Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

With the 2017 NFL schedule officially released, a look at a handful of games that are must-watch events or that could determine playoff scenarios in January of 2018:

Thursday, Sept. 7: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

The defending champs open their title defense with a Chiefs team that went 12-4 and won the AFC West last year. Kansas City had the AFC’s second-highest point differential at +78, but that was less than half of New England’s (+191) in 2016. The last time these two teams played was in the divisional round of the 2015 playoffs, with New England winning that, 27-20. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

A week after opening the season in Chicago against the Bears, Atlanta will play its first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday Night Football against a Green Bay side it crushed, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game in January. This could be an early battle for NFC supremacy or, at the least, an entertaining, high-scoring game. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos

Can Dak Prescott do it again? The Cowboys sophomore quarterback will face a tough schedule this year, headlined by this trip to Denver to face a team that had the NFL’s fourth-best scoring defense (18.6 PPG) and best passing defense (5.8 yards/attempt) last year. 

Monday, Oct. 2: Washington Redskins at Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City’s 18 interceptions tied for the most in the NFL last year, while Kirk Cousins threw for 4,917 yards and 25 touchdowns. With Cousins likely to be on the open market after this season, he could set the tone for a rich contract with a strong performance against a top-level secondary in primetime here. 

[RELATED: NFL does Bears no favors with opening four-game stretch]

Sunday, Oct. 22: Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots

This is only the seventh regular season rematch between the previous season’s Super Bowl participants in NFL history, though they’ve been oddly common in recent years: Denver beat Carolina last year, and in 2014, Seattle won in overtime against Denver. 

Monday, Nov. 20: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks

The December Monday Night Football schedule is full of potential division-deciding matchups  (Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, New England at Miami, Atlanta at Tampa Bay) and overall, this year’s Monday night slate is strong. But this Falcons-Seahawks matchup in late November carries plenty of intrigue. These two teams met in the 2016 regular season, with Seattle making a fourth quarter comeback to win, 26-24. 

Monday, Dec. 11: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins last year made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and if they have any lofty designs on unseating the Patriots in the AFC East, this could be the game that does it. Miami lost their home game against New England last year by 21 points.

Sunday, Dec. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Oakland Raiders

Prescott against Derek Carr on Sunday Night Football, in what could be one of the last “big” games at Oakland Coliseum, should be one of the better cross-conference games of 2017. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia’s offseason haul was headlined by adding Alshon Jeffery to pair with Carson Wentz, which could be a dangerous combination in the NFC East. if Dallas were to fall back to earth, circle this season-ending game as one that perhaps could decide the division. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions

Green Bay ended last season at Ford Field, too, with their 31-24 win securing an NFC North title. If the division goes down to this game again, there’s some added intrigue given the Lions pulled T.J. Lang away from Green Bay in March with $19 million guaranteed — an awfully high price for a guard. 

Bears reportedly bring back kicker Connor Barth with one-year deal

Bears reportedly bring back kicker Connor Barth with one-year deal

The Bears have filled a vacancy at kicker with a familiar face.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bears are bringing back kicker Connor Barth on one-year deal worth $980,000 and $155,000 in guaranteed money.

Barth, 30, replaced longtime Bears kicker Robbie Gould prior to the 2016 season.

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In his first season with the Bears, Barth connected on 18-of-23 field goals attempts and made 31 out of a possible 32 extra points. 

In 99 career games across eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs (2008), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2009-12, 2015), Denver Broncos (2014) and Bears (2016), Barth has converted 157-of-187 field goal attempts and missed just 2 extra points.

The Bears now have their punter (Pat O'Donnell), long-snapper (Patrick Scales) and kicker (Barth) under contract for the 2017 season.

End of an era: Bears release Jay Cutler

End of an era: Bears release Jay Cutler

The long-anticipated departure of Jay Cutler from Chicago came to pass on Thursday as the Bears released Cutler, and sources tell that the New York Jets could be in the mix to sign Cutler. The action ended an eight-year Cutler run with the Bears that saw one playoff trip and victory, and a near-constant argument over what the Bears had done when they traded draft picks and Kyle Orton to the Denver Broncos in 2009 for what they hoped would continue to be a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Cutler exits as one of the most polarizing figures in Chicago sports history, certainly among Bears fans but also among teammates, with whom he had various dustups over his eight Bears seasons.

