Critics may not consider the Bears prime-time players but the NFL has them playing five prime-times games, including Thursday night Week 2 in Green Bay and three Monday Night Football games, based on the official 2012 schedule released Tuesday.
The NFL limits a team to five prime-time games in a season. The Bears ring up that total in the span of their first 10 games.
The opponents have been known for months, just not which team on which date at which time, allowing for late-season flex scheduling.
Now thats in place, with some interesting twists.
The Bears will open at home for the third straight year. Besides having their first two games within five days of each other for the first time since 1940, they have seven games against teams with winning records for 2011 (two each with Green Bay and Detroit, Houston, Tennessee and San Francisco). Arizona and Dallas each finished 8-8.
We started our offseason program Monday and received our schedule today, so our 2012 season is officially underway, coach Lovie Smith said in a statement. "I love starting the season at home in front of our fans. I dont think there is a better place to kick off the season than playing at Soldier Field on the lakefront.
Playing five of our first 10 games in prime time also stands out. Each week brings its own challenge and we are excited to begin our pursuit of a world championship.
Up against new guys
The Bears face three teams with new head coaches: Indianapolis (Chuck Pagano), St. Louis (Jeff Fisher) and Jacksonville (Mike Mularkey).
Nearly half of their games project to be against quarterbacks either in their first or second years as starters: Carolina (Cam Newton), Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert), Indianapolis (Andrew Luck), Minnesota twice (Christian Ponder), Seattle (Matt Flynn) and possibly Tennessee (Jake Locker).
Throw in Arizonas Kevin Kolb (five seasons, 14 total starts, no more than seven in any year) and the Bears defense will not be facing a Hall of Fame list of quarterbacks, at least not yet.
But there will be surprises, probably good and bad in the course of a schedule thats also a prelude:
Week Opponent Daydatetime
1. Indianapolis Colts (2-14) Sun. Sept. 9 noon
Analysis: Another franchise making itself over from GM (Ryan Grigson) to coach (Chuck Pagano) to quarterback (Andrew Luck) and beyond. The post-Peyton Colts will be a work in progress and probably the softest touch on the schedule. Get ready for re-analyzing Luck all over again. If Bears cant pressure this rookie QB behind that offensive linebe afraid, be very afraid.
2. At Green Bay Packers (15-1) Thurs. Sept. 13, 7:20 p.m.
Analysis: This makes four straight years that the Bears and Packers have met by Game 3. The Packers are the gold (green and gold, actually) standard in the NFC North. The Bears goal going into the offseason was to gain on the Packers; heres the pop quiz to see if they did it.
Packers replaced one Pro Bowl center with another (Jeff Saturday) but their key has been draft hits, although theyre likely moving on from RB Ryan Grant. The defense suffered a major drop-off last year and is not the force it was in 10. It needs to be.
3. St. Louis Rams (2-14) Sun., Sept. 23, noon
Analysis: The Rams lost Gregg Williams as their defensive coordinator and decided they were strong enough at quarterback with Sam Bradford to deal away the No. 2 pick and its option of landing RGIII. The coaching change to Jeff Fisher portends progress but a franchise that has won three or fewer games in four of the last five seasons has a ways to go.
4. At Dallas Cowboys (8-8) Mon., Oct. 1 7:30 p.m.
Analysis: The Bears turned their 2010 season in the right direction in Dallas but that is the only time Lovie Smith has beaten his favorite home-state team. Few teams have gotten the hype that the Cowboys have, with Tony Romo putting up numbers and the talent seemingly there. But this is an underachieving team that too often makes more noise than impact.
5. At Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) Sun., Oct. 7, 3:05 p.m.
Analysis: This may have some small measure of specialness for O-coordinator Mike Tice, who coached the Jags offensive line before coming to Chicago. Blaine Gabbert did not establish himself as the Jacksonville franchise QB as a rookie and if that doesnt happen, the Jaguars will be a while before contending. Maurice Jones-Drew has become a consistent ground force but this team is a work-in-progress under new coach Mike Mularkey.
6. Off week
7. Detroit Lions (10-6) Mon., Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m.
Analysis: The Bears crushed the Lions in their second meeting last season and put 752 combined yards on Detroit in the two games. Before the Cutler injury, the Bears were ahead of the Lions; are they still? The Lions were the chic choice through the first half of last season but still have to establish consistency and that Matthew Stafford can stay healthy.
8. Carolina Panthers (6-10) Sun., Oct. 28, noon
Analysis: You cant expect Cam Newton to repeat the kind of epic first season he had, and yetThe Panthers committed major money to WR Steve Smith so the Bears have to deal with him again. But Carolina was dismal against the run and will have a long day with Michael Bush and (presumably) Matt Forte. An upgrade on defense at No. 9 overall is expected.
9. At Tennessee Titans (9-7) Sun., Nov. 4, noon
Analysis: The offseason was marked by pursuits of veteran free agents (G Steve Hutchinson, DE Kamerion Wimbley) and even Peyton Manning, which says the Titans arent convinced that Matt Hasselbeck has another year in him or that Jake Locker is the answer. Chris Johnson-Matt Forte story lines will not be hard to find.
10. Houston Texans (10-6) Sun., Nov. 11, 7:20 p.m.
Analysis: Houston finally made the postseason last year under Gary Kubiak, thanks to Peyton Mannings season lost to neck injury. Its a team that lost defensive end Mario Williams and cut tackle Eric Winston among other changes but was No. 2 in yardage defense and No 4 in points allowed.
11. At San Francisco 49ers (13-3) Mon., Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m.
Analysis: Few teams have surprised the NFL as much as the 2011 49ers, who went out this offseason and talked with Peyton Manning, added Randy Moss and established a defense that is not expected to fall off appreciably. But ESPN.com NFC West blogger Mike Sando points out that of the 19 teams that won 13 or more games in seasons from 2004-10, all 19 won fewer games the next year by an average falloff of 4.1 games.
12. Minnesota Vikings (3-13) Sun., Nov. 25, noon
Analysis: The Vikings earned the No. 3 pick in this draft by being bad. They cut ties with some established vets like guard Steve Hutchinson and started in new directions. How far have they gone? Heres the Bears chance to find out (as well as whether JMarcus Webb has figured out Jared Allen).
13. Seattle Seahawks (7-9) Sun., Dec. 2, noon
Analysis: How much difference adding former Packers backup QB Matt Flynn makes is a significant issue for the NFC West and possibly more for the team probably closest to causing problems for the San Francisco 49ers. They added on to their offensive line besides re-signing RB Marshawn Lynch but are they back to the perennial-playoff level they were not too many seasons ago?
14. At Minnesota Vikings (3-13) Sun., Dec. 9, noon
Analysis: Could be one of the Bears last trips to Minneapolis if a new stadium deal is not worked out. Governor says Vikes will leave if no new stadium.
15. Green Bay Packers (15-1) Sun., Dec. 16, noon
Analysis: Think thisll matter much to either team? How bout both?
16. At Arizona Cardinals (8-8) Sun., Dec. 23, 3:15 p.m.
Analysis: The Cardinals were in the early Peyton Manning discussions, then chose the course that led back to Kevin Kolb for a 7 million payment. This was an 8-8 team in 2011 that has not made precipitous offseason moves to get better and will have difficulty contending even in its own division.
17. At Detroit Lions (10-6) Sun., Dec. 30, noon
Analysis: One team likely to be playing for postseason seeding or even getting in, the other?