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The Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons were expected to be rebuilding this season. With strong play from the quarterback and running back positions, both teams have emerged as big surprises in the NFL.
The NFC North-leading Bears look to win their third straight game, while the Falcons try to build off an impressive victory when they meet Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Before the start of the season, Chicago’s offense did not look like it was going to be keeping the Bears (3-2) in many games. Four-year veteran Kyle Orton beat out Rex Grossman for the starting quarterback job and rookie Matt Forte was named the starting running back after Cedric Benson was released in June following his second alcohol-related arrest in a month.
Orton and Forte have managed to lead an offense that ranks ninth in the league in scoring with 25.6 points per game, and Chicago moved into sole possession of first place in the North with last Sunday’s 34-7 win at hapless Detroit.
“If we stay there, we get to the playoffs,” Bears safety Mike Brown said. “If we don’t, it’s going to be a battle.
“Our goal is to stay there.”
Against the Lions, Orton set career highs in yards (334), completions (24) and quarterback rating (121.4), while throwing two touchdowns.
“Kyle is real poised,” said Devin Hester, who caught one of Orton’s TD passes. “He doesn’t let things get to him. He’s relaxed in the pocket. It seems like he wants to be the guy that takes control of the game.”
Orton improved to 15-8 all-time as a starter, as he’s back in the role full time for the first time in three years.
As a rookie in 2005, Orton led the Bears to a 10-4 record before being pulled for Grossman at halftime of Chicago’s 16-3 win over Atlanta on Dec. 18, the last meeting between these teams.
While Orton was asked to simply manage the game in 2005, he has had to step up in Chicago’s last two games as its opponents have keyed on the running game. He has thrown for 533 yards, five TDs and two interceptions in his last two.
Forte rushed for 304 yards on 73 attempts in his first three games, but has been limited to 79 yards on 34 carries in the last two. He still leads all rookies with 383 rushing yards and has emerged as Orton’s favorite target, catching a team-high 22 passes for 172 yards.
Despite the Bears’ success through the air, coach Lovie Smith insists Chicago is a running team.
Atlanta (3-2) is using a similar formula, as it ranks second in the league in rushing with 180.6 yards per game.
“We’re always going to set out to try to run the football,” first-year coach Mike Smith said. “I think in the first five games we’ve done that. When you’re able to run the ball effectively, it allows you to do a number of different things, especially in the passing game.”
Michael Turner rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in last Sunday’s 27-24 win at Green Bay, while rookie Matt Ryan completed 16 of 26 passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Ryan, the third overall pick in this year’s draft, and Turner, who spent the last four years as a backup in San Diego, have helped Atlanta rebound from a disappointing 2007 marred by Michael Vick’s legal troubles and coach Bobby Petrino’s late-season resignation.
The Falcons, 12th in scoring (23.4) and ninth in total offense (353.2), are one win away from matching their victory total from a year ago.
“We’ve been positive and upbeat since the beginning of training camp,” Ryan said. “Focused on trying to be the best team we can be.”
While Ryan has looked poised in Atlanta’s victories, he has been unable to get comfortable when the running game struggles.
Turner leads the league in rushing yards (543) and touchdowns (six), but has been limited to only 98 yards on 32 carries in the two losses. He is averaging 148.3 yards and has scored all his TDs in the wins.
Ryan has completed 45.9 percent of his passes for 316 yards and two interceptions in Atlanta’s two losses, compared to completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 547 yards, four touchdowns and one pick in the wins.
Turner may have trouble against a Bears team that limited Detroit to 54 rushing yards last week and ranks fourth in the league in rushing defense (74.2). Ryan may also find himself under pressure, as Chicago’s recorded seven sacks in its last two games.
The Bears have won three straight and eight of the last nine meetings with the Falcons.