The NFL unveiled its 2011 schedule on Tuesday and the Bears learned they will meet a fellow defending division champion from the NFC in the season opener. Chicago hosts the Falcons, who finished with the best record (13-3) in the NFC last season, in Week One.
The Bears have four games scheduled for primetime kicks. They'll play back-to-back division rivals in front of a national audience, visiting the Lions on Monday night, Oct. 10 and hosting the Vikings on Sunday night, Oct. 16. Head coach Lovie Smith's squad will head to Philadelphia on Nov. 7 for a Monday-night tilt with the Eagles. The Bears will be on the road this holiday season, as they travel to face the Packers on Christmas night and the Vikings on New Year's day.
Chicago will also be showcased on an international stage, as the Bears will battle the Buccaneers in London in Week Seven before getting a bye in Week Eight.
With the parity of the NFL, teams that look strong or weak before the season don't always prove to be so — look no further than the 2010 Bears for a club that exceeded expectations. On paper, however, Chicago faces a very challenging three-game stretch to open the year (Atlanta, at New Orleans, Green Bay). The cover-2 defense will be put to the test right away against a Pro Bowl quarterback from last season in Matt Ryan and the last two Super Bowl MVPs in Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
The Bears will spend about a month facing all four teams from the AFC West in four consecutive weeks from Nov. 20 to Dec. 11, concluding the stretch with QB Jay Cutler's return to Denver, where a hero's welcome will most likely not be awaiting him.
Chicago will meet six different playoff teams from last season before all is said and done, and the campaign concludes with three of the final four games on the road and in front of hostile fan bases where crowd noise will be a factor.
A big key will be getting a win or two in those rough first three games and avoiding a dreaded 0-3 start. The Bears also will have to overcome the long trip to London, which can wear a team down in the middle of the year.