"I appreciate Jay's professionalism throughout this process and throughout my two years with him here in Chicago," Bears general manager Ryan Pace said in a press release. "I will always appreciate his toughness and respect his accomplishments on the field with the Bears. He leaves here holding every passing record with this storied franchise and I wish him nothing but the best."

Bears chairman George McCaskey added: "We are grateful to Jay for all he did as a Bear. His ability, toughness, and intelligence were on daily display at Halas Hall and Soldier Field. He had an extraordinary impact off the field, doing things for people — especially kids — without expecting or wanting any recognition. I was and am a big fan of his. We wish Jay, Kristin and their three kids all the best."
The 2016 season, even more than 2015, had been a prove-it year for Cutler in large measure because it was the final season that contained any guaranteed money. And as coaches consistently state, players generally make their decisions for them. With his health and performance, Cutler ultimately made this decision a fait accompli.
Besides two different injuries happening, Cutler regressed in ball security, with his interception percentage spiking back up to 3.6 from 2.3, his completion percentage falling below 60 and only one of five starts with a passer rating above 82.
And as it had with Alshon Jeffery, durability and injury history became factors. Since coming to the Bears, Cutler played all 16 games just once (2009) at age 34, Cutler's physical vulnerabilities were only going increase, not decrease. From 2009-16 Cutler missed as many games (26) as Tony Romo, one of the unfortunate benchmarks for injury issues at quarterback. Cutler underwent shoulder surgery for a torn labrum suffered last season, raising more recent and significant red flags about both his present and future.
Mismanagement styles
The 2009 trade to acquire Cutler could be and was heavily debated. In hindsight the Bears did not two No. 1's worth of on-field value for Cutler but the organization went aggressively after what it viewed as a huge upgrade at the the single most important position in team sports.
But once Cutler hit town, how the management handled him both on and off the field was mystifying and misguided, nowhere more glaringly obvious than committing a seven-year contract to a proven mid-level quarterback. 
GM Phil Emery subsequently floated the bizarre narrative that, coming off a so-called breakout offensive year under Marc Trestman, particularly with much of the success coming when Josh McCown ran the offense, the Bears needed to show evidence of a commitment to Cutler; hence the massive contract rather than a one-year franchise tag. But the season was hardly "breakout," and the offense averaged nearly 50 more passing yards per game in starts by McCown (308.6) than with Cutler (259.3).
Cutler's history instead suggested that prove-it tough love was a better management approach. Cutler had responded to his surprise extension after five Bears games in 2009 with the highest interception total and lowest passer rating of his career. When Emery lavished the term "franchise quarterback" on him in 2012, Cutler's production was among the lowest of his Chicago seasons.
And 2014, after the contract move, was an unmitigated disaster for the team and organization, despite Cutler proclaiming at the time of his contract-signing in January, "The mindset is right and the talent in the locker room is right."
However, compared to the approaches of Emery and Jerry Angelo before them, neither John Fox nor Pace offered endorsements of Cutler as their quarterback immediately after their hirings. More pointedly, Gase prefaced his decision on Cutler with contacting various Cutler coaches, seeking to discern what had and hadn't worked with the enigmatic quarterback over the Chicago years. The result was Adam Gase lobbying hard to stay with Cutler and going to a simplified decision-making scheme for Cutler, who then produced the best passing season of his career.

That season included the Bears re-committing to balanced offense, 47 percent run in 2014 from 37 percent under Trestman. But under Dowell Loggains the offense ran on just 39.5 percent of the plays, not a formula proven to work for Cutler, or Brian Hoyer, either, for that matter.
Recurring O.C. issues – cause or effect of Cutler?
Whether that was a cause or an effect of Cutler's oft-disappointing and middling level of play, Cutler's career has been marked by a veritable turnstile of offensive coordinators. For various different reasons, Cutler unquestionably clashed and clashed hard with his early Bears bosses.
Ron Turner was coordinator under Lovie Smith when Cutler was acquired. Turner and Cutler had bad history dating back to when Turner was coach at Illinois and Cutler believed Turner rescinded a scholarship offer. Turner denied that the scholarship had been offered but subsequently admitted errors in handling of Cutler with the Bears, assuming more of the quarterback than was really there after three NFL seasons in Denver.
"With Jay's talent, probably the mistake I made early with him is that I probably did try to do too much, and then cut back on it as we went, and I think he got better," Turner told ESPN last year. "But, yeah, probably a little too much, too early."

