ATLANTA - The Falcons sure know how to scramble at the end against the Chicago Bears.
Last year, Atlanta pulled out an improbable win on a field goal as time ran out. This time, the Falcons came up with three huge stops in the red zone, the last of them with less than a minute to go to preserve a 21-14 victory in prime time that left the Bears muttering about all the chances that got away Sunday night.
"We've been playing very good red-zone defense all season long," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "The guys made plays when the opportunities arose."
And Chicago didn't.
"You want to kick yourself," linebacker Lance Briggs moaned.
Michael Turner scored the winning touchdown on a 5-yard run with 3:06 remaining, making up for an otherwise forgettable night. A bend-but-don't-break defense - and Chicago's miscues - helped the Falcons (4-1) match the best five-game start in franchise history and stay just one game behind the unbeaten New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
Jay Cutler was picked off early on at the Atlanta 9. Matt Forte fumbled on two straight runs from the 1 in the third quarter, the second of which was recovered by the Falcons. And one last chance was ruined 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 with 29 seconds left.
"You can't make those kind of mistakes," 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."
Then again, this was nothing new for the Falcons. Sixteen times this season, opponents have driven inside the Atlanta 20. The team has surrendered only six touchdowns on those possessions.
"Our defense, give them some credit," said Matt Ryan, who had two touchdown passes for the Falcons but also 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 field goal. He knocked it through on the final play for a 22-20 win.
This time, the Bears were denied in their comeback bid. Cutler guided Chicago down the field on his way to a season-high 300 yards passing, 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 Atlanta victory.
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 passes of 16 and 15 yards, 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."
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 Thomas DeCoud, the first two of his career.
Ryan had a short throw that Roddy White turned into a 40-yard touchdown play, then went 10 yards to Gonzalez to give the Falcons a 14-7 halftime lead. Ryan, too, threw two interceptions, the second on a tipped ball with about 10 minutes remaining that gave new life to the Bears.
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.