1:00 PM ET, September 11, 2011
Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
With two of their best players unhappy with their current contracts, off-the-field distractions continue to dominate the headlines as the team gets set to open 2011.
After winning the North and defeating Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs, Chicago (11-5) fell 21-14 to Green Bay in the conference title game. Cutler left in the third quarter after suffering a sprained left knee ligament, and several current and former players questioned how badly he was hurt.
Cutler, sacked an NFL-high 52 times in 2010, was taken aback when his toughness was questioned. He's now healthy and enters his third season in Chicago looking to quiet critics and lead Chicago back to the postseason.
Having Forte in the backfield should help. He had 1,616 yards from scrimmage last season and ranks seventh all-time in franchise history with 3,236 rushing yards.
Forte was hoping to sign a long-term deal prior to the start of the season, but general manager Jerry Angelo announced Wednesday that the sides couldn't come to an agreement.
"I'm disappointed (and) kind of frustrated that didn't get done," Forte told the Bears' official website. "As a player, you're taught that this league is based off production and you expect for a team to notice that and to get paid based off your production.
"I was expecting to get paid just like some of the other backs who produced similar to me. That didn't happen, so obviously I've got to continue to play under my regular contract."
Briggs will do the same after his request for a raise was denied, although his agent has filed a formal request to seek a trade. He has three years left on a six-year, $36 million deal.
"The Bears made their decision, now I have to make mine," Briggs told the Chicago Tribune. "It's just how the business works. It's not going to take away from what I do on the field. I'm 100 percent a Bear, until I'm not a Bear anymore."
Briggs will try to make things tougher on Matt Ryan, who is coming off the most productive season of his career. Ryan threw for career highs of 3,705 yards and 28 TDs, leading the Falcons to a conference-best 13-3 record.
Despite the stellar regular season, Atlanta was routed 48-21 by the Packers in the divisional round.
"I understand how the NFL works, and how the fans work too," said Ryan, who is still seeking his first postseason win. "You are judged by what you do in January. You have to embrace that. Hopefully, we'll fully have another opportunity to change that perception."
Atlanta ranked next-to-last in passing plays of at least 20 yards in 2010 -- an area that could improve dramatically with Jones joining White.
"You can't get complacent with (the expectations)," Jones told the Falcons' official website. "We're here as a team and we're going to play as a team. It's good to get hype … but at the same time, I'm just a team player and I want to benefit the team."
An improved passing attack could mean a lighter workload for Michael Turner, who piled up 1,371 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns last season.
"Atlanta (has an) experienced offense, experienced defense," Cutler said. "They added some guys in the offseason to make them even better so we've got our hands full ... they're experienced and they play well."
Atlanta has lost five straight in Chicago, with its most recent visit to Soldier Field coming in 2005. The teams last met Oct. 18, 2009, when the Falcons won 21-14 despite 300 yards and two TDs from Cutler.
More from ESPN.com
RB Forte, Bears parting ways after 8 seasons
Free agent running back Matt Forte confirmed Friday that he was told that he would not be re-signed by the Chicago Bears.
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1. Create big plays: Although the Falcons were very methodical and efficient on offense last season, they lacked big-play production. With the addition of Julio Jones and likely more passing, that could change abruptly. But the Bears' defense is loaded with good tacklers and, overall, the Bears do an excellent job of keeping the action in front of them, which forces teams to sustain long drives.
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|Avg Points Allowed||30.0||12.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||ATL|
|Rush Yds Allowed||ATL|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Chicago leads 4-2|
|Oct 18, 2009||ATL 21, CHI 14|
|Oct 12, 2008||ATL 22, CHI 20|
|Dec 18, 2005||ATL 3, @CHI 16|
|Sep 15, 2002||ATL 13, CHI 14|
|Oct 7, 2001||ATL 3, CHI 31|