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Bears take huge first step in opener

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Updated: September 11, 2011 7:07PM

The only way Sunday could have gone any better for the Bears is if Soldier Field had been recognized for its spectacular sod. And after the hurt they put on Atlanta, you’d be silly to rule out the arrival of a glowing press release from the National Turf Growers Association.

The Bears slapped around the Falcons 30-12 and took the first step toward, well, taking a second step. They face the Saints in New Orleans next and the Packers at home the following week. It won’t be an easy row to hoe or, if you prefer, lawn to mow.

But that’s for another day. Today is for appreciating what the Bears accomplished in what had been a climate of uncertainty about their prospects this season. With a rejiggered offensive line, a secondary with question marks and a wide receiver corps that looked a lot like last year’s underwhelming version, no one could say with certainty what the scoreboard would look like after three hours of football.

Answer: Gaudy.

A slimmed-down Jay Cutler was very, very good in Sunday’s opener. He didn’t have a deep threat all day and might not all season, but he still completed 22 of 32 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns. He did have running back Matt Forte and a number of receivers who were able to make something out of his short and intermediate passes.

Afterward, Cutler looked up and gave all glory to offensive coordinator Mike Martz in the coaches’ box.

“Mike loves to throw to it,’’ Cutler said. “Everybody in the league knows that. That’s no secret. If you can protect, you’re probably going to roll up some offensive passing yards.’’

The offensive line didn’t get Cutler killed, which is probably a completely unfair way to describe things, but it’s a long season and some of us have long memories. Cutler was sacked five times, and in fairness, one of those was a coverage sack and another a result of his holding on to the ball too long.

“He hung in there. He took some hits,’’ wide receiver Roy Williams said. “He was delivering the ball where it needed to be. He did a great job.’’

Johnny Knox and Devin Hester each caught three passes for 60 yards, and Williams had four receptions for 55 yards. Eight Bears caught passes. Cutler’s passer rating was 107.8. You get the picture.

“We knew we had to go out there and make a statement,’’ center Roberto Garza said.

It was a much more convincing statement than the one they made in last season’s opener: We are SO lucky! That was the game in which an idiotic rule wiped out a touchdown reception by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and gave the Bears a victory.

No one could say luck had anything to do with what happened Sunday at Soldier Field. There was no robbery, just simple battery.

The only thing louder than referee Ed Hochuli was the Bears’ offense. There were some beautiful plays. They executed a perfect fake reverse in the first quarter, fooling the Falcons and allowing Cutler to hit Forte on a screen pass for a 56-yard touchdown. But there were some missed opportunities, too, Cutler’s overthrow to a wide-open Kellen Davis in the second quarter being one of them.

“We left 14, 21 points on the board,’’ Cutler said.

He’s probably right, but it didn’t matter so much in the glow of a result that seemed to come out of the blue. A decent number of people thought the Bears would beat the Falcons. Few saw this coming.

It helped that the defense was as steadfast as usual. Thirty-three-year-old Brian Urlacher looked young, with 10 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

“Our franchise player,’’ said Bears coach Lovie Smith, meaning the phrase not in the technical, salary cap sense, but in the best sense.

The defense’s success Sunday started with the defensive line. The Bears sacked Matt Ryan five times. Julius Peppers had two of them, recovered a fumble and forced the fumble that led to Urlacher’s touchdown.

“We still have to play up to the defense’s level,’’ Cutler said. “They’re still carrying us. They’re still doing some things out there that are unbelievable.’’

Noted patriot Lance Briggs found time for three tackles.

This is a good Atlanta team, one that finished with the best record in the NFC last season. If you believe that every game has meaning, fine. But this one had more meaning for the Bears, who were coming off a season that didn’t come with a lot of believers.

It was a nice return to real football for Cutler, who got knocked out of last season’s NFC Championship Game with a knee injury and then had to listen to a few NFL players and other assorted imbeciles who said he wasn’t tough enough.

He has a whole season to show people what he is and what he can be. Sunday was a first step, an impressive one.

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