LAKE FOREST, Ill. — From billboards to social media, the Atlanta Falcons were the punchline of the offseason following their epic Super Bowl collapse.
No more time to dwell on that now.
The Falcons come into the season eyeing another big run, and that starts with the opener against the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
“I’m not giving any predictions that we will make it back to the Super Bowl this year,” Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen said. “I’m just saying the way this team has developed, the way this team has pushed itself, we are a better team than we were last year. And if we made it to the Super Bowl last year, I think we have a fairly good chance of making it fairly far this year.”
The Falcons were a surprise NFC champion last year, going from 8-8 in coach Dan Quinn’s first season to 11-5. They appeared to be on their way to their first Super Bowl victory with a 25-point lead over New England , only to have Tom Brady and the Patriots rally to beat them in overtime.
Not since the Buffalo Bills dropped four in a row in the 1990s has a losing team returned to the Super Bowl the following season.
The Falcons seem poised for more big things with just about all their key players back, including MVP Matt Ryan, while Chicago has a long way to go. Coming off a last-place finish in the NFC North at 3-13, the Bears made big changes at quarterback. They parted with Jay Cutler, signed starter Mike Glennon and drafted Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick.
Here are some things to know as the Falcons take aim at another big run while the Bears try to make a jump in the NFC North:
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: The NFL’s highest-scoring offense has only one major change going into the season. Wes Schweitzer beat out Ben Garland as the starting right guard, a position that opened up when Chris Chester retired. Quinn said it was “as close a battle as I’ve seen at position” but gave the nod to Schweitzer based on his consistency.
BEHIND CENTER: After sitting behind Jameis Winston the past two years in Tampa Bay, Glennon gets a chance to play again.
He also has another highly touted prospect behind him, with Trubisky in the No. 2 role . The Bears thought he would essentially redshirt the season behind Glennon and Mark Sanchez, but the rookie is coming along quicker than expected.
Trubisky ignited a quarterback debate in Chicago with his preseason play. But Glennon gets the job for now, an opportunity long in the making for him. A starter earlier in his career, he threw just 11 passes last season and did not play in a game in 2015.
“Anxious, excited to get out there on Sunday,” Glennon said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
HOOPER’S TIME: Keep an eye on Atlanta tight end Austin Hooper, who could take on a bigger role in the offense as opponents focus on most prominent weapons such as Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman.
Hooper had 19 receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, but it’s not far-fetched to envision Ryan making him a much bigger part of the offense. Ryan has a huge connection with Tony Gonzalez, so he’s accustomed to working with a productive tight end.
BIG CATCH: Two injury-riddled seasons apparently have not robbed receiver Kevin White of the skills that made him the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft. General manager Ryan Pace still sees the athleticism.
“He’s got a chance to showcase it,” Pace said. “The good thing is that he’s strung together healthy practices. I think that was important for him. He has really only had one training camp. For him to be able to string together healthy practices and stack positive days, now we’re set for him to have a big year for us.”
The Bears certainly need it with Alshon Jeffery gone and Cameron Meredith suffering a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. But leg injuries have limited White to a total of four games — all last year — in two seasons.
DEFENSE GROWS UP: Quinn is expecting big improvement from his young defense, which started as many as four rookies last season.
Players such as Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Keanu Neal and Brian Poole will be expected to take on much more responsibility and leadership, based on the improvement shown by Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett and Ricardo Allen from their first to second years. After wearing down in the Super Bowl collapse, the defense certainly feels as though it has something to prove.