The Matt Nagy/Ryan Pace Bears have reached a pivotal moment, and this 2020 season will determine a lot about their future.
It should answer this straightforward question: Are they the 12-4 team from 2018 that was on the verge of contending for a title or are they the 8-8 mess we saw last season and in need of a rebuild?
That sets up for a dramatic season. The Bears’ path became clearer with the release of the schedule Thursday. The opponents have been known for months, but the sequence is hugely important. Here’s a look at five crucial aspects of their 2020 schedule:
Long runway for new quarterback
The Bears have a legitimate quarterback battle going into the season for the first time in more than a decade, and there’s a prevailing thought that whoever wins the job — Nick Foles or Mitch Trubisky — might not hold it for long. Pace and Nagy already have hinted that the competition will last well into the regular season.
But given the way their schedule sets up, that might not be necessary. The Bears’ first four games are at the Lions, home against the Giants, at the Falcons and home against the Colts.
That’s a considerable cushion for whoever opens the season at quarterback. Those four teams went 28-42-1 and finished 24th or worse in opponent passer rating last season. That’s an enormous opportunity for Foles or Trubisky to cement himself as the man and earn significant leeway as the games get tougher.
Brady’s Bucs arrive to spoil party
The cupcakes end in Week 5, when the Buccaneers come to town for a Thursday night game. They haven’t had a winning season since 2016, but they’re the talk of the league after landing Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Will that be enough to make them a contender in the NFC? Hard to say, but it’s certainly sufficient to make them an imposing foe for the Bears. The Bucs went 7-9 last season, but two of those defeats came in overtime and three others were by four points or fewer. They weren’t a disaster.
Now Brady arrives, and the question is how much he’ll have left at 43. He dipped to an 88.0 passer rating and only 24 touchdown passes last season but was an All-Pro in 2017. If he’s rejuvenated by changing teams and the reunion with Gronk, watch out.
Another quarterback who got away
Remember how it felt to watch Patrick Mahomes bounce around Soldier Field, blow out the Bears and count to 10 after a touchdown to remind everyone that he went 10th when Pace drafted Trubisky second? The sequel comes in December.
That’s when Deshaun Watson and the Texans show up for a Week 14 game that looks like a strong candidate to be flexed to ‘‘Sunday Night Football.’’
Watson was hands-down the most impressive and accomplished quarterback in the 2017 draft, but the Bears barely seemed interested. He slid to the Texans at No. 12 and has been incredible: two playoff appearances, 71 touchdown passes and a 101.0 passer rating.
Imagine that talent coming into Soldier Field with a point to prove. Watson tweeted Friday that the Bears “NEVER ONCE talked to me” leading up to the draft. So it seems like he hasn’t forgotten.
Under the stars in L.A.
Bears-Rams is one of the NFL’s all-time classic matchups. This will be the 94th time the Bears have played them in 101 seasons, and they’re in fascinatingly similar situations at the moment.
They’ve been mirroring each other the last three years: floundering in 2017, resurgent in 2018, then falling flat last season. Both enter 2020 trying to snap back into Super Bowl contention, both have quarterback problems and both can’t say for sure whether they’ve solved anything in the offseason.
When they play on ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ in Week 7, both teams figure to be at a critical point in the season.
NFC North gauntlet to finish
If the schedule remains on track and isn’t interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Bears close with five of their last seven games against divisional opponents. That’s not the case for the Packers, Vikings and Lions, who all have three NFC North games in the first half of the season and three in the second half.
It will be an incredibly tough final stretch, but it also gives the Bears a great chance to make up ground if needed. And for a team that’s retooling its offense, it’s better to have that string of games late than early.
It’ll also be thrilling to watch. With the playoffs on the line, the Bears finish with a Week 15 game at the Vikings and a season finale at home against the Packers.