The Bears didn't just announce to doubters they're to be taken seriously in the NFC this season. They screamed it.
A 30-12 dismantling of the Falcons in the season opener Sunday at Soldier Field was as much an affirmation as it was a victory. They took apart the conference's top-seeded team from a year ago piece by piece, dominating at the point of attack and winning in all phases.
The Falcons have a glitzy offense with stars all over the place, but the Bears were the ones that showcased playmakers in a victory as impressive as the 2008 opener in Indianapolis and the 2006 shutout to begin the year in Green Bay. The latter season ended in a Super Bowl appearance; the former was a disappointment.
"There were a lot of questions about our team coming into the season," said middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who intercepted Matt Ryan, scooped a fumble for a touchdown and made 10 tackles to open his 12th season. "We're off to a good start, 1-0 against a good team, so we just have to keep building."
While it's too early to make conclusions about those questions, the results were positive. The Falcons' upgraded defensive line had six weeks to prepare for a rebuilt Bears offensive line, and Mike Tice's unit looked good enough. Jay Cutler completed 22 of 32 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns, and though he was sacked five times, the line was not overmatched.
Cutler got 109 yards on screen passes to Matt Forte and Devin Hester, but he also had time to throw downfield. He hit Roy Williams for 23 yards on third-and-6 and connected with Johnny Knox for a 25-yard gain on second-and-19. Cutler needs time to set up to take Mike Martz's scheme to the next level, and there was a glimpse of that.
"Everyone has an expectation of what's happening out there, and there's less thinking," Cutler said. "Protection-wise, those guys did a heck of a job. If we can get that level — and those guys are going to continue to get better and build on that — we're going to be pretty good."
Falcons running back Michael Turner finished with 100 yards on 10 carries, but 53 came on one dash and the low carry total is what mattered. Ryan was forced to throw 47 times as the Bears made the Falcons one-dimensional by getting out to a 16-3 halftime lead.
Ryan hit only two throws downfield — one to Tony Gonzalez and one to Julio Jones after the game was decided. The pressure on him was relentless. Henry Melton and Julius Peppers had two sacks each, and Amobi Okoye added a fifth. Melton had seven of the Bears' 11 quarterback hits, and Ryan was relegated to an afternoon of check-downs against a defense that swarmed to the ball.
Melton looked like the version of Tommie Harris the Bears hoped would resurface but never did the last three seasons. He was explosive, powerful and efficient. Peppers played at his usual Pro Bowl level. It bodes well for the back seven.
"It's sort of the nature of what they do in the Tampa-2, to kind of keep everything cradled in front of them," Ryan said. "We had plays called aggressively, trying to get the ball downfield. They executed their game plan well. I couldn't really go there."
The defensive backs held up well against Roddy White (eight receptions, 61 yards) and Jones (five, 71), and the Falcons didn't have an offensive touchdown, getting only two field goals and a 50-yard interception return for a score by defensive end Kroy Biermann.
It would have been a bigger blowout had the offense not sputtered twice in the red zone, making two of Robbie Gould's three field goals chip shots. Cutler did throw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth, one of eight players with a reception.
It's one win in a tricky opening stretch that next takes the Bears to New Orleans, then back home against the Packers. Urlacher was asked if it felt like the '06 opener at Lambeau Field, the last time the Bears won by more than 18 to start a season.
"Ask me in 16 more weeks," he said.