The first "Sunday Night Football" game of the 2021 NFL season is upon us. And we'll have quite the interesting matchup on tap when the Los Angeles Rams host the Chicago Bears at SoFi Stadium. These two teams actually have quite a bit in common. They were both playoff teams last year, have talent on defense, and just underwent changes at quarterback.
Both teams will open the season in the national television spotlight to show what improvements they've made since last year. The Bears have a head coach who's already on the hot seat, while the Rams want to show that they are legitimate contenders after an offseason that saw significant changes on both sides of the ball.
Sunday Night Football: Chicago at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 12 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New signal-callers on the scene
Justin Fie... I mean, Andy Dalton, will suit up for his third team in three seasons when he gets the start at quarterback for the Bears. Although the rookie clearly showed that he's capable of leading this team during the preseason, head coach Matt Nagy said from Day 1 that Dalton would start in Week 1. Dalton spent his first nine seasons (2011-19) with the Cincinnati Bengals. After the franchise drafted Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, Dalton signed with Dallas as a free agent to back up Dak Prescott.
A season-ending ankle injury suffered by Prescott in Week 5 made Dalton a starter again. He wasn't too bad in the role, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 2,170 yards, 14 touchdowns, and eight interceptions on the season (11 games). But he was sacked 24 times, went just 4-5 as the starter, and finished the season with an 87.3 passer rating. He also missed one game after suffering a concussion in a Week 7 loss to Washington and was sidelined the following week after testing positive for COVID-19. Dallas finished 6-10, missing the playoffs, and Dalton become a free agent again.
Dalton signed with Chicago in March, and Nagy promptly named him the starter. The 10-year veteran still possesses a strong enough arm and the accuracy to succeed in the league, but he's nowhere near as athletic as Fields, who fans and analysts alike are already clamoring for. Dalton's mobility is especially a concern on Sunday night because of a bad combination — the shape of the Bears' offensive line and the threat of a talented Rams pass rush (more on that shortly).
Matthew Stafford knows exactly how Dalton feels. After all, he was Detroit's franchise quarterback for more than a decade, taking over after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. But despite all of his individual success (he holds seven team passing records), the Lions as a team struggled more often than not. So the team granted Stafford's wish to start over, trading him in March (a day after the Bears signed Dalton) to the Rams for Jared Goff, two first-round picks (2022, '23), and a third-rounder (2021).
Unlike the rebuilding Lions, Stafford joins a team that's ready to win now, and for the Rams, that means not just getting to the Super Bowl, but winning it. And head coach Sean McVay can't wait to get the man with 45,109 career passing yards, 282 career touchdown passes, and a 62.6 career completion rate on the field in his offense.
2. Don't forget about the defense
Both defenses are full of star-studded names, but the question is how many of them will actually play? Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman was ruled out on Saturday due to a knee injury he suffered during Monday's workout. Goldman opted out of last season due to the pandemic, and the Bears will be without his services for yet another game. On top of that, star pass rushers Khalil Mack (groin) and Robert Quinn (back) are both questionable. Injuries limited their effectiveness last year.
Also questionable for the Bears are starting safeties Eddie Jackson (wrist) and Tashaun Gipson Sr. (back), along with backup safety Deon Bush (shoulder). The Bears can't afford to be without any of these players. On the Rams' side, defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson has missed some practice time with a knee injury. Los Angeles is clearly the healthier team headed into the season opener, and that's not a good thing for Chicago considering some of the studs on the Rams' defense.
It starts up front with three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald while the back end is anchored by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, another first-team All-Pro last season. Additionally, former Bear outside linebacker Leonard Floyd is coming off of a career-high 10.5 sacks in 2020 and the other starting cornerback, Darious Williams, recorded four interceptions. Some of the faces, particularly in the secondary, have changed but the Rams still have plenty of talent on defense, and more importantly, are much healthier entering this game.
3. Dwelling in the national television spotlight
This will be the first of nine combined nationally televised games for these teams in 2021. The Bears will play on "Monday Night Football" in Week 9 (at Pittsburgh), Thanksgiving Day to start Week 12 (at Detroit), "Sunday Night Football" again in Week 14 (at Green Bay), and MNF the following week (vs. Minnesota).
The Rams will appear on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 5 (at Seattle), be back in the Sunday night spotlight in Week 9 (vs. Tennessee), and also have two MNF appearances on tap — Week 10 (at San Francisco) and Week 14 (at Arizona). Playing each other in primetime isn't new either as the last two meetings between Chicago and Los Angeles have been under those circumstances. Last year, the Rams beat the Bears 24-10 in SoFi Stadium on MNF to close out Week 7 while the previous season it was a 17-7 home win on Sunday night in Week 11, this time in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Sunday night will make the third straight season the Bears and Rams have played each other. The teams have split the last six meetings (dating back to 2012), but Los Angeles has won the two most recent matchups, both of those contested in SoCal. Chicago is just 2-4 in its last six road games, while the Rams went 6-2 in the first season calling SoFi Stadium home.
Offense has been an issue for the Bears in their last two games against the Rams, scoring a total of 17 points in that span. That side of the ball is under the microscope again as it only seems to be a matter of when Fields will replace Dalton as the starting quarterback, but the more immediate concern is Los Angeles' talented, aggressive defense. Chicago's defense has the pieces to be stout in its own right but is nowhere close to being full strength for this game. The Rams have home-field advantage, are healthier, and have the superior new quarterback. That combination leads to a season-opening win on Sunday night.
Prediction: Rams 27, Bears 20
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.