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How Bears navigate tough seven-game stretch will define 2023 season

How Bears navigate tough seven-game stretch will define 2023 season originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

It's difficult to define success for a rebuilding team in the NFL. For the 2023 Bears, "success" could come in the form of a six-win season or a nine-win campaign.

The devil is in the details.

What do those wins and losses look like? Are the losses the product of a poor defense or an offense that fails to find its groove? Does the season give the Bears a full evaluation of quarterback Justin Fields? Does he make the needed leap as a passer to cement himself as the franchise signal-caller in Chicago? Do the big moves that general manager Ryan Poles made in the offseason pay off? Or does he have to go back to the drawing board to fill the same holes he thought he patched up this spring?

A successful 2023 Bears team isn't easy to define. There's too much gray area.

But it is clear that the Bears' 2023 season, successful or flop, will be defined by how they handle a critical seven-game stretch in the middle of their season.

The NFL schedule-makers gave the Bears a soft landing to open the year. The first five weeks include games against Jordan Love, Baker Mayfield, and Sam Howell, with the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos sandwiched in between.

The Bears must take advantage of their early-season slate because the difficulty level ratchets up after that Week 5 trip to Washington to face the Commanders.

Chicago's next seven games offer little room for error. It starts with home games against the Minnesota Vikings and Las Vegas Raiders before a brutal stretch that sees the young Bears play four road games in five weeks.

Minnesota is "competitively rebuilding," but the trio of Justin Jefferson, rookie Jordan Addison, and tight end T.J. Hockenson are a bad matchup for a Bears team with a talented but young secondary and little pass rush.

The Raiders are undergoing some roster renovations under head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler. Las Vegas has warts on defense but has a loaded offense with Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow, Josh Jacobs, and rookie tight end Michael Mayer. Jimmy Garoppolo is the perfect quarterback for McDaniels' system and tends to play well when he returns home to Chicago.

There's no reprieve when facing the Silver and Black.

After those two home games, the Bears hit the road for a Week 8 "Sunday Night Football" matchup with Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers before heading to New Orleans to face the Saints in Week 9.

The Chargers will be trendy preseason Super Bowl pick (again). Health is always a question with the Chargers. But as long as they are healthy, the Bolts are just on a different tier than the rebuilding Bears.

Los Angeles and New Orleans is a tough back-to-back for a young football team.

The Saints haven't been the same since Sean Payton left. Their defense is getting long in the tooth, and the offense fizzled last season without Payton pulling the strings. But new quarterback Derek Carr will elevate the Saints' passing game, and running back Alvin Kamara can win a game on his own, especially against a potentially suspect Bears run defense.

The Caesars Superdome is a notoriously hard place to play, so the Bears will have to be 100 percent locked in to have any hope of leaving New Orleans with a win.

After an LA-NOLA back-to-back, the Bears turn around and host the Carolina Panthers on a Thursday night. The Panthers are loaded with young talent and now have a franchise quarterback in No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young.

A gimme this is not.

The Bears close the stretch with back-to-back divisional road games at Detroit and Minnesota on a Monday night in Week 12.

The Lions are the preseason NFC North favorite for a reason. Detroit has one of the NFL's best offensive lines, two dynamic receivers in Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams, a two-headed backfield monster in David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, and a completely rebuilt secondary.

Last season, the Bears were pummeled 41-10 in Detroit. This Bears team should be much better on both sides of the ball, but the Lions are the division favorites in the post-Aaron Rodgers era for a reason.

A primetime visit to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota to closes out this grueling stretch and leads the Bears into their Week 13 bye. A manageable five-game finish awaits Matt Eberflus' team on the other side.

RELATED: Schrock's game-by-game predictions for 2023 Bears

Seven games against six potential playoff teams and one Super Bowl hopeful. Four road games in five weeks.

This stretch will test the Bears' mental fortitude after an opening stretch that should have the Bears above .500 after five weeks.

A 3-4 run during this seven-game gauntlet should see the Bears hit the bye week with a faint playoff pulse at 6-6 or 5-7.

But this stretch could wash the Bears away if they aren't careful. Stumbles against the Vikings and Raiders to open the run could start a downward spiral that's hard for a young, rebuilding team to pull out of when spending a month on the road.

Can the Bears tread water by picking off one of the road games and playing above .500 at home? Or will December once again arrive with the Bears' fate already decided?

How Eberflus, Fields, and these new-look Bears navigate this treacherous terrain will determine the lede for the 2023 Bears' obituary.

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