Emma: 5 takeaways from Bears' 2021 schedule

On paper, the Bears have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL.
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(670 The Score) The slate is set for the Bears in 2021, with the NFL officially releasing its regular-season schedule Wednesday evening.

Following consecutive 8-8 regular seasons, the Bears enter a campaign in which they need to reveal progress. That's the mandate from team chairman George McCaskey to general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy.

The Bears' 17-game schedule features four primetime games, a Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions and some challenging stretches.

Here's a look the Bears' full 2021 schedule:
Week 1: at Rams (Sunday night)
Week 2: vs. Bengals
Week 3: at Browns
Week 4: vs. Lions
Week 5: at Raiders
Week 6: vs. Packers
Week 7: at Buccaneers
Week 8: vs. 49ers
Week 9: at Steelers (Monday night)
Week 10: bye
Week 11: vs. Ravens
Week 12: at Lions (Thanksgiving Day)
Week 13: vs. Cardinals
Week 14: at Packers (Sunday night)
Week 15: vs. Vikings (Monday night)
Week 16: at Seahawks
Week 17: vs. Giants
Week 18: at Vikings

Let's break down the Bears' schedule and share our takeaways.

Challenging slate
The NFL constructs its schedule with the hope of creating parity. Part of the equation includes matching up teams against those in the same conference that finished in the same place in the division standings from the previous season.

In the case of the Bears, the formula created a schedule that's more daunting than what you might expect a team that just went 8-8 to have. The Bears finished second in the NFC North in 2020, so their schedule includes a game against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers (second in the NFC South) as well as the Giants (second place in the NFC East). The Bears also play the entire NFC West, and their interconference games are against the deep AFC North and the Las Vegas Raiders as their 17th opponent this season.

The Bears have the third-toughest schedule in the NFL based upon 2020 results, as their opponents combined for a .550 winning percentage (149-122-1 combined record) last season. The two teams with tougher schedules are the Steelers (.574) and Ravens (.562), who each made the playoffs last season.

Only five of the Bears' opponents in 2021 -- the Lions, Vikings, 49ers, Bengals and Giants -- had losing records last season. The 49ers, Bengals and Giants should each be improved this season.

Spotlight debut for Desai's defense
In December 2018, the Bears defense punished the Rams in a primetime performance, leading the way in Chicago's 15-6 victory at Soldier Field that left Los Angeles coach Sean McVay quite impressed.

McVay was struck by then-Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and he eventually hired Fangio assistant Brandon Staley as the Rams' defensive coordinator in 2020 as he sought the concepts that made Chicago's defense dominant.

The Bears will now open their 2021 season against McVay's Rams at SoFi Stadium with 38-year-old defensive coordinator Sean Desai making his debut in his new position. Chicago hopes that Desai can restore the defense to the elite level that Fangio directed it to in 2018, and the opener will prove to be an early test for him and his unit.

Will the Bears showcase a more dominant defense in Desai's debut? Or will new Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford have more success against a former division rival?

Midseason gauntlet
When the Bears hit their bye in Week 10, it should be clear which direction their season is going.

That's because Chicago will be coming off a brutal stretch that could ultimately decide the course of its season. In the preceding five weeks, the Bears will have a road game against the Las Vegas Raiders, a home contest against the rival Packers, a trip to Tampa to take on the defending champion Buccaneers, a return to Soldier Field for a tussle with the tough 49ers and then a matchup against the Steelers in Pittsburgh on a Monday night.

At the least, the Bears have a well-timed bye week in the middle of this 18-week season.

A defining stretch
In the mind of ownership, the Bears showcased character in taking care of business against a weak December schedule last season. It played a part in Pace and Nagy being retained.

In 2021, there's no such break in the homestretch. The Bears' final six games are against the Cardinals (home, Week 13), Packers (road, Week 14), Vikings (home, Week 15), Seahawks (road, Week 16), Giants (home, Week 17) and Vikings again (road, Week 18). It could be a tricky finish.

Star quarterback Kyler Murray and the Cardinals have a dynamic offense. Then the Bears must navigate two primetime divisional games against the Packers and Vikings. Chicago's game at Seattle will be a big test against a foe with a raucous homefield advantage. The Giants have an improved offensive core. The Bears then cap their season on the road against a divisional foe in the Vikings that knows them well.

McCaskey and the Bears' brass will get a true read on where this team stands based on the final games in this season.

When will Fields play?
The Bears maintain they'll know when it's time for rookie quarterback Justin Fields to take over the starting job from veteran Andy Dalton. So when exactly will that be?

It's difficult to predict, but it's worth noting the Bears turned to Mitchell Trubisky after four games in 2017, benching veteran Mike Glennon after an ugly loss to the rival Packers at Lambeau Field.

The Bears' challenging stretch ahead of their Week 10 bye may afford Dalton a longer leash as the starter -- and more time for Fields to develop.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.