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Falcons open with a test
Matchup of two defending division champs
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CHICAGO — Roddy White was walking around the Atlanta Falcons’ locker room this week wearing a T-shirt with the word "Unacceptable" on the front and "48-21" on the back, a far-from-subtle reminder about that bitter end and unfinished business.

The season starts Sunday, and right off the bat, they’re getting tested.

They open against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in a matchup between teams that won their divisions last season, only to come up short in the playoffs against Super Bowl champion Green Bay.

The Falcons won the NFC South at 13-3 and captured the top seed with the second most wins in franchise history. Then, in a flash, it was over.

They immediately got knocked out of the postseason by the Packers at home, that 48-21 loss ending with Aaron Rodgers getting serenaded by "Go, Pack, Go!" chants after he threw for three touchdowns and ran for another.

For White, the loss stings.

"It’s just a little thing that I did," he said of the T-shirt. "Last year wasn’t where we wanted to be. We won 13 games, but obviously we want to make it to the Super Bowl. Anything less will be unacceptable."

The Bears have similar goals to go with some big question marks, none bigger than blocking.

Yes, they took the NFC North at 11-5 and made it to the conference title game.

They saved their season just when it seemed to be falling apart and came within a win of the Super Bowl before losing to Green Bay at home in the conference championship, a game that saw Jay Cutler spend most of the second half on the sideline because of a knee injury and get called out for it on Twitter by some current and former players.

Of course, no quarterback took a bigger beating than Cutler with 52 sacks, particularly in the early going with the line offering no protection. Who can forget that concussion-inducing nine-sack half against the New York Giants?

It’s no secret the Bears used four different lineups in the trenches through the first seven games, that they staggered into their bye at 4-3. And it’s no secret, either, that things got better after that. They settled on a lineup on the offensive line and committed more to the run, taking the load off Cutler.

Even so, the big question remains: Can Cutler stay on his feet?

The Bears have a new look on the line with six-time Pro Bowler Olin Kreutz gone after a messy breakdown in contract negotiations and veteran Roberto Garza moving over from guard to center. The Bears also drafted tackle Gabe Carimi out of Wisconsin in the first round.

"They’ve made terrific progress in the last three weeks, particularly in the last two weeks, so I’m anxious to see them play," offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "We’ll find out where we are with that. But I’m excited about what they’ve done so far."

But if the line doesn’t perform, the Bears could be in trouble. Cutler has a new receiver to throw to in Roy Williams. But can he rediscover the form that made him a Pro Bowl receiver under Martz in Detroit?

As if opening against the Falcons weren’t tough enough, Chicago’s next two games are against the past two Super Bowl champions — at New Orleans and at home against Green Bay.

"I mean, there’s no D-2 schools," Cutler said. "We don’t have a lot of options, so we got to take what it is. We got Atlanta, and we have to deal with it."

For the Falcons, the question is simple: Can they finally make a playoff run?

They’re 33-15 with Matt Ryan at quarterback, but Matty Ice seems to freeze up in the playoffs. The Falcons have been one and done the past two years, with Ryan throwing four interceptions and getting sacked eight times.

He has a new target with rookie Julio Jones being added to an offense that already includes Pro Bowlers at receiver (White), tight end (Tony Gonzalez), running back (Michael Turner), fullback (Ovie Mughelli) and tackle (Tyson Clabo).

The Falcons should have no problem scoring, particularly with Jones in the mix. On defense, they addressed a big need by signing former Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards. With all that, it’s not hard to see why the Falcons have their sights set on reaching the Super Bowl and finishing the job.

"I just want to get to the playoffs," Gonzalez said. "That’s all it is — being relevant in December. One thing that coach Smitty stresses that to us all the time. You can go 13-3 and we’ve done that before, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to be relevant, get into the dance and make sure you get to that game, get to the Super Bowl."

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