Instead, they went 0 for 2.
Chicago made three huge mistakes in the red zone, and the Falcons held on for a 21-14 victory that will be remembered for one gritty defensive stand after another and all the chances the Bears let slip away.
Jay Cutler threw an interception at the Atlanta 9. Matt Forte fumbled on two straight runs from the 1, the second of which was recovered by the Falcons. And one last chance with less than a minute to go was botched when Orlando Pace moved before the snap on fourth-and-1 at the 5, leaving the Bears with a more daunting challenge they couldn't convert.
"We had a lot of opportunities to win this football game," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. "You can't make those kind of mistakes. When you get the ball in the red zone, you need to get points."
Michael Turner scored the winning touchdown on an otherwise forgettable night, powering over from 5 yards with 3:06 remaining, but it was the bend-but-don't-break defense -- and Chicago's miscues -- that helped the Falcons (4-1) match the best five-game start in franchise history.
"Our defense, give them some credit," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who had two touchdown passes but also threw two interceptions. "Our guys stepped up and made some plays when we needed them to."
The teams played a thriller for the second year in a row. Last season, the Bears (3-2) thought they had pulled out an improbable victory on a touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining, only to blow it by going with a pooch kick and giving up a long completion that set up Jason Elam for a winning field goal on the final play.
This time, the Bears were denied in their comeback bid. Cutler guided Chicago down the field on a season-high 300 yard passing night, and a disputed pass-interference penalty on Curtis Lofton gave the Bears a first down at the Atlanta 14. Two penalties left Chicago with third-and-25 before Cutler went over the middle to Earl Bennett, who came down with the ball amid three defenders for a 24-yard reception.
That left the Bears needing 3 feet on fourth down, and they called time to set up a play. But Pace inexplicably took off ahead of the snap, leaving Chicago with fourth-and-6. Cutler's final pass, going for Desmond Clark over the middle, bounced off the receiver's arm with Erik Coleman defending to preserve the victory with 29 seconds left.
"I broke on it and kind of stumbled a little bit. Cutler threw it a little high and we were off the field," Coleman said. "During games like that, you've just got to stay positive and just trust your teammates."
Greg Olsen appeared to be open in the back of the end zone, but Cutler didn't see him.
Atlanta's winning touchdown was set up by Eric Weems' 62-yard kickoff return. Ryan and Tony Gonzalez took over from there, hooking up on two huge pass plays, before Turner finished off the drive from the 5. He found nothing but turf after cutting to his right, and a slight bump with teammate Verron Haynes was about the only chance he had to go down.
Turner, the second-leading rusher in the NFL last season, finished with just 30 yards on 13 carries. Shaking off that frustration, he flung the ball into the air with his left hand after scoring.
"Our offensive line did a great job just giving me just enough time to get the ball off, and then Michael Turner did what he does," Ryan said. "The offensive line provided a great push and just paved his way."
Chicago let too many chances get away, scoring only once in four possessions inside the Atlanta 20. Cutler was picked off early on by Thomas DeCoud on an ugly pass over the middle. Then in the third quarter, Forte really blew it after the Bears had first-and-goal from inside the 1.
He fumbled trying to leap over the pile, but fortunately managed to recover it himself after crumbling to the turf. On the very next play, Forte took off to the left, only to have Jonathan Babineux deliver a shot with the helmet that sent the ball flying again. This time, Coy Wire recovered for the Falcons, denying Chicago a seemingly sure tying touchdown.
The Bears lost despite outgaining the Falcons 373-253 in total yards. Cutler was 27 of 43, going to Johnny Knox for a 23-yard touchdown pass that gave Chicago a 7-0 lead and a 2-yarder to Olsen that tied it up with 6:14 remaining. Cutler also led the Bears in rushing with 34 yards, but his performance was marred by two interceptions - both of them by DeCoud, the first two of his career.
Ryan had two touchdown passes: a short throw that Roddy White turned into a 40-yard touchdown play and a 10-yarder to Gonzalez that gave the Falcons a 14-7 halftime lead. Ryan, too, threw two interceptions, the second on a tipped ball with about 10 minutes remaining that provided the Bears with new life.
Cutler directed an eight-play, 92-yard drive that tied it up. The quarterback got things started with a 30-yard scramble, went to Devin Hester on a 17-yard completion and took advantage of a pass-interference penalty on Chris Houston that moved the chains another 23 yards.
The Falcons are 4-1 for only the fifth time in the franchise's 44-year-history, the last time coming in 2004 when Michael Vick led them to the NFC South title. For now, they are just trying to keep pace with the torrid New Orleans Saints (5-0), who maintained the division lead with a 48-27 victory over the previously unbeaten New York Giants.
- Both teams were hurt by injuries. The Falcons lost RB Jerious Norwood (hip flexor) and CB Brian Williams (right knee), while LB Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) went down for Chicago.
- Weems had a big night on special teams, averaging 39 yards on three kickoff returns and bringing back one punt for 20 yards.
- DeCoud, a second-year player, had only one interception in 45 college games at Cal. He's now surpassed that total in the NFL.