CHICAGO — As opening arguments go, the Chicago Bears sure made a strong one.
All doubters that they’re contenders in the NFC should consider Sunday’s rout of the Atlanta Falcons.
Brian Urlacher had an interception and returned a fumble for a touchdown, Jay Cutler threw for 312 yards and two scores and the Bears pounded Matt Ryan and the Falcons 30-12.
“Big for us,” receiver Roy Williams said. “Big confidence booster for us as a football team. We knew what we can do offensively. We knew what we can do defensively. But to put it together, especially against a good football team in Atlanta, shows what kind of football team we have.”
In a matchup between reigning division champions, it was no contest. This one clearly belonged to Chicago.
“Disappointed, not discouraged,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “It’s a long season, it’s Week 1. We will work to get this fixed and we will get it fixed.”
A lunging Urlacher picked off Ryan’s pass to set up an early 56-yard touchdown catch and run by Matt Forte. In the third quarter, the linebacker picked up a fumble by Ryan and scored from 12 yards to make it 30-6.
The fumble came on one of two sacks by Julius Peppers. Henry Melton also had two sacks and the Bears totaled five for the day.
Cutler completed 22 of 32 passes and was intercepted once in his first game at Soldier Field since the Bears’ loss to Green Bay in the NFC championship. He left that game with a knee injury and was roundly criticized.
He was sacked five times Sunday, but had a 107.8 quarterback rating as the defending NFC North champions passed a big test.
The schedule doesn’t get easier with games against the past two Super Bowl champions coming up — at New Orleans next week and then Green Bay at home — but Chicago certainly looked strong in this one.
“It’s a good start,” Urlacher said. “We’ve got a ways to go. We made some mistakes, me included. Our offense played great today. I know they’re going to say they didn’t do this and that, but they kept us on the sideline for the most part.”
Forte, seeking a contract extension, turned a short screen into a long TD in the first quarter, and caught five passes in all for 90 yards. He also carried 16 times for 68 yards.
Devin Hester had three catches for 60 yards. He turned a swing pass into a 53-yard gain and got stopped just short of the goal line, setting up a 1-yard TD catch by Matt Spaeth that put the Bears ahead 23-6 midway through the third quarter. Urlacher put away the game with his fumble return.
Williams caught four passes for 55 yards in his Bears debut before leaving with a groin injury in the fourth quarter.
“We still have to play up to the defense’s level,” Cutler said. “They’re still carrying us.”
Ryan completed 31 of 47 passes for 319 yards for Atlanta, but he also had those two costly turnovers.
Michael Turner ran for 100 yards, including a 53-yarder, but the 2010 NFC South champions never established any kind of rhythm. It was certainly not the sort of performance they had in mind, coming off a 13-win season that ended with a blowout loss to the Packers in the playoffs.
On the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, there were large 9/11 ribbons at the 25-yard lines. The coin used for the pregame toss had the same ribbon on one side with a Bears “C” on the other.
There was a video narrated by Robert DeNiro, a live simulcast of the trumpeter performing “Taps” in Shanksville, Pa., and a moment of silence. A loud “USA! USA!” chant broke out as a flag stretching from goal line to goal line was unfurled.
Urlacher’s lunging interception at the Chicago 29 on a pass intended for Tony Gonzalez and Forte’s big touchdown three plays later — when he caught the screen pass and bounced off Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon — were two of the early highlights as the Bears built a 16-3 halftime lead.
Urlacher said he was surprised Ryan threw that pass.
Ryan said he should have just thrown it away, and on the fumble, he just didn’t protect the ball.
“Brian made a good play, full extension,” he said. “He made a nice catch. I probably shouldn’t have thrown it there. I definitely shouldn’t have thrown it there. But that’s one of those situations where you need to throw the football away. You have to make a good decision and get the ball out of your hands with somebody in your face. Just a poor decision there, and on the fumble, you just got to protect the football better in the pocket, that’s as simple as it is.”