NFL serves Bears soft 2006 schedule

It's amazing what a division title can do for predictions of the Bears' schedule, officially released Thursday.

Last year each member of the Tribune panel predicted a 7-9 mark. But optimism for this season is as bountiful as praise for the Brian Griese signing seems to be.

Perhaps that's because the Bears' schedule, with an opponents' 2005 winning percentage of .445, is ranked easiest of all 32 teams. The Bears face just four 2005 playoff teams.

"Our schedule will test us each week, but we expect to build on our success in 2005 and work toward bringing a championship back to Chicago," coach Lovie Smith said.

At least three prime-time appearances and a chance to end Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's Hall of Fame career with a regular-season loss highlight this season's slate. It also includes a season-opening game against the Packers, a home game against Dick Jauron's Buffalo Bills and three straight road games for the first time since 1999.

The Bears open with three NFC North games and face defending NFC champion Seattle on Oct. 1 at home and Arizona on Oct. 16 and St. Louis on Dec. 11 on the road for their one Sunday and two Monday night games.

Additional prime-time games are possible with the NFL's new flexible scheduling.

The Bears are guaranteed games against nine first-year coaches. And there's this oddity: Their November games in New York mark the first time since 1934 that a team has traveled back to back to the same city for two different opponents.