Breaking down the Bears' 2012 schedule

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Breaking down the Bears' 2012 schedule

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?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

It's too bad Nikola Mirotic never played college basketball in the United States. He would have been fun to watch during March Madness.

For some reason, Mirotic has saved his best basketball for the month of March over his three NBA seasons. During his rookie season in 2014-15, Mirotic took advantage of injuries to a couple of the Bulls key players, and averaged 20.8 points a game with expanded playing time in March, leading all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring.

Last season, after rehabbing from two surgeries following appendicitis, Niko averaged just over 13 points a game in March, shooting better than 53 percent from deep.

And this season, Mirotic is averaging 14.2 points on 47.9% shooting from the field during his favorite month. Since he re-entered the rotation back on March 13, Mirotic has been even better, averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point land.

It appeared Mirotic's time with the Bulls was coming to an end when Fred Hoiberg held him out of three straight games earlier this month, including a spot on the inactive list in Boston on March 12. At that point, Mirotic talked openly of not knowing why he had been taken out of the rotation. Now, he might be the key to the Bulls' playoff hopes.

Mirotic has scored a season-high 28 points each in two of the last three games.

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Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, "The big thing with Niko is he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. Anybody who's a shooter, they play with confidence, the game's a lot easier. He's not hesitating at all with his shots. He's taking good shots in the flow of the offense. When Jimmy and Rajon get in the paint, and Niko's spacing the floor, it's a great look and right now he's knocking them down."

So, right now all is good for the 26-year-old native of Montenegro. But it's hard to look past the inconsistency that's marked his NBA career. Mirotic is averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his three NBA seasons, shooting  41 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Not exactly the numbers Bulls' fans expected from the guy considered to be one of the best prospects in Europe when he was drafted in 2011. 

Now, as Mirotic gets ready to head into restricted free agency this summer, the Bulls are faced with a difficult decision. Are they willing to pay more than $10 million a year for a player who's been so inconsistent in the NBA? Or, do they let Mirotic walk and risk the possibility the light will suddenly come on for a 6-foot-10 stretch forward that every team in the league could utilize?

The Bulls have 2015 first-round pick Bobby Portis under contract for next season, and Paul Zipser and Joffrey Lauvergne also could be in the mix for playing time at the power forward spot. And, there's always the chance the Bulls could get in the bidding for big name free agents Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap.

But after trading Doug McDermott at the deadline, the Bulls are painfully short on 3-point shooting threats, and that might lead the front office to decide they'll need to overpay to keep Mirotic around.

It's just one of the tough decisions the Bulls front office faces in what promises to be a fascinating off-season.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

It's been another tough season in Phoenix. Despite adding a number of lottery picks in recent years, the Suns currently own the third-worst record in the league. Maybe that's why the players were celebrating with so much energy during a loss in Boston last Friday, watching second year guard Devin Booker explode for 70 points.

Booker becomes only the 6th NBA player to hit the 70-point plateau, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, David Robinson and Elgin Baylor. The baby-faced 20-year-old shooting guard connected on 21 of 40 shots from the field (only 4-11 from 3-point range), plus 24 of 26 from the free-throw line.

With the game hopelessly out of reach in the 4th quarter the Suns kept feeding the ball to Booker to see how high he could push his point total. It might not have pleased basketball purists, but it sure was fun for the Suns' players during their 51st loss of the year.

Phoenix added a pair of young big men in last year's draft, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, and they have a deep backcourt with Booker, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. So, is there a chance they could enter the bidding for Bulls' star Jimmy Butler this summer?

Would a top-3 pick and Bledsoe be enough for Butler? Or would the Bulls prefer a couple of the Suns' young frontcourt players, Bender, Alex Len or T.J. Warren to go along with the pick?

With seven or eight elite prospects at the top of this year's draft, the Bulls will have some options if they decide to go the total rebuild route.

If the Bulls do go shopping for a Butler deal, don't count on Boston still being interested this summer. In case you haven't noticed, the Celtics moved ahead of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East earlier this week, and Danny Ainge might decide he can build a championship team without making a major trade.

The Celtics already have two All-Star caliber players on the roster in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, and if the pick they have coming from Brooklyn remains in the top 3, Ainge will be able to add an elite young player like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson. After holding on to those Brooklyn picks for so long in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, it's hard to imagine Ainge changing direction now.

Plus, the Celtics also will have enough salary cap room to go after a top free agent, and they've long been linked to Jazz star Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler. It's possible the Celtics could come back next season with a lineup of Thomas and Fultz/Ball in the backcourt, with Horford, Hayward and Jae Crowder up front. Maybe not the star power to match Cleveland, but certainly a team that could contend in the East for a number of years to come.

Former Bulls' All-Star Joakim Noah met with the New York media to discuss his 20 game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance contained in an over the counter supplement he was taking. 

"I made a mistake. It was a tough year for me, for this team," Noah told reporters after returning to practice Tuesday. "... I let a lot of people down. It was a mistake. And I gotta learn from it and bounce back. This is a tough moment and I'm going to learn from it."

Noah said he used the supplement to try to help him bounce back from a hamstring injury he suffered in early February. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year then had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on February 27 to remove loose fragments.

The Knicks are hoping he can get medical clearance to serve part of the 20-game suspension this season, with the remaining time served at the start of the 2017-18 season. Noah still has three more years left on the four-year, $72 million contract he signed with Phil Jackson's Knicks last summer.

Kevin Durant continues to work his way back from the sprained knee he suffered on February 28th in Washington. The Warriors released a statement on Wednesday saying Durant has made very good progress in his rehab and will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days. The hope is to have Durant play a few regular season games over the final week to get him ready for the playoffs.

Durant has been traveling with the team, going through pre-game workouts monitored by the medical and training staff. The plan is to increase his level of movement over the next few days to see how the knee responds.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Even though the Bulls haven't won back-to-back games since February 24 and 25, the players continue to remain confident about their playoff chances.

This from Mirotic following practice on Wednesday, "We have to depend on just ourselves and pray basically. Hopefully we can be there...... I think we deserve it. The attitude of the team is great right now. We're sticking together even after that tough loss against Philly, we bounce back against Milwaukee. So, right now, we've got another chance."

The Bulls probably need to go 5-3 over the final eight games to make the postseason. After a season of ups and downs, it's anyone's guess if they'll be able to put together a stretch of solid basketball during the final two weeks.