While the Eagles stormed through St. Louis with relative ease, another post-season favorite from the NFC got their butts kicked on Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons failed spectacularly in a 30-12 road loss against the Chicago Bears, a game summed up quite succinctly in one awful play where quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back to pass, desperately ran around in a circle to escape the pressure, then inexplicably fumbled the ball before anybody even touched him.
It just so happens the Falcons are this Sunday's opponent, in a Sunday Night game where Michael Vick will make his triumphant return to Atlanta. Considering how far on either side of the spectrum both teams fell in Week 1, it might be tempting to write off the Falcons and crown the Eagles as a sure thing to reach 2-0. That would be a mistake.
I was a little perplexed as to how the Bears could so thoroughly embarrass a team that went 13-3 last season, then made significant improvements over the off-season. Funny little aside, it turns out there is a learning curve to watching eight televisions. Last year, I could comfortably tune in to four or more games at a time, but on Sunday I focused on the Birds, a little overwhelmed in my first trip back to Football Central.
In short, I didn't see much of the Falcons at all. However, Bill Barnwell summed up their effort pretty well in his Week 1 Review for Grantland:
The game turned on fumbles. There were five of them, and wouldn't you know — Chicago recovered all five. These weren't meaningless fumbles at the end of the game, either. Devin Hester fumbled on his own 25-yard line during the second play from scrimmage and recovered it. Hester then muffed a punt in the second quarter that would have given the Falcons the ball at midfield. After a Falcons drive at the end of the first quarter was ended in Bears territory by a Michael Turner fumble, the Bears broke the game open with a stripsack of Matt Ryan on Atlanta's second drive of the second half. Brian Urlacher picked up the fumble and took it to the house for a 30-6 lead. The only fumble that really came in garbage time was when Jay Cutler dropped one on his own 22-yard line with 5:31 left, and even that would have given the Falcons a faint glimmer of hope.
If the Falcons recover even one of the first three fumbles, the entire complexion of the game changes. The Falcons were forced to throw for most of the second half and faced an excellent Bears pass rush that teed off on Ryan. The Falcons star was sacked five times on Sunday after taking just 23 sacks during the entire 2010 season, and four of those sacks came during the second half, when there was no threat of a run game. Atlanta was also without center Todd McClure, who makes the line calls and adjusts the protections along with Ryan, and right guard Garrett Reynolds was making both his first NFL start and his first NFL appearance since December 2009.
So in other words, everything that could have gone wrong, did. Any club could have taken advantage in a similar situation. The fact that it was the opportunistic Bears didn't help matters.
Chances are Atlanta won't gift-wrap two in a row, and there are plenty of reasons to believe they can compete with the Birds.
1. The Georgia Dome
Over the past three seasons, including playoffs, the Falcons are 20-5 in their home building. They went 7-1 in the regular season in '08 and 2010. Even though there will be a large contingent of fans who are there to cheer on Vick, who is still considered a hero by many in that region, I don't foresee this swinging the home field advantage in the Eagles' favor.
2. Running Game
The Eagles were ripped for 169 yards by backs on Sunday, good for 4.8 yards per carry. In Chicago, Michael Turner made the most of his limited opportunities, rushing for 100 yards on 10 attempts. He's one of the toughest players to bring down in the league, and has big play potential once he gets to the second level, which the Rams were able to do with some frequency.
3. Passing Game
Unlike St. Louis, even if the Falcons fall behind, they have comeback ability. The Rams receivers looked completely inept, but Atlanta has one of the most complete groups in the NFL, a collection of reliable veterans who won't likely drop every pass thrown their way, a promising speedster who can stretch the field, and a Pro Bowl quarterback who can make all the throws. (We'll go more in-depth on this group in our upcoming Opposition Reports)
There's one more factor I'm not sure how you would classify or quantify, but Atlanta has something to prove on Sunday. The fact that the Bears beat them so handily does not make the Eagles' job any easier. They will be dealing with an angry, focused bunch who are determined to erase the memory of the Week 1 debacle, and know a win against Philadelphia will put them right back on the map.
Yep, this is the first big game of the young 2011 season, and you better believe it's gonna be a test.