The NFL released the 2012 regular season schedule Tuesday night and like most ardent fans and analysts, I have taken the time to dissect and break down the schedule. Despite the fact that predicting NFL games in April is about as useless and futile as filling out an NCAA March Madness bracket, it’s still fun to think about different scenarios and offer initial thoughts about each opponent.

The Bears will play in five prime time games this season, no doubt aided by the Chicago market, the great level of play last year with a healthy Jay Cutler, and the addition of his former teammate in Denver, wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

The NFL had a desire to expand its Thursday night lineup, so the Bears will receive the league’s first new Thursday night slot in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. That game will be on NFL Network.

Other prime time matchups include a Monday night contest in Dallas on Oct. 1, a Monday night battle with division-rival Detroit on Oct. 22, a Sunday night game at home against the Houston Texans on Nov. 11, followed by a Monday night matchup with the 49ers in San Francisco on Nov. 19.

Due to their first Monday night battle against the Cowboys, the Bears have just three September games this year compared to five December contests. Three of the last four matchups on the schedule are road games — at Minnesota, Arizona, and Detroit — although only the game in Detroit appears to be a struggle. The Vikings and Cardinals would seemingly be more manageable opponents, but a lot can change between now and then.

The Bears have become well acquainted with the Seahawks during Lovie Smith’s regime and will welcome them to Soldier Field once again this year. However, one team that the Bears have played on a nearly annual basis during Smith’s tenure, the Philadelphia Eagles, do not appear on this year’s schedule.

The following is a game-by-game breakdown of the Bears’ 2012 schedule.

Sun., September 9 – vs. Indianapolis Colts, 12:00 PM (CBS)
The Bears get the league’s worst team last year on their home turf to open the season. They also likely get first crack at rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, whom one analyst from the Sporting News called the best quarterback prospect in 25-plus years. I predict the Bears will give him a rough welcome as they cruise to an opening-day victory.

Thu., September 13 – @ Green Bay Packers, 7:20 PM (NFL Network)
In their first true test of the season, we’ll find out just how much the Bears have improved this offseason as they travel to face the defending NFC North champions on a national stage. It’s a game they definitely can win, but whether they do that depends on how well the defense is clicking and whether the offense is on the same page (Mike Tice’s play calling, Marshall’s cohesion with his new team, and Matt Forte’s presence and/or conditioning, should he happen to hold out at all).

Sun., September 23 – vs. St. Louis Rams, 12:00 PM (FOX)
If the Bears are not at least 2-1 at this point in the season, there’s cause for concern. Although in today’s NFL it’s possible for teams to go from worst to first in just a season, it’s hard to see how the Bears lose to either of last year’s two worst teams (record-wise) at home against the Colts and Rams.

Mon., October 1 – @ Dallas Cowboys, 7:30 PM (ESPN)
Playing in Dallas is never easy no matter whom the Cowboys suit up. It ought to be a physical game as most of these battles are. Let’s hope Cutler does not get roughed up as much as he did early in the last meeting between these teams. The Bears should have the edge if the production of last year’s teams have any bearing on this year’s matchup, which they don’t always do.

Sun., October 7 – @ Jacksonville Jaguars, 3:05 PM (FOX)
The Bears travel to Florida for the fifth game of the season against a rebuilding Jaguars team with a strong run game. Nothing about the Jaguars scares me because even at their advanced age, the Bears defense has good team speed to counter what Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars offense produces.

Mon., October 22 – vs. Detroit Lions, 7:30 PM (ESPN)
Given the Lions’ resurgence last year and making the playoffs for the first time in more years than I care to count, and the bad blood that always is brewing between these division rivals, it’s no wonder the league made this a prime time game. Last year, the Lions hosted a Monday night game against the Bears, which was a coming out party of sorts for them. This year, I see a “going back in” party.

Sun., October 28 – vs. Carolina Panthers, 12:00 PM (FOX)
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was the talk of the league for most of last year as he displayed his passing skills to go with the running ability everybody already knew he had. He began the year with back-to-back 400-yard passing games and then he gave the Bears everything they could handle with a 374-yard effort in a Week 4 loss at Soldier Field. I expect a similar dynamic performance from him this season but with a similar end result, too.

Sun., November 4 – @ Tennessee Titans, 12:00 PM (FOX)
Tennessee had a rough season last year due to a precipitous fall from grace by running back Chris Johnson. This is one of those road games that could catch the Bears by surprise despite it being against a team with not as much talent. The Titans had a bad defense last year, though, and this will be a homecoming of sorts for Cutler, who will return to where he played college ball.

Sun., November 11 – vs. Houston Texans, 7:20 PM (NBC)
This could be the third true test of the season for the Bears (after the Packers and Lions games) which will help us learn a little about what kind of team they are. The Texans made a great postseason run last year behind a solid defense and a potent offense. If Matt Schaub stays healthy this year, the Texans could return to prominence and this will be a big prime time game for these two teams. It’s good that it’ll be at Soldier Field.

Mon., November 19 – @ San Francisco 49ers, 7:30 PM (ESPN)
After a tough game against the Texans, the Bears will turn around and travel across country for a second-straight prime time game, this one against last year’s surprise team, the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh’s boys will be prepared to play, so the Bears better come ready. This game doesn’t bring with it warm and fuzzy feelings.

Sun., November 25 – vs. Minnesota Vikings, 12:00 PM (FOX)
The Vikings are clearly in rebuilding mode after their run to the NFC Championship a few years ago. Running back Adrian Peterson remains the only dangerous offensive weapon and the defense is rapidly getting older, seemingly faster than the Bears’ defense. This should be a victory at home for the Bears.

Sun., December 2 – vs. Seattle Seahawks, 12:00 PM (FOX)
The Bears are getting quite familiar with facing the Seahawks during the Smith regime. This offseason, Seattle signed Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who was a coveted free agent thanks to his six-touchdown performance in the regular season finale last year while filling in for Aaron Rodgers. I’ll go out on a limb and say Flynn will be a flash in the pan and won’t be much more than an adequate starter. If I’m wrong, I’ll admit it, but it’s pretty easy to look good with the Packers’ offensive weapons.

Sun., December 9 – @ Minnesota Vikings, 12:00 PM (FOX)
Interestingly, the Bears face the Vikings twice in three games, an unusual occurrence. Minnesota has been a tough place to play for the Bears the past decade as they’ve lost the majority of those games, but the Vikings are not a very good team. It looks like a toss-up at this point.

Sun., December 16 – vs. Green Bay Packers, 12:00 PM (FOX)
In all honesty, I’d rather the Bears travel to Lambeau earlier in the season (as they do) than in December. Assuming health at this point, I feel better with the Bears having homefield advantage against their division rival in the final stretch of the regular season and this could be the game that breaks a tie for the division crown.

Sun., December 23 – @ Arizona Cardinals, 3:15 PM (FOX)
It’s one of two road games to close the season, but I don’t see a great need for panic against the Cardinals. They don’t have a stable quarterback situation and their defense is capable of being exposed.

Sun., December 30 – @ Detroit Lions, 12:00 PM (FOX)
Barring any unforeseen injuries, I don’t expect this game to have a lot of meaning between the Bears and Lions directly. I think the Packers and Bears will be fighting for the division championship while the Lions will be fighting for a wild card — if they’re in the playoff hunt at all. I believe they overachieved last year while the Bears underachieved, due to injuries to Cutler and Forte. If the Lions are still alive in the playoff chase, though, it looks like it could be a Bears loss.