montgomery/Khalil Herbert trio, but as their win-loss total indicates, they haven’t quite been the best version of that team yet.
These are two mediocre teams, but obviously the Atlanta squad we saw through the first few weeks of the season that couldn’t easily be left for dead and had a little bit of balance to it would be a strong favorite to weather Chicago’s offense and win this. We just haven’t seen that team for a little while now, making it easy to be optimistic but hard to be confident that Atlanta will salt away a team that’s figuring things out.
How the Bears have changed
The Falcons last faced the Bears two short years ago in 2020, but this is a very different Bears team.
Matt Nagy is gone, presumably fired into the sun from a cannon buried under Halas Hall. Ryan Pace is gone, currently assisting Terry Fontenot in the Falcons front office. Justin Fields is the quarterback, having replaced Mitch Trubisky, and former Bears Cordarrelle Patterson, Germain Ifedi, and Damiere Byrd are now in Atlanta. Really, the only familiar faces on offense with major roles are Darnell Mooney and David Montgomery, and on defense it’s more or less just Eddie Jackson. This team has been radically transformed in the span of less than two seasons.
That’s probably a huge positive, given that Chicago was stuck in neutral before. The Bears made the playoffs just twice in the past decade and had just one winning season in that span—those 8-8 playoff years are fun!—and they cycled through quarterbacks and coaches over that span. There will be more major changes to come, given that the Bears are sitting on an absolutely staggering amount of 2023 cap space—they’re expected to have over $116 million, dwarfing the second-highest total of $68 million Atlanta’s going to be working with—and given the urgent need to give Matt Eberflus more talent to work with on defense and Justin Fields more help on offense. Atlanta’s catching them, potentially, before all that cap space turns them into grizzlies.
What lies ahead
This is going to be one of the shortest games of the year.
The Falcons will want to run all day against a so-so Bears run defense, and if they can’t I’m sure we’ll see Atlanta try to avoid back-breaking mistakes by chaining together shorter completions early, setting up those deep shots they love to take later. That should keep the clock moving, and we already know Chicago is going to try to run the ball as much as they possibly can. This may come down to which run defense is better and which team can avoid turnovers.
Or not. What concerns me about this game is the potential for it to get into a score-off the Falcons can’t match. Atlanta’s offense has scored, as I mentioned, just 17 points in three of their last four efforts, the kind of duds that give you significant pause. That’s with the ground game managing over 100 yards in each of those efforts, so a quality rushing attack is important but not necessarily what is going to win the Falcons the game. At some point, a passing game that has been mediocre for weeks is going to have to pick up the pace, but Atlanta’s unlikely to lean heavily on it, given the strengths and weaknesses of this Bears defense and the potential for one bad play to swing the outcome.
The Falcons’ defense, which has limited points but looked awfully shaky while doing so, now has to contend with an even better group of runners and an extremely mobile quarterback one week after the Panthers topped 200 yards against them. The Bears are likely to score a lot of points, and they’re likely to chew up a lot of clock doing so, unless the Falcons’ tackling fails them entirely and Chicago scores on a bunch of explosive plays. We just have to accept going into this that it’s unlikely this will prove to be the week where the Atlanta D turns it around, but a timely turnover of two could turn the tide, as it did so often in the early going.
And in a game that figures to come down to offensive firepower, the turnover question is a big one. In the past four weeks, the Bears have turned it over three times, while the Falcons have coughed it up five times. The kind of clean balance sheet that Marcus Mariota and the offense have maintained on their best days will be a necessity to winning this one, but we haven’t seen one of those in a little bit. The positive note I’d like to add here is that the Falcons have multiple efforts under their belt where they ran well, Mariota was hyper-efficient as a passer, and the defense made big plays late. That indicates that they can do so again, and they’re coming up against a team still finding its way.
Still, the trend lines for the Falcons have been more than a little scary, which means expecting a sudden sharp reversal is probably overly optimistic. Still, this is a winnable game for the Falcons. Just don’t expect it to be easy or tidy to get there.