Bulls

Breaking down the Bears' 2012 schedule

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Breaking down the Bears' 2012 schedule

Critics may not consider the Bears prime-time players but the NFL has them playing five prime-times games, including Thursday night Week 2 in Green Bay and three Monday Night Football games, based on the official 2012 schedule released Tuesday.

The NFL limits a team to five prime-time games in a season. The Bears ring up that total in the span of their first 10 games.

The opponents have been known for months, just not which team on which date at which time, allowing for late-season flex scheduling.

Now thats in place, with some interesting twists.

The Bears will open at home for the third straight year. Besides having their first two games within five days of each other for the first time since 1940, they have seven games against teams with winning records for 2011 (two each with Green Bay and Detroit, Houston, Tennessee and San Francisco). Arizona and Dallas each finished 8-8.

We started our offseason program Monday and received our schedule today, so our 2012 season is officially underway, coach Lovie Smith said in a statement. "I love starting the season at home in front of our fans. I dont think there is a better place to kick off the season than playing at Soldier Field on the lakefront.

Playing five of our first 10 games in prime time also stands out. Each week brings its own challenge and we are excited to begin our pursuit of a world championship.

Up against new guys

The Bears face three teams with new head coaches: Indianapolis (Chuck Pagano), St. Louis (Jeff Fisher) and Jacksonville (Mike Mularkey).

Nearly half of their games project to be against quarterbacks either in their first or second years as starters: Carolina (Cam Newton), Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert), Indianapolis (Andrew Luck), Minnesota twice (Christian Ponder), Seattle (Matt Flynn) and possibly Tennessee (Jake Locker).

Throw in Arizonas Kevin Kolb (five seasons, 14 total starts, no more than seven in any year) and the Bears defense will not be facing a Hall of Fame list of quarterbacks, at least not yet.

But there will be surprises, probably good and bad in the course of a schedule thats also a prelude:

Week Opponent Daydatetime

1. Indianapolis Colts (2-14) Sun. Sept. 9 noon

Analysis: Another franchise making itself over from GM (Ryan Grigson) to coach (Chuck Pagano) to quarterback (Andrew Luck) and beyond. The post-Peyton Colts will be a work in progress and probably the softest touch on the schedule. Get ready for re-analyzing Luck all over again. If Bears cant pressure this rookie QB behind that offensive linebe afraid, be very afraid.

2. At Green Bay Packers (15-1) Thurs. Sept. 13, 7:20 p.m.

Analysis: This makes four straight years that the Bears and Packers have met by Game 3. The Packers are the gold (green and gold, actually) standard in the NFC North. The Bears goal going into the offseason was to gain on the Packers; heres the pop quiz to see if they did it.

Packers replaced one Pro Bowl center with another (Jeff Saturday) but their key has been draft hits, although theyre likely moving on from RB Ryan Grant. The defense suffered a major drop-off last year and is not the force it was in 10. It needs to be.

3. St. Louis Rams (2-14) Sun., Sept. 23, noon

Analysis: The Rams lost Gregg Williams as their defensive coordinator and decided they were strong enough at quarterback with Sam Bradford to deal away the No. 2 pick and its option of landing RGIII. The coaching change to Jeff Fisher portends progress but a franchise that has won three or fewer games in four of the last five seasons has a ways to go.

4. At Dallas Cowboys (8-8) Mon., Oct. 1 7:30 p.m.

Analysis: The Bears turned their 2010 season in the right direction in Dallas but that is the only time Lovie Smith has beaten his favorite home-state team. Few teams have gotten the hype that the Cowboys have, with Tony Romo putting up numbers and the talent seemingly there. But this is an underachieving team that too often makes more noise than impact.

5. At Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) Sun., Oct. 7, 3:05 p.m.

Analysis: This may have some small measure of specialness for O-coordinator Mike Tice, who coached the Jags offensive line before coming to Chicago. Blaine Gabbert did not establish himself as the Jacksonville franchise QB as a rookie and if that doesnt happen, the Jaguars will be a while before contending. Maurice Jones-Drew has become a consistent ground force but this team is a work-in-progress under new coach Mike Mularkey.

6. Off week

7. Detroit Lions (10-6) Mon., Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m.

Analysis: The Bears crushed the Lions in their second meeting last season and put 752 combined yards on Detroit in the two games. Before the Cutler injury, the Bears were ahead of the Lions; are they still? The Lions were the chic choice through the first half of last season but still have to establish consistency and that Matthew Stafford can stay healthy.

