Here is a look at the five key matchups on the Chicago Bears' 2014 regular-season schedule:
1. Sep. 14, Bears at San Francisco, 7:30 p.m. CT, NBC: The 49ers have been one of the NFC’s elite teams under head coach Jim Harbaugh with a 36-11 regular season and 5-3 postseason record (including a berth in Super Bowl XLVII) over the past three seasons. This Week 2 battle will be the first game played in the 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The California stadium development is fantastic news for the Bears. San Francisco’s old venue, Candlestick Park, was a house of horrors for Chicago teams. The Bears lost their final seven games at Candlestick by a combined score of 230-49. That is not a typo. 49ers 230 -- Bears 49. Hello, Santa Clara.
2. Oct. 12, Bears at Atlanta, noon CT, FOX: The Falcons fell apart last season because of injuries and finished 4-12. With better health and a couple new pieces on defense, Atlanta figures to contend for the NFC South title in 2014. But the Georgia Dome is another place that has played tricks on the Bears in recent years. The Bears were poised to knock off the Falcons in 2009, but lost 21-14 after a series of costly mistakes that included: Jay Cutler throwing an interception in the red zone, Matt Forte fumbling on two straight runs from the one-yard line, and former offensive tackle Orlando Pace being whistled for a false start on 4th-and-1 from the Atlanta 5-yard line on the game’s final drive. The Bears also allowed the Falcons to escape with a 22-20 victory in the Georgia Dome in 2008 on a late botched coverage that led to a winning field goal as time expired.
3. Oct. 26, Bears at New England, noon CT, FOX: The Bears' most recent visit to Foxborough occurred in the Super Bowl year of 2006 when the teams played a tight game that featured a massive amount of turnovers. The Patriots eventually won 17-13, and four years later New England routed the Bears at a snowy Soldier Field, 36-7, leaving ex-head coach Lovie Smith winless against Bill Belichick. Second-year Bears’ boss Marc Trestman now has the opportunity to match wits with the perennial AFC powerhouse and arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NFL. Since the Patriots are always good, this figures to be one of the NFL’s marquee matchups in Week 8.
4. Nov. 9, Bears at Green Bay, 7:30 p.m. CT, NBC: This all looks so familiar. The Bears, fresh off their bye week, travel to Lambeau Field for a nationally televised night game. Where have we seen this before? Oh, yes, it was last year when Shea McClellin knocked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of a Monday night game with a fractured collarbone as the Bears pulled out a 27-20 victory. Can the Bears do it again? Keep in mind the Packers will also be coming off a bye week when the Bears arrive in Green Bay, so it’s not as if the Bears are expected to be fresher. But having extra time to prepare for Rodgers and company is never a bad thing. In a scheduling twist, the Bears won’t see the Packers again after Week 9 unless the teams meet in the playoffs.
5. Nov. 23, Bears vs. Buccaneers, noon CT, FOX: Welcome back, Lovie and Josh. The return of Lovie Smith and Josh McCown to Soldier Field will be highly anticipated in Chicago. Expect McCown, the new Tampa Bay quarterback, to receive a warm ovation from the Soldier Field faithful. Why wouldn’t he? McCown had a career year for the Bears in 2013 when he completed 149-of-224 attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception. Sure, McCown signed with the Bucs in free agency, but the Bears never made him an official offer. You can’t blame McCown for jumping ship. On the other hand, the reception for Smith is unlikely to be as positive, even though he won 81 regular-season games and three division titles in nine years before the Bears fired him. But Smith probably won’t care. He never struck me as the nostalgic type.