Bears to open season vs. Atlanta

The notion the Chicago Bears don't receive respect nationally should probably be shelved, considering the team plays four nationally-televised contests in prime time in 2011, including two on ESPN's Monday Night Football.

The NFL released its 2011 schedule on Tuesday, with the Bears opening at Soldier Field against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 11 and continuing with a busy holiday schedule that includes road games on Christmas at Green Bay and on New Year's Day at Minnesota to close out the regular season.

The Bears play three of their first four games at Soldier Field, hosting the Falcons, Green Bay Packers in Week 3 and the Carolina Panthers in Week 4.

"We like opening with three of our first four games in front of our fans at Soldier Field," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "It is also clear that our division is well respected as we face each of our rivals in prime time this season. The NFC North deserves the showcase games, and we look forward to those classic matchups in front of a national audience."

Chicago's first brush with prime time comes in back-to-back weeks on Oct. 10 and Oct. 16, on the road at Detroit -- which will host a Monday night game for the first time in 10 years -- followed by a home outing against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night.

The team's trip to London, where it will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is tentatively set for Oct. 23 at Wembley Stadium. If the NFL and the former players union can't come to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement by Aug. 1, the Bears and Buccaneers will play at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. instead of London.

Chicago's bye week falls in Week 8 (Oct. 30).

Interestingly, the non-conference portion of the team's schedule features the AFC West, which produced only one playoff participant (Kansas City) last season. The Bears play four consecutive games against AFC West foes from Nov. 20 to Dec. 11, facing Oakland and Denver on the road on Nov. 27 and Dec. 11, in addition to hosting San Diego on Nov. 29 and the Chiefs on Dec. 4.

In the NFC portion of the schedule, the Bears face five playoff participants, including the Super Bowl champion Packers, New Orleans, Seattle, Philadelphia and Atlanta. The Bears defeated the Packers and Eagles in the regular season last year, and avenged a Week 6 loss to the Seahawks with a 35-24 beat down in the divisional round.

Eight of Chicago's 2011 opponents -- the Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, Eagles, Packers, Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers -- finished last season with records of .500 or better, and six of those teams (Chiefs, Eagles, Packers, Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers) won 10 or more games.

Making the schedule tougher is the last six weeks which feature four road contests against Oakland on Nov. 27, Denver on Dec. 11, Green Bay on Christmas, and Minnesota on New Year's Day. Fortunately for the Bears, three of those four road opponents (Minnesota, Oakland, and Denver) combined last season for a record of 18-30.

The Bears play their regular-season home finale on Dec. 18 against the Seahawks.

Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.