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Chicago Bears' 2021 schedule: Daunting non-divisional opponents, including defending champ Bucs

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The Chicago Bears' 2021 schedule was released along with the rest of the NFL slate on Wednesday.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET). ESPN’s Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 13 will feature the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET).

The NFL will change its schedule for the first time in 44 years, expanding to 17 regular-season games. The final regular-season games will be played Jan. 9, 2022. The playoffs begin Jan. 15, 2022 and continue through Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022 at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium.

Here's what is in store for the Bears:

Schedule

Week 1: at Los Angeles Rams (SNF)

Week 2: vs. Cincinnati

Week 3: at Cleveland

Week 4: vs. Detroit

Week 5: at Las Vegas

Week 6: vs. Green Bay

Week 7: at Tampa Bay

Week 8: vs. San Francisco

Week 9: at Pittsburgh (MNF)

Week 10: Bye

Week 11: vs. Baltimore

Week 12: at Detroit (Thanksgiving)

Week 13: vs. Arizona

Week 14: at Green Bay (SNF)

Week 15: vs. Minnesota (MNF)

Week 16: at Seattle

Week 17: vs. New York Giants

Week 18: at Minnesota

Strength of schedule: 3rd, .550

Biggest takeaway

As the strength of schedule shows, the Bears' schedule is littered with land mines, beginning with the trip to Los Angeles to kick off the season. Having five primetime games suggests the networks are much more interested in the Bears following the 2021 draft. The Bears play four of their final seven games versus NFC North foes. For the Bears to contend for the playoffs, they must take care of business in their own division. With Aaron Rodgers possibly leaving Green Bay, the Vikings treading water with Kirk Cousins, and the Lions being, well, the Lions, the Bears have an opportunity to make noise in the NFC North. The non-divisional games, however, look daunting with matchups against Cleveland, Seattle, Baltimore, Arizona, Pittsburgh and the defending champion Buccaneers.

One storyline to watch

The quarterback always dominates the headlines in Chicago. Since the moment the Bears moved up nine spots to draft Justin Fields 11th overall, the conversation has shifted to when the rookie will play. The Bears preference –at the moment – is to stick with veteran Andy Dalton until Fields is ready. A strong start to the season should quiet some of the cries for Fields, but if the Bears get off to a slow start, the roars to inset the first-year quarterback will be deafening. Chicago is beyond desperate for a franchise quarterback.

What Vegas thinks

The oddsmakers have the Bears' win total at 7.5. Prior to the draft, taking the under felt like the right choice to make. However, the recent arrivals of Fields and rookie offensive tackle Teven Jenkins -- the likely new starting left tackle -- makes the over much more attractive. Chicago's defense is still good enough to keep them in most games. With a better offense and better quarterback, the Bears might hit eight, nine or even 10 wins.

Bold prediction

Fields is the starting quarterback by Week 10 -- at the latest. The whole Alex Smith blueprint from Kansas City is great, but Dalton is not Smith, who posted a passer rating of 104.7 the year Patrick Mahomes sat on the bench. Do not expect the Bears to enjoy the same luxury from their veteran quarterback, who remains decent, but is unlikely to play at level Smith did in 2017.