"Leon Joe, Brandon McGowan both had outstanding games for us," said coach Lovie Smith.
Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera added, "Brandon came in and did an excellent job for us. Any time you can have a rookie come in and make that contribution, you're very pleased with the effort. Leon Joe was exceptional. He made some mistakes, but he made up for it because he played hard and he played fast."
It's been a long road for both players to get to this point. Joe was a fourth round pick by the Bears in 2004, but was cut after just one regular season game. He caught on with the Arizona Cardinals and spent the rest of his rookie season with the team.
In training camp the Bears picked him off waivers and things have now come full circle with the organization that once let him get away.
"Getting the opportunity to start, I could hardly believe that moment had finally arrived," Joe said. "I woke up and just couldn't wait to get on the field. I've felt that way since Coach (Lovie) Smith told me I'd be in. I know that all of my family and friends were watching since the game was on national TV. What great timing. It just doesn't get any better than that."
Joe was relieved to find that once he was out on the field, any butterflies he'd experienced earlier rapidly disappeared.
"I felt right at home once I got accustomed to the idea that I would be playing," Joe said. "It was such a great opportunity to show that I could get it done at this level. And you know what, it was fun. I was jumping around out there, just having a great time.
"Everything seemed more intense. The emotions of a regular game were very different from any I'd experienced during a normal week of practice. The weather was tough at first but I found that once I was on the field the only thing I was concentrating on was the next play."
Joe and his defensive teammates were tested early in the game because of great field position Atlanta enjoyed for much of the first half.
"We kept the game close all through the first half and helped get the ball back to the Bears offense so they could break things open during the second half," Joe said.
McGowan, an undrafted free agent out of Maine, also relished his chance to demonstrate his abilities.
"Being out there as a starter was exactly as I thought it would be," McGowan said. "It was exciting and challenging. I loved every minute of the experience. The speed of the game and the pressure to succeed were comfortable and certainly weren't anything that I couldn't handle."
While neither McGowan nor Joe know for sure how long they will keep their starting jobs, each feels that he has shown enough to at least merit consideration at some point in the future.
"Of course I'm not going to take Hunter's spot permanently," Joe said. "Not this year anyway, But I think I've put some of the coaches' minds at ease since I proved that I can handle the position. My abilities fit well with this defense. It's one less thing they'll have to be concerned about."
McGowan has a similar long-term view.
"I want to maximize the time I have in there," McGowan said. "It might be just the one game, or perhaps several, I just don't know at this point. When they tell me to come in, I'll be prepared mentally and physically. Green Bay is coming up next on our schedule, then we face the Vikings. I must admit that it would be great to have the opportunity to start in those games.
"And where it goes from there, well we'll see about that. I know I'm gaining valuable experience that will help me get better in the long run. I want my teammates to understand that they can depend on me whether I'm starting on a temporary basis, or whether I'm in the lineup for an extended period of time."