As I write this, it’s 39 degrees in Chicago but feels like 32. It’s drizzling. It’s foggy. It’s gray. You know what that means, right? FOOTBALL WEATHER! The leaves are raked. I’ve got my long undies on. (TMI?) Let’s hit the Soldier Field parking lot and do some tailgating! Who’s got a grill?
I’m sorry, what’s that … the Chicago Cubs are supposed to play at Wrigley Field today? Devin Hester is locked out of the practice facility? It’s April?! I know, I know: It’s hard to think about football right now. But the Chicago Bears released their 2011-12 schedule this week and it’s got us thinking ahead — in blissful denial of the ongoing NFL lockout — to the fall and winter to come. Here are some admittedly early thoughts on the Top Five Bears games of 2011:
1. Sunday, Sept. 25, and Sunday, Dec. 25, Bears vs. Green Bay Packers (tie)
Let’s be honest, we’re all looking forward to football (whenever it finally arrives), but we’re also all looking forward to a chance at some modicum of redemption against the Packers. In truth, it will be a long road back after: a) Allowing Green Bay into the playoffs to begin with, and b) Losing to them in the playoffs. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
The question is, which of these two games will be bigger? The September showdown will be a return to the scene of the crime. The first time the Pack returns to Soldier Field after beating the Bears there to advance to the Super Bowl. Is there anything more important than righting that wrong with a decisive win in September?
Then again, check out that game in December. It’s on Christmas! No matter where your religious proclivities may lie, a Bears loss on this day would really put the kibosh on our collective holiday spirit. Plus, y’know, the game takes place at the very end of the season, may have playoff implications, yadda yadda. But please, Santa, bring us a win! Don’t let the Packers ruin Christmas!
2. Sunday, Sept. 11, Atlanta Falcons @ Bears
What can I say? I’m a sucker for Opening Day. The pomp. The circumstance. The end of the blithering madness that’s the NFL preseason. Plus, this year, the first game of the season will presumably put a final punctuation mark on the ugly labor dispute that’s currently casting the game in a decidedly unflattering light.
The Bears didn’t play the Falcons last season – not even in the preseason. So don’t beat yourself up too much if they flew under your radar. As it turns out, Atlanta had quite a year behind quarterback Matt Ryan, going 13-3 with a 7-1 home record. For better or worse, this is an appropriate opening to a 2011 schedule that appears to be quite difficult.
3. Sunday, Oct. 23, Bears @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (in London)
The Bears had good fortune going international last season when they played the struggling Buffalo Bills in Toronto in November and won the game 22-19. Of course, a flight across the pond is a little more lengthy and arduous than a charge over the border. And the Bucs are likely a better team, as the finished 10-6 in the tough NFC South last year. But, whatever the outcome of this contest, it should prove to be an interesting cultural event.
Why does Tampa Bay get to be the home team? Not sure. It may be because they’ve been there before. In fact, this will be the second season in the past three that the Buccaneers play American football for a British audience. On the bright side, they got crushed 28-0 by the New England Patriots on Oct. 25, 2009, so maybe that will get in their heads.
4. Sunday, Dec. 11, Bears @ Denver Broncos
You know who else the Bears didn’t play last season? The Broncos, otherwise known as "The Team That Wrought Jay Cutler." This will not only be Jay’s reunion with his old team, but also a reintroduction to his old fanbase. And, given his ugly departure from the Rocky Mountain State, he and we should expect the worst from the Invesco Field crowd.
On the bright side, the Broncos did their best to contribute to the overall mediocrity of the AFC last season. The team finished last in the West, managing only eight wins. They’re hoping to shore up the defense in 2011 to garner some better results. We’ll see. In any case, expect plenty of noise and drama focused on Cutler as this game plays out.
5. Monday, Nov. 7, Bears @ Philadelphia Eagles
"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald rather depressingly wrote early last century. But, generally when writers cut loose with that quote, it’s to prove ol’ Fitzy wrong. And so it goes that Eagles quarterback Michael Vick got his second act last season, passing and scurrying his way to 233 completions, 3,018 yards and a 100.2 QB rating — after serving 21 months in prison in 2007 and 2008 for his role in a dog fighting ring.
All that success didn’t stop the Bears from beating him, of course. As you may recall, on Sunday, Nov. 28, in one of the more memorable games of the season, Cutler tied a career high with four TD passes and Julius Peppers threw Vick to the turf in a 31-16 Bears win. And the home crowd cheered. This year? A couple of things will be different: 1) It will be a Monday night, nationally televised showdown between the two teams, and 2) The home crowd will be filled with Philadelphia Eagles fans.
As mentioned up top, the Bears schedule — whenever it begins (all dates above subject to change, NFL lockout rules apply) — won’t be easy. But at least the weather here in Chicago will probably be better. Maybe. OK, probably not.