I am not a big believer in trying to analyze nine months in advance just how tough an NFL schedule might be.
With also-rans becoming contenders practically overnight and teams going from worst to first every season over the past decade plus, last season’s results are not always a great predictor of what this season will hold.
That said, I still feel pretty safe in predicting 2014 will be a bit more challenging for the Bears than 2013 was.
This past season the Packers, Eagles, Bengals and Saints were the only playoff clubs the Bears faced, and none of their nine other opponents had winning records. In fact, four of those nine clubs – St. Louis, Minnesota, Washington and Cleveland – finished last in their divisions.
The Bears’ other 2013 opponents included Detroit, Dallas, N.Y. Giants, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Do any of those clubs, with the possible exception of Baltimore, appear to you to be on the verge of a big improvement any time soon?
The 2014 schedule will, of course, again include Green Bay, Detroit and Minnesota. It’s impossible to predict how the Vikings and Lions will look with new coaches, but it’s reasonable to assume the Lions will be a better team.
The Packers will most definitely be tougher if Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews play both games.
Beyond the NFC North, the Bears will get the AFC East next season and will have to travel to New England and the Jets. Those are definitely tougher trips than Pittsburgh and Cleveland were this year, and the Patriots are annually one of the toughest tests in the league.
Buffalo and Miami are both on the upswing but were also both very beatable in 2013.
Beyond the Bills and Dolphins, the Saints and Cowboys will also visit again as will Lovie Smith and his Bucs.
No real cupcakes at home, but no real juggernauts either, although who knows how much better the Saints might be?
It is the road that will be fraught with peril for the Bears in 2014. In addition to Lambeau, Ford Field, the Vikings temporary home at the University of Minnesota and New York and New England, they will also travel to Atlanta. The Falcons were the NFC’s No. 1 seed in 2012 and 2010 and, in spite of a 2013 season that blew up on them early, I expect them to be right back in the playoff hunt next season.
Finally, come the booby prizes as the Bears get to spend weekends in both San Francisco and Carolina.
While I’m sure Jim Harbaugh and Ron Rivera will be the most gracious of hosts, these may be the two best teams in the NFL this year and could be again in 2014.
All counted, that’s just five games against 2013 playoff teams again, and only five with winning records in 2013. But it’s a lot more clubs with arrows pointing up, and a road schedule that looks like a juggernaut that will be tough to survive.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.