The standard line in the NFL—and sports in general—is that every game counts, but some are certainly more crucial than others.
The two most important areas to focus on for teams in the NFL are within their division and within their conference.
Winning divisional games is the easiest way to get into the playoffs. The Green Bay Packers have dominated the NFC North, going 11-1 over the last two years and 19-5 since 2009.
You win your division and you're in the playoffs, but there are two other spots that teams have to keep their eyes on.
Had the Bears defeated Minnesota in Week 14, they would've made the playoffs. However, that loss wouldn't have mattered as much had they defeated Seattle a week earlier. That win would've given them a better record than Seattle and the tiebreaker due to their head-to-head matchup.
Instead, it ended up being a painful loss. That turned into two when they didn't show up the next week in Minnesota. Although it was drug out until the end of the season, the Bears' playoff fate was decided in those two weeks.
Here, I give a sneak peak at the games that will determine how the Bears will do next season.
Obviously, things change as the season progresses. The games that seem important now may not be when they come around. Heading into last season, nearly everyone placed extra emphasis on defeating the Detroit Lions, not the Vikings. The Bears were undefeated against Detroit and still didn't get into the playoffs.
Still, we know who the contenders should be. I looked through the Bears' schedule and noted those who should be contending for both the division and the wild-card spots.
The Bears should have a few dates circled especially big on their calendars, and here is a peak at what they may be. The Bears don't have to win all of these games, but if they're going to get into the playoffs they'd better win most of these games.
Every divisional game is important. This one should be especially important because it's the first one, it's at home and it's against a team that essentially knocked them out of the playoffs last season.
The Vikings feel like they have momentum on their side. They won their last matchup against the Bears and topped the division champion Packers to get into the playoffs.
They lost to Green Bay a week earlier, but most Minnesota fans will tell you it's largely because they didn't have Christian Ponder.
With a Week 1 game in Detroit, the Vikings will likely be 1-0. The Bears can't let them start 2-0.
After they play Chicago, they have three straight home games against teams that did not make the playoffs last year. They could easily start 5-0 and that could be hard for the Bears to keep up with.
Should the Vikings lose their first game, the Bears could put them in catch-up mode by putting them at 0-2.
Either way, the Bears can't let this one slip by.
The Saints had a down year last year, but they figure to be back amongst the elite teams in the NFC in 2013.
With "Bounty Gate" behind them, I expect New Orleans to battle Atlanta for the NFC South crown. The Falcons look to be a tough team again this year and I don't know if the Saints have the defense to overtake them.
The Bears are in a similar position. They should contend for the division, but they have a very good team at the top and will need to be at their best—and stay healthy—to win it.
This could be a key head-to-head game that ultimately decides who gets a wild-card spot. Or, if things go well for both teams, it could decide home-field advantage. A big issue when you're talking about a dome team coming to a cold-weather city in the playoffs.
The Giants always seem to be contenders, especially early in the season. This is a good game to see how the Bears stack up with one of the NFC's best teams.
Typically, the NFC East is a hard-fought division. I expect they'll only send one team to the playoffs because they'll beat each other out. Still, it would be nice if the Bears had the head-to-head advantage should New York fall short.
Another issue is just making sure the Giants don't get into the playoffs. The Giants have one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the league in Eli Manning and a coach who knows how to have his team playing the best when it matters the most.
Should they get in the playoffs, they'll be a team nobody wants to face. It might be a little foreshadowing, but the Bears have to do their part to make sure they don't have to worry about a Manning until the Super Bowl.
As Omar Little once said in HBO's The Wire, "You come at the king, you best not miss."
The Bears have a prime shot to get the Packers down at home and they have to take it.
Chicago enters this game coming off their bye week, while the Packers will have just played a divisional game in Minnesota.
The Packers have a tough schedule to start their season. Five of their first seven games are against playoff teams from last year, including the defending champion Baltimore Ravens. Four of those games are on the road.
I expect the Packers to at least tread water in those game, but you never know what will happen. The Bears have a chance to set them back a notch or give them a death blow, depending on how they start.
In addition to being a key divisional game against the defending champions, this will be key for new coach Marc Trestman to show why his offense and play calling are better than his predecessors. The Bears have struggled to score against the Packers, and Trestman needs to show he's the answer.
Regardless of what happens against the Packers, the Bears' game the next week against Detroit will be crucial.
Should they defeat Green Bay, they can't afford to lose the next week or they'll likely lose all momentum and ground gained in the standings.
Should they lose to the Packers, another divisional loss would essentially seal their fate.
Home divisional games are always of the utmost importance. The Bears need to own Soldier Field and especially can't let a dome team win there in November.
The Bears' first game in Mall of America Field after playing perhaps their worst game of the 2012 season there could be a key one.
Should the Bears win their first game, this one may not have as much significance, but winning within the division is always important.
Earlier, I noted the Vikings relatively easy early schedule, but it gets more difficult after that.
Prior to their second game against the Bears, the Vikings will play in Seattle and in Green Bay. They'd be thrilled with a split, but I expect them to be riding a two-game losing streak.
If they don't do it the first time, the Bears will have another excellent shot to put the Vikings down for good. It's an opportunity they missed last year and they can't do so again.
Another case of a game against a team that could be contending for a wild-card spot.
As I said earlier, I expect the NFC East to only send one team to the playoffs, however, it's nice to have a tiebreaker.
The Cowboys are essentially in a make-or-break year, although that's the way it seems every year. I don't think anyone really knows what to expect from them, but they should be a solid team.
Even if the Cowboys aren't contending for a playoff spot, this is a key game for the Bears. It's against an NFC team that could be key in the standings. It's also their only home game in a five-week stretch.
Here they are again. The team that has owned the NFC North will be in Chicago for the last game of the regular season, a game that could very well decide who wins the division or even makes the playoffs.
Lately, it hasn't mattered where the Bears have played the Packers, but they have to at least show pride in winning at home.
This game should be important even if the rest of the season has gone the way the Bears would have liked. Even in the unlikely scenario in which the Packers aren't contenders either, the Bears have to come away with a win in this game.
This is the NFL's oldest rivalry and a win would mean a lot for the Bears, whether they're entering the postseason or the offseason.