The playoff picture is quickly shaping up as the Chicago Bears prepare to head down the home stretch of the season.
Many Bears fans are already dreaming about a potential NFC Championship matchup with Super Bowl contenders such as the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers or Atlanta Falcons. However, there is still a great deal of football to be played in the most crucial month and a half of the year.
How the Bears fare against the 49ers on Monday Night Football will be key in whether Lovie Smith's squad will be fighting for the division title and a first-round bye, or Wild Card spot.
Here is what the playoff picture will look like after Monday night.
Whether the Bears win or lose in San Francisco, a rivalry matchup with the Packers will determine who wears the division crown.
The Packers have not looked like the "championship belt" squad of two seasons ago, but the scary thing for everyone else is that they have won five straight games, and have yet to play their best football this year.
With the absence of Jay Cutler, the Bears will likely lose to the 49ers and the Packers will be back in the driver's seat in the NFC North. But a mid-December matchup at Soldier Field will determine who takes the checkered flag.
The Monsters of the Midway will be seeking revenge after a 23-10 defeat in September. The Bears defense played well against Aaron Rodgers, but the offense was unable to get the job done, as Cutler threw four interceptions and was sacked seven times.
Despite ranking seventh in the NFL in points per game, the Bears offense has been dysfunctional at times for a variety of reasons: offensive line struggles, bad play-calling, poor quarterback play and a combination of the three.
Mike Tice will need to have his offense straightened up against Dom Capers' blitz packages and Clay Matthews (3.5 sacks in previous matchup), but the talent is there to get the job done.
Don't look now, but while Greg Schiano was thrashed earlier this season for his end of the game tactics, he is working his way towards the front of the Coach of the Year race.
The Bucs have won four straight games, and with Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson making plays on offense, they appear to be legitimate threats in the NFC.
The Giants are reeling after two straight losses, including a head-scratching debacle against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. However, they are still the defending champions and Eli Manning has a knack for playing his best football down the stretch.
This game will be a rematch of the Week 2 contest that sparked the Schiano controversy. While Tampa is a better team since then, the advantage remains with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, as the Buccaneers' Achilles heel is their cornerbacks.
Green Bay Packers (12-4) at San Francisco (12-3-1)
Despite some offensive struggles, the 49ers have been one of the best teams in the NFL. Their defense is No. 1 in points allowed, and of the remaining regular season opponents, only Tom Brady will be able to outplay them.
Rodgers is another quarterback who can compete with the stellar defensive unit, but Patrick Wills & Co. got the best of him in their Week 1 matchup.
Expect Rodgers to play much better the second time around, while the Packers offense will slow down Alex Smith and the 49ers' running game.
New York Giants (11-6) at Chicago Bears (13-3)
As if this team didn't have enough comparisons to the 1985 squad, the Bears will once again host the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs.
After a loss to the 49ers, Cutler will return to lead the Bears on a six-game winning streak, claiming the top spot in the NFC (better conference record than the Falcons).
Manning & Co. are battle-tested on the road, as they displayed in last year's Super Bowl run, but the Bears will send them packing.
The Chicago faithful should be wary about the matchups at the line of scrimmage (Giants defensive ends vs. Bears offensive tackles), but a good running game and stellar defense will help the Bears move on.
Green Bay Packers (12-4) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has never won a playoff game, and he would like to not be reminded of the last time the Packers visited the Georgia Dome in January.
Looking at the standings, Atlanta has been the conference's best team this season, but they have looked more-than-vulnerable in the past few weeks.
Upcoming matchups with the Buccaneers and Giants will result in losses for the Falcons, and a better conference record will break the tie for home-field advantage in the Bears' favor.
Aaron Rodgers and his offense will be hitting on all cylinders come playoff time, and that will be enough to win this offensive slugfest—handing Ryan yet another playoff defeat.
Why wouldn't the NFC representative in the Super Bowl come down to the best quarterback (Rodgers: NFL-high 107.3 QB rating) and the best point-differential defense in the game?
Two of the most storied franchises in the NFL will square off once again, with the stakes as high as they can get.
Cheeseheads will remind Bear fans about Cutler's knee injury that caused him to leave the 2010 NFC Championship game—an injury they swear Brett Favre would have played through.
However, that game is history, and this is a new and improved Bears team.
Do they have what it takes to avenge the past and return to the Super Bowl? We will find out soon enough.