By Greg Gabriel–

(CBS) A new NFL season starts Thursday, then gets in full swing Sunday. The Bears open the season against the defending NFC champion Falcons at home.

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On paper, the contest looks like an easy win for Atlanta, but history has shown us Super Bowl losers rarely play up to expectations the next season.

After watching four Bears preseason games and analyzing their 53-man roster, I’m a little more optimistic than I was a few weeks ago. Why? The Bears defense has a chance to be one of the better defenses in the NFC, if not the NFL.

The defensive line is big, strong, athletic and has depth. First-year pro Roy Robertson-Harris adds some special athleticism to the front three, and the combination of Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman is as good as any. If second-year pro Jonathan Bullard plays as well as he did in the preseason, the Bears can utilize a six-man rotation and keep everyone fresh. In the NFL, that’s key. One of the weakest areas of the Atlanta roster is the offensive line, and Chicago’s defensive line matches up well with the potential to be difference-makers this Sunday.

The Bears linebacker corps played well in the preseason and now hopefully adds a healthy Pernell McFee to the group to make it that much stronger. While Danny Trevathan (knee) is probably out, second-year man Nick Kwiatkoski isn’t much of a drop off.

The secondary is a concern and will rely on the front seven to put pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Keeping him off balance is the key to the game.

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The other key is the offense controlling the clock with the running game. The Bears don’t have enough big play threats on offense at the receiver position, so they need to control the clock with a combination of the running game and short passing game.

Looking at the roster, I have a feeling that the Bears will be utilizing many two- and three-tight end formations. While that won’t scare a defense as far as the deep ball is concerned, their size and athleticism can cause matchup problems for the Atlanta secondary, in addition to their blocking ability supporting the running game.

I also expect the Bears to use some special packages with rookie running backs Tarik Cohen or Taquan Mizzell lined up in the slot. Both have speed and agility and can be good space players as the Bears look for any matchup advantage possible. Early in the season, gimmicks can work because opponents aren’t ready for them. Is it gadget football? Sure, but in order for the Bears to win, they have to keep that in mind.

Am I overly optimistic about the Bears’ upset chances against the Falcons on Sunday? Maybe, but since coming into the league in 1981, I’ve seen scores of upsets like this happen over the years. Getting off to a quick start this season and overcoming a difficult schedule is what both the Bears and coach John Fox need.

Because if Fox wants to be around to enjoy a potential franchise quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky next year, he has to find a way to get his team to play above its talent level now. Tough task? Yes, but it’s surely not impossible.

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Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who is an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.