ATLANTA FALCONS AT CHICAGO BEARS
SERIES HISTORY: 27th regular-season meeting. Bears lead series, 14-12. The Bears won the last two, and the last game at Soldier Field in 2011, 30-12. The Bears haven't opened against the defending NFC champions since losing 38-24 in the 1997 opener at Green Bay. The last home opener against the defending NFC champ was a 22-6 win over Dallas in 1996.
KEYS TO THE GAME: If Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has time to become comfortable in the pocket, watch out. The league's reigning MVP threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns a season ago, and the majority of his favorite weapons are back for another run at a Super Bowl championship. The Bears possess an above-average pass rush that features second-year standout Leonard Floyd, and their only hope to upset the Falcons is to force Ryan to rush his passes. Otherwise, Ryan will be able to play catch all day with receivers Julio Jones (83 catches, 1,409 yards, 6 TDs in 2016) and Mohamed Sanu (59 catches, 653 yards, 4 TDs). The Bears' secondary is a weak spot and cannot stand up to Ryan's accurate arm.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Falcons' defense is fast and athletic, but its front seven cannot afford to overpursue Bears running back Jordan Howard (1,313 rushing yards, 6 TDs in 2016). Look for Bears coach John Fox to utilize Howard and the running game early as a way to lighten some of the pressure on quarterback Mike Glennon, who signed a big free-agent deal during the offseason to replace Jay Cutler. Glennon should play behind a decent offensive line, but his receiving corps leaves much to be desired. The top two receivers on the Bears' depth chart are Kevin White, a 2015 first-round pick who has been unable to stay healthy, and Kendall Wright, who has not reached 500 receiving yards in either of the past two seasons.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Falcons RB Devonta Freeman vs. Bears LBs Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan. The Falcons' Freeman is a powerful runner who has racked up 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage in each of the past two seasons. The Bears' Freeman and his partner at inside linebacker, Danny Trevathan, are dependable tacklers and must find a way to stop the running game to prevent Atlanta from dominating time of possession.
--Bears LT Charles Leno and RT Bobby Massie vs. Falcons OLB Vic Beasley. Look for Atlanta to turn up the heat on Bears QB Mike Glennon, which means a healthy dose of blitzes from its best playmaker. Beasley racked up 15 1/2 sacks and forced six fumbles a year ago, and his speed will challenge the Bears' beefy tackles.
FALCONS NOTABLE ROOKIE: Defensive end Takkarist McKinley. He showed signs that he will add power and spice to the Atlanta pass rush. McKinley, who is recovered from March shoulder surgery, displayed speed and power coming off the edge in the exhibition season. There were times in training camp when starting left tackle Jake Matthews had problems with McKinley. Rushing opposite Vic Beasley, McKinley should get his share of one-on-one matchups.
BEARS NOTABLE ROOKIE: Running back Tarik Cohen. Easily the most-used rookie in training camp and preseason, the fourth-round pick (119th overall) out of North Carolina A&T played more with starters than quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Second-round pick Adam Shaheen's progress was slow in preseason, while Cohen made the most of every opportunity, whether with the first team as a running back or as a third-down back, with the second team or in kick and punt return situations. General manager Ryan Pace was seeking a Darren Sproles and appears to have found him.
FAST FACTS: Bears QB Mike Glennon attempted only 11 passes all of last season with the Buccaneers. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan has passed for at least 200 yards in 48 consecutive road games. ... Bears RB Jordan Howard will try to become the first player in franchise history to rush for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his career. ... The Falcons' defense has registered a sack in 15 consecutive games. ... This game marks the first time the Bears have opened a season against a team that played in the previous Super Bowl since 2001, when they faced the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. ... Falcons WR Julio Jones is three receptions shy of 500.
PREDICTION: The Bears might have home-field advantage, but the Falcons have down-field advantage. Chicago's defensive line is solid, but they will not be able to corral Atlanta's passing game for four quarters.
OUR PICK: Falcons, 28-17.