[STATS: Jay Cutler left his mark in the Bears record books]
Turner was gone after 2009, replaced by Mike Martz. The former Rams head coach simplified the game, taking audibles away from Cutler, who produced the best year-and-a-half stretch of his career.
But Cutler was constantly battered under Martz's pass-heavy schemes. His irritation boiled over and was ultimately captured on film during an Oct. 16, 2011 game vs. Minnesota yelling, "Tell him to [expletive] himself!" toward the sideline, referring to Martz. Cutler's season ended a month later with a thumb injury and Martz was fired at the end of that season.
Smith then promoted offensive line coach Mike Tice to coordinator and the Bears streaked to a 7-1 start. But Cutler suffered a concussion in a loss to Houston, missed the next game, and his relationship with Tice deteriorated after Cutler berated his offensive line and bumped tackle J'Marcus Webb leaving the field after one of seven sacks suffered in a loss at Green Bay.
By the end of the season backup quarterback McCown was acting as an occasional messenger between Tice and Cutler, whose lack of respect for Tice had become palpable through a 10-6 season that ultimately got Smith and most of his staff fired.
Cutler's relationship with Trestman and coordinator Aaron Kromer started well through 2013. But the coaching staff became increasingly inclined to stay with McCown, who ran the offense interception-free and more to their liking during fill-in work while Cutler was out twice with injuries.
But sources said that Emery was insistent upon returning to and staying with Cutler over McCown, underscored by Cutler after the 2013 season being signed to a seven-year contract topping out at $126.7 million, with $54 million ultimately guaranteed over the first three years, subject to the Bears decisions in early 2015 and 2016 to commit to those guarantees.
As the 2014 season collapsed, Kromer anonymously voiced frustrations of the coaching staff to a national reporter, who reported supposed "buyer's remorse" with the Cutler contract. Kromer subsequently admitted to the breach and apologized to Cutler and the offense in mid-December. Kromer was fired immediately after the season, as were Emery and most of the Trestman staff.
Cutler developed a connection with Gase and Loggains, both hired in 2015 under Fox. Gase left to take the Miami Dolphins head coach job in 2016 and Cutler, dealing with thumb and shoulder issues, regressed in his five starts last season, finishing with 4 TD passes vs. 5 INT's and a rating of 78.1, second-lowest in his career behind only the 76.8 of 2009, his interception-filled first season with the Bears.

The "weapons" myth
Cutler defenders consistently cited the Bears' failure to surround him with supporting playmakers and protectors as a primary reason why Cutler never reached the heights promised by his physical talents. It is a story line that does not stand up to even cursory analysis.
Cutler and the Bears reached 11-5 and the NFC Championship game in 2010 with a wideout corps featuring Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, in addition to Matt Forte at running back and Greg Olsen at tight end, behind Frank Omiyale and Webb at the tackles.
Cutler posted a passer rating of 86.3 and was intercepted on 3.7 percent of his passes, neither number the stuff of elite.
By 2013, Emery had supplemented Forte with Martellus Bennett at tight end via free agency, and with Brandon Marshall via trade, to go with Jeffery. Cutler posted a rating of 89.2 and interception percentage of 3.4 – scant improvements over his play in 2010 with Hester, Knox, etc.
With the same weapons, McCown significantly out-performed Cutler in 2013, as did Hoyer in 2016.

Prickly teammates
Cutler was elected routinely as one of the co-captains on offense, a situation that would have been more notable had he not been, given the position played. But while Cutler consistently had the public backing of the locker room, conditions around the central figure of the offense were too often less than sanguine.
Leaving the field after one 2009 change of possession, Cutler got harsh with one of his offensive linemen. Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz told Cutler not to go there, to which Cutler told Kreutz, "you play your position, I'll play mine," according to sources.
Cutler physically bumped and berated Webb while leaving the field during the 2012 game at Green Bay, yelling at Webb, "Get your [expletive] head in the game."
Linebacker Pernell McPhee, at the time inactive on the PUP list, said something loosely to that effect this season after Cutler had turned the football over a second time in the third quarter of the week-two loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Cutler was not a favorite of one-time defensive fixtures Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. And relationships with Bennett, Marshall and others were inconsistent, with the former teammates taking shots at Cutler from safe distances after they'd left the Bears via trades.