Last Sunday’s win against the Colts came at the right time for the Falcons and Arthur Smith, what with all the swirling rumors and reports of his warming seat in the face of a disappointing 2023 season. As impressive as that win was, however, it does not guarantee much.
My esteemed colleague Cory Woodroof wrote yesterday that the Falcons should consider keeping Smith in 2024, a notion I think a majority of our writers and readers likely disagree with. We’re not the ones making the decisions, however, and thus Smith and company must convince a much more wealthy and powerful person: Arthur Blank.
While I violently disagree with the notion that these three final games should make or break Smith’s status in Atlanta—we have nearly three full years to base an evaluation on—it seems they’ll be important for the head coach. Having put together perhaps the most complete game of his tenure with the Falcons, one that was essentially a very well-executed version of a familiar gameplan, Smith now needs impressive wins over the final two weeks to really make his case to stay.
That means they need to beat the Bears. Chicago has been one of the league’s most maddening teams, given that they have legitimate talent on hand but haven’t been able to put it all together. In recent weeks, though, they’ve smoked the Lions, squeaked past the Vikings, easily handled the Cardinals, and narrowly lost to a good Browns team, showing signs of figuring things out. Given Justin Fields’ rocket arm and mobility, the vague outline of a very good ground game, and a defense that has not allowed over 20 points in the past month, this will not be an easy matchup. Given Atlanta’s putrid road record—they’re 2-5 away from home—the degree of difficulty is likely even higher than it seems at first blush.
Yet winning is what the Falcons must do to keep their very dim playoff hopes alive and try to keep Smith around, which the players seem motivated to do. Here’s what you ought to know about the matchup to come.
Falcons - Bears head-to-head comparison
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The Falcons have proven time and time again to be a good defense, and the hope is that next year they can get all the way to great. Against the Colts, we saw a glimpse of what that greatness might look like, with the team spinning up six sacks, a turnover, and just 10 points allowed. Against Chicago, they have to watch out for their familiar pitfalls with scrambling quarterbacks and capable tight ends, but they’re good enough to slow this potent Chicago ground game and hold an improving Bears passing attack in check.
Offensively, things are a little dicier. Atlanta will be facing off against another opportunistic defense that excels at creating turnovers, and Taylor Heinicke put the ball in harm’s way a handful of times against the Colts and got away with it. This is also a fearsome pass rush, one that could put pressure on Heinicke, and that’s paired with one of the league’s elite run defenses. As we’ve seen throughout the year, if the Falcons are stymied on the ground, opening things up through the air typically does not go particularly well. I’ll asterisk that in case Heinicke has some magic in him that we have yet to see.
The Bears are still not a good football team, but they can be a mighty dangerous one when the offense is clicking and their defense can play their game. This is another difficult (at least on paper) matchup for the Falcons, and we’ll have to hope it looks easier in practice.
How the Bears have changed in 2023
The most consequential change during the season was the addition of Montez Sweat. The Bears gave up a top second round pick to snag Sweat from the Commanders, and he has been amazing since joining Chicago. That adds needed pass-rushing acumen to this team’s defensive front, which badly needed that help.
In free agency prior to the season, the Bears added linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, The latter has been a fearsome player who leads the team in tackles by a mile, has 2.5 sacks, and has a pair of interceptions; the former has not been nearly as good but has shown a knack for causing turnovers, with four picks on the year. Free agent defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker has added some solid play for them, but tight end Robert Tonyan, edge rusher Rasheem Green, and guard Nate Davis have been shakier additions.
The really brilliant stroke in their offseason was trading the number one pick to the Panthers, getting their 2024 first rounder (likely the first pick in this upcoming draft) and D.J. Moore, who has been the kind of stellar top threat the team badly needed in their receiving corps. With their early picks in this past draft, they added promising tackle Andrew Billings, Falcoholic draft favorite Gervon Dexter at defensive tackle, and talented cornerback Tyrique Stevenson.
