ATLANTA -- Before the Bears played the Falcons, much of the talk centered on what a formidable opponent the Falcons would be.
In the meantime, everyone forgot about the opponent within.
The Bears had three turnovers and nine penalties, and ultimately beat themselves in a 21-14 loss Sunday night.
The Bears had a shot at tying the score on their last possession, but their drive -- which at one point got as far as the Atlanta 5 -- was doomed by false-start penalties by Orlando Pace and Frank Omiyale and an offensive pass interference call against Earl Bennett.
"We had a lot of opportunities to win the game," coach Lovie Smith said. "You can't make those kinds of mistakes on the road against a good football team."
The Bears outgained the Falcons 373 yards to 253. They converted 56 percent of their third-down chances and held the Falcons to a 42 percent conversion rate. They held the ball for nearly eight minutes more.
But they made mistakes at the worst of times.
Smith said the penalties were very disappointing.
"We still put ourselves in position at the end to tie the game or win the game," he said. "We kind of self-destructed."
Cutler has been one of the most mistake-free quarterbacks in football -- with the exception of his two Sunday night games that have been nationally televised on NBC. Against the Packers in the season opener, he threw four interceptions. Sunday against the Falcons, he threw two more.
This time, Cutler tried to force a ball to Devin Hester and safety Thomas DeCoud stepped in front of it for the pick.
"The safety made a good play," Cutler said. "I missed that one a little."
Later in the first half, Cutler, in an apparent attempt to make DeCoud look like Hall of Famer Paul Krause, threw a pass intended for Greg Olsen that landed in DeCoud's hands. The interceptions were the first of the free safety's three-year career. Cutler said he overthrew the pass.
DeCoud's second interception led to points, as three plays later Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hooked up with Roddy White on a short pass that White, thanks to some shoddy tackling, took 40 yards for a touchdown.
Cutler didn't throw all of his passes to the red jerseys, however. When he wasn't throwing interceptions, he wasn't half bad. He finished with 27 completions in 43 attempts for 300 yards.
He also threw two touchdown passes -- a 2-yarder to Olsen that tied the score 14-14 with 6:14 left in the game, and a second-quarter 23-yarder to Johnny Knox that drew first blood.
While getting sandwiched between two Falcons pass rushers in the third quarter, Cutler threw a terrific 24-yard completion to Desmond Clark to the Falcons' 11. Three plays later, he hit Clark with another excellent throw. This time, Cutler left the pocket under pressure, rolled right and threw back to his left for an 8-yard gain to the 1-yard line.
Running back Matt Forte then fumbled at the 1-yard line, but officials ruled he recovered it. Given another chance, Forte fumbled again. And this time it was recovered by Falcons linebacker Coy Wire on the Atlanta 2.
Forte had only one fumble all last season, but he already has three this year. What's more, he didn't run the ball with much authority in Atlanta after having his only productive game of the season against the Lions. He finished with 23 yards on 15 carries -- or 11 yards fewer than Cutler had on three running attempts.
The Bears finally came up with a takeaway of their own when cornerback Zack Bowman picked off Ryan in the third quarter. It was only the second takeaway by a Bears defensive back all season.
Bowman said he was going for the ball more than he had been.
"One of our focuses of the second quarter of the season is getting more turnovers," Bowman said. "We talked about it again at halftime, and we came out and got two in the second half."
They went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, however.
They came up with another in the fourth quarter when cornerback Nathan Vasher intercepted Ryan. Vasher, formerly known as "The Interceptor," was making a rare appearance on defense -- and perhaps making an argument that his appearances on defense should not be so rare.
"We had chances to have a couple more takeaways and we didn't take advantage of it," Smith said.
The Bears could have used a takeaway on the Falcons' fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Instead, the Falcons went 41 yards in seven plays and scored on Michael Turner's 5-yard run with 3:06 left in the game.
In another game, the Bears might have marched down the field and scored on another Cutler touchdown pass. But they couldn't do that Sunday because they kept tripping over their own feet.