The Sun-Times’ Bears experts — Patrick Finley, Jason Lieser and Mark Potash — analyze the team’s 2021 schedule:
What will the Bears record be, and why?
FINLEY: 8-9. Quarterback Andy Dalton will provide what proves to be a false positive by playing well in the first five weeks. Four of those first five opponents — the Bengals, Browns, Raiders and Lions — finished in the bottom quarter of the NFL in defensive DVOA last year. Dalton’s hot start will yield — you guessed it — another six-game losing streak in the middle of the season. The Bears — who, amazingly, alternate road and home games from Weeks 1-18 — will again pat themselves on the back for pulling out of the skid, but it will be too late to salvage a winning season.
LIESER: 10-7. In a vacuum, that record and a wild-card berth are far from thrilling. But managing a decent season with Justin Fields either red-shirting or learning rookie lessons would be a positive. They’ll need a few teams [like the Steelers] to be worse than they’re widely projected, but there are enough winnable games for the Bears to get to the playoffs even if they can’t beat the Packers, Buccaneers or Rams. After they get past the opener in Los Angeles, there’s a soft spot where they can get out to a strong start.
POTASH: 8-9. The Bears have a tough road schedule on paper and not only are they facing tougher opponents this season [the Rams, Browns, Raiders, Buccaneers, Steelers and Seahawks in addition to their division foes], but they’re playing nine road games and possibly in front of packed houses in 2021, which they didn’t have when they went 5-3 on the road in 2021.
What’s the most interesting part of the schedule?
FINLEY: In Weeks 6-8, the Bears play three teams — the Packers, champion Buccaneers and 49ers — who are among the top eight favored to win the Super Bowl. Presuming Aaron Rodgers is still quarterbacking the Packers, the Bears will learn more about their team during that stretch than at any point during the season.
LIESER: Weeks 14-18. The Bears will see the Vikings twice, visit Green Bay and Seattle and get a gimme home game against the Giants. That’s probably going to be a very challenging stretch as they fight to stay in the playoff race.
POTASH: The opening six games — at the Rams, against the Bengals, at the Browns, against the Lions, at the Raiders and against the Packers. For a Bears team that could go in either direction after back-to-back 8-8 seasons, it’s a playable early schedule that will be a litmus test for Dalton and coach Matt Nagy. If Dalton is to keep the Fields wolves at bay, he has to produce early.
When will we first see Justin Fields?
FINLEY: The Bears will bench Dalton in the second half of the Steelers game, name Fields the starter before they leave for their bye and debut him Week 11 against the Ravens. The Dolphins waited until their bye to do the same to Tua Tagovailoa last year.
LIESER: Week 1. No matter what the Bears say or how much sense their plan makes on paper, they won’t be able to keep Fields on the bench this season. He has four months to get ready, and there’s little doubt he’s capable of outplaying Dalton by the time the season opens. If he does, the Bears would be crazy to hold him back.
POTASH: Fields figures to start at some point in 2021, but there is no ideal soft spot in the schedule for the rookie to make an elective debut. The Lions game at Soldier Field in Week 4 is too early unless Dalton really plays his way out of the job. Even after the bye, the Bears face a perennially tough Ravens defense. Circle Dec. 5 against the Cardinals at Soldier Field.