It wasn’t a home run offseason, but the Bears did add some talent and it has slowly begun to pay off. With a second top pick on the way for 2024, the hope for Chicago is that they can add the final pieces to turn this into a legitimate contender in an increasingly unsettled NFC North. In the here and now, at least, they’re fighting and improving.
What to know about Sunday’s game
Heading into last week, the Falcons had been playing poorly, dealing with injuries, and didn’t seem to have the right plan for the opponent over the previous couple of weeks. That all changed against the Colts, a good team that might have taken Atlanta lightly and paid a heavy price for doing so.
What we saw from the Falcons against the Colts was nothing less than the sort of effort we thought we might get on a consistent basis, and it was eye-opening to see this team really rally with their back against the wall. The change to Taylor Heinicke and the return of David Onyemata, Drew Dalman, and so forth helped this team turn in a stronger day, but it was just a really well-planned, well-executed game across the board. I saw no reason to expect that after the Jets, Buccaneers, and Panthers games featured such a flat offense and late struggles for the defense, but they got things together at last. The problem is that they also appeared to have gotten their act together a bit with the win of the Saints and the frustrating but scrappy win over New York, when they were atop the NFC South after dropping three straight to the Titans, Vikings, and Cardinals. It’s hard to trust that this team can string ‘em together.
What does that mean against the Bears? If that kind of effort can be sustained on the road, Atlanta has a shot because Chicago does have weaknesses, plural, that make very beatable.
As much as I like Justin Fields, he is prone to turning the ball over; he’s 18th in the NFL in turnover-worthy plays per Pro Football Focus and every player not named Mac Jones on the list in front of him has played at least two more games. His nine interceptions are 13th in the NFL (in 11 games) and his nine fumbles are tied for 10th in the league, and he has five over the past two weeks. Atlanta’s defense has not been particularly adept at causing those turnovers in recent weeks, but it’s something they can take advantage of.
They’ll likely need to do so, because Fields the scrambler and Fields the passer could pose problems. Atlanta’s scuffled against mobile quarterbacks in 2023 and have had trouble with both deep passes and covering tight ends this season, and the Bears can attack all of those weaknesses with gusto. Cole Kmet is a dangerous receiving tight end and D.J. Moore is always a handful downfield. The good news is that corralling those two and keeping a lid on that potent run game, something the Falcons have been able to do this season at times, will force Fields to will the Bears to a win. That increases the chances of a turnover.
Assuming the Falcons can harry Fields, get a turnover or two, and avoid the kind of massive plays that have doomed them against other NFC opponents like the Vikings and Cardinals, the offense will just need to do its part to keep pace. That’s the dicier proposition always given how the offense has played this year, but Heinicke and the Falcons did put it together in convincing fashion against the Colts, even if that effort still had its sloppiness.
The key, first and foremost, will be generating some sort of rushing success against a tremendous Chicago run defense. When this team has been able to run well, they’ve tended to keep games close and have a good shot at emerging with a victory at the end; when they can’t run at all, they need a superlative effort from the defense and a clean game from the passing attack to have a real shot. Expect the Falcons to test Chicago’s run defense early and often, especially if all five offensive line starters are back in action, in the hopes that early attempts will lead to late success.
For his part, Heinicke will need to be sharp. I mentioned last week that the Colts are good at creating turnovers, but despite some near-Heinicke gifts, they were unable to take advantage last week. The Falcons probably won’t get so lucky if the veteran quarterback puts the ball in harm’s way this week, so a little more care will be welcome. Otherwise, the Falcons should be able to prey on a so-so Bears pass defense, especially if they focus on bottling up Sweat, the team’s most fearsome pass rushing threat. The Falcons focused on getting the ball out of their quarterback’s hands quickly and mixing in the occasional deep shot; that should work pretty well against Chicago if the risky throws are minimized.
And, of course, they’ll likely need Koo to do his part. Fortunately, that usually isn’t a dicey proposition.
If Atlanta can put together a complete version of the game they want to play, they can certainly win. The question, as it has been throughout this season, is whether the Falcons are capable of doing so or whether they’ll revert to inconsistency and poor play even with what hope remains in their season very much at stake. The proof will be on the field on New Year’s Eve.