8. Carolina Panthers (6-10) Sun., Oct. 28, noon

Analysis: You cant expect Cam Newton to repeat the kind of epic first season he had, and yetThe Panthers committed major money to WR Steve Smith so the Bears have to deal with him again. But Carolina was dismal against the run and will have a long day with Michael Bush and (presumably) Matt Forte. An upgrade on defense at No. 9 overall is expected.

9. At Tennessee Titans (9-7) Sun., Nov. 4, noon

Analysis: The offseason was marked by pursuits of veteran free agents (G Steve Hutchinson, DE Kamerion Wimbley) and even Peyton Manning, which says the Titans arent convinced that Matt Hasselbeck has another year in him or that Jake Locker is the answer. Chris Johnson-Matt Forte story lines will not be hard to find.
10. Houston Texans (10-6) Sun., Nov. 11, 7:20 p.m.

Analysis: Houston finally made the postseason last year under Gary Kubiak, thanks to Peyton Mannings season lost to neck injury. Its a team that lost defensive end Mario Williams and cut tackle Eric Winston among other changes but was No. 2 in yardage defense and No 4 in points allowed.

11. At San Francisco 49ers (13-3) Mon., Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m.
Analysis: Few teams have surprised the NFL as much as the 2011 49ers, who went out this offseason and talked with Peyton Manning, added Randy Moss and established a defense that is not expected to fall off appreciably. But ESPN.com NFC West blogger Mike Sando points out that of the 19 teams that won 13 or more games in seasons from 2004-10, all 19 won fewer games the next year by an average falloff of 4.1 games.

12. Minnesota Vikings (3-13) Sun., Nov. 25, noon

Analysis: The Vikings earned the No. 3 pick in this draft by being bad. They cut ties with some established vets like guard Steve Hutchinson and started in new directions. How far have they gone? Heres the Bears chance to find out (as well as whether JMarcus Webb has figured out Jared Allen).

13. Seattle Seahawks (7-9) Sun., Dec. 2, noon

Analysis: How much difference adding former Packers backup QB Matt Flynn makes is a significant issue for the NFC West and possibly more for the team probably closest to causing problems for the San Francisco 49ers. They added on to their offensive line besides re-signing RB Marshawn Lynch but are they back to the perennial-playoff level they were not too many seasons ago?

14. At Minnesota Vikings (3-13) Sun., Dec. 9, noon

Analysis: Could be one of the Bears last trips to Minneapolis if a new stadium deal is not worked out. Governor says Vikes will leave if no new stadium.

15. Green Bay Packers (15-1) Sun., Dec. 16, noon

Analysis: Think thisll matter much to either team? How bout both?

16. At Arizona Cardinals (8-8) Sun., Dec. 23, 3:15 p.m.

Analysis: The Cardinals were in the early Peyton Manning discussions, then chose the course that led back to Kevin Kolb for a 7 million payment. This was an 8-8 team in 2011 that has not made precipitous offseason moves to get better and will have difficulty contending even in its own division.
17. At Detroit Lions (10-6) Sun., Dec. 30, noon

Analysis: One team likely to be playing for postseason seeding or even getting in, the other?

Lauri Markkanen celebrates 21st birthday with a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie First Team

Lauri Markkanen celebrates 21st birthday with a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie First Team

Lauri Markkanen’s celebration for his 21st birthday coincided with another major honor, being selected to the All-Rookie First team.

Markkanen received 76 of 100 possible first-team votes to join Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma on the first team. Mitchell and Simmons were unanimous selections and Tatum was one vote short of joining Mitchell and Simmons.

Markkanen, acquired on draft night in the package of players for Jimmy Butler, showed he was far more advanced than many expected. His 15.2 points per game ranked third among rookies and his 7.5 rebounds were first.

Markkanen was a constant in a topsy-turvy season for the Bulls, scoring 30-plus twice and hitting the 25-point plateau another three times. As a perfect fit in Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system, Markkanen had eight games where he hit four triples or more, including a game in New York where he drilled eight 3-pointers against the Knicks.

Only 15 rookies have hit more than 140 triples in NBA history, with Markkanen accomplishing the feat in 68 games—he was joined by Mitchell and Kuzma from this year’s star-studded class.

As the season progressed and Markkanen took hold of the power forward position, the Bulls began maneuvering personnel around him, trading disgruntled forward Nikola Mirotic and making a concerted effort to put Bobby Portis at center to pair Portis with Markkanen as a spread-shooting duo.

As the most impressive rookie the Bulls have employed since Derrick Rose, he’s also the first rookie since Taj Gibson in 2010 to make All-Rookie First Team.

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.

The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.

Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.

Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.