Four months ago, the Green Bay Packers probably knew this Sunday's game at Lambeau against the Chicago Bears would have significant implications to their playoff hopes.
They were right.
The magnitude of Sunday's game will represent the Packers' entire season: resulting in a playoff berth, or elimination from postseason contention.
When faced with a win-or-go-home situation against the New York Giants last Sunday, Aaron Rodgers directed the Packers to a decisive 45-17 victory; helping Green Bay's playoff probabilities to skyrocket.
However, this Sunday brings nearly twice as much importance as last, and Lovie Smith's Bears remain in the hunt for the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
With so many matchups, and countless playmakers on both sides to the ball, who must step up to ensure a playoff berth?
CHICAGO (11-4) AT GREEN BAY (9-6)
Sunday, Jan. 2 - Lambeau Field - 3:15 p.m. CST
All-time regular season: 82-91-6
All-time, postseason: 0-1
All-time, in Green Bay: 29-22-0
Streaks: The Packers have won three of the last five meetings.
Last meeting, regular season: Sept. 27, 2010, at Soldier Field; Bears won, 20-17
Last meeting, in Green Bay: Sept. 13, 2009; Packers won, 21-15
After missing six quarters of football due to his second concussion of the season, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made his much anticipated return to the football field. His much anticipated return yielded 404 yards passing, and four touchdowns through the air (both career highs for Rodgers) against the league's second-best pass defense in the New York Giants.
Rodgers also completed passes to nine different receivers in the game, bestowing serious trouble in the New York secondary.
However Chicago maintains the 18th-ranked defense against the pass -- allowing 224.3 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks; in comparison to New York's 202.3 yards per game allowed.
What Rodgers must do
If Green Bay wants a chance in Sunday afternoon's game against Chicago, Rodgers must consistently attack the Bears on the edge; primarily in the red zone.
When opportunities present themselves, Mike McCarthy and Rodgers must be willing to take chances ever so often. Shying away from big-play contingency won't help Green Bay on Sunday.
Distributing the football to a multitude of receivers has been Green Bay's specialty this season, and Rodgers must key on Chicago's weakness at the cornerback position. If the Packers can manage to do that, then the green and gold will be looking at a wild-card berth.
John Kuhn's emergence as the Packers' best-kept-secret has proved to be a deciding factor in Green Bay' rushing successes as of late. With the addition of a two touchdown game against the Giants, Kuhn is now a primary force in goal-line situations.
However Brandon Jackson was limited to under 40 yards rushing -- giving him eight games in which he has not rushed for at least 40 yards this season alone. If the Packers want a shot on Sunday, that will have to change.
Green Bay's trip to Chicago in week three generated an embarrassing total of 30 yards rushing between Jackson and Kuhn.
What Jackson and Kuhn must do
Expecting a duplicate performance from week four would be a bit of a disappointment in itself, however the going may get even tougher against Chicago's 3rd-ranked rushing defense.
Addition of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in the core of the Bears' defense, Brandon Jackson could be in for a long day.
Jackson's success will be dependent on his decisiveness. Dancing around the line of scrimmage will spell for total disaster for the Packers. However if Jackson can muster up a good deal of one-cut sprints through Chicago's defensive line, the Packers may be able to get things going on the ground.
As for the play-calling: expect Mike McCarthy to try to establish the run-game early on. Should that fail, the Packers will more than likely be taking to the air for a good 70 percent of the time on Sunday.
Taking on one of the league's premier pass defenses looked to be a battle for the ages last Sunday. However, that wasn't the case.
Aaron Rodgers completed 68 percent of his passes, furnishing over 400 yards and four touchdowns against the Giants.
Although the Bears allow a considerable amount of passing yards to opposing quarterbacks, Chicago holds true to it's only 13 passing touchdowns allowed through the air -- second to only New Orleans.
What Green Bay's receivers must do
Should the Packers' receiving corps equal last week's performance, Green Bay will certainly be in for a big day through the air.
Jordy Nelson (left) was the star of the night last week with 124 yards receiving, including an 80-yards touchdown reception from Aaron Rodgers. Nelson will be a primary target for Rodgers in pressure situations against Julius Peppers and Chicago's entire blitz packages.
Nevertheless, the task at hand may prove to be as simple as limiting as many untimely drops as possible -- which is something Green Bay has had no trouble with in recent memory.
Nothing extremely complicated, right? Wrong.
The often overlook Chicago pass rush is one of the most opportunistic in the entire league; led by Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, the Bears are capable of producing havoc in opponents' game-plans.
Although Peppers and Idonije are currently excluded from the league leaders in sacks, the two have combined for 16 total sacks on the season -- making them one of the best defensive line tandems in the entire NFL.
What Green Bay's offensive line must do
Clearly, Mike McCarthy is stressing one thing to left tackle Bryan Bulaga: slow down Julius Peppers on the edge. If Brandon Jackson is able to help with chip-blocks on Peppers every so often, Bulaga will be able to go the entire 60 minutes limiting Peppers.
Countering the pass attack of the often times lacking Eli Manning may have been the feel-good performance the Green Bay secondary needed.
Forcing five turnovers, four for interceptions, the Packers have been consistently been winning the turnover battle as of late -- and hope to continue that against the rapidly improving Jay Cutler.
Defensively the Packers match up great with the Bears: Chicago maintains smaller wide receivers, along without possession of a bruising running back.
What Green Bay's defense must do
With Mike Martz controlling the offensive play-calling for the Bears, expect Jay Cutler to take to the air at least 60 percent of the time.
To counter Chicago's passing offense, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams will have to incorporate bump-and-run coverages to stabilize the Bears' receivers at the snap of the football. Allowing numerous big-play opportunities for Cutler is a major no-no for the Packers.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers mus be able to mix-and -match coverage schemes consistently to limited Cutler's comfortableness level in the pocket.
Last but certainly not least: put pressure on Jay Cutler. Against the blitz, Cutler has been known to make costly turnovers -- and Clay Matthews is the perfect fit for the job.
Do not punt to Devin Hester. Simple as that.
What Green Bay's special teams must do
It's been a task that the bulk of the league hasn't quite understood -- but somehow, Tim Mathsay cannot (under any circumstances) give the ball to Devin Hester.
Mathsay has one of the most impressive averages for punters around the league, with a 43.9 yard average per punt. But Sunday's deciding factor may in fact be whether or not Hester touches the football.
In last Sunday's demolition of the New York Giants, Packers coach Mike McCarthy tried to establish the Green Bay running attack, but to no avail. This week things get much tougher on the ground against the bruising Chicago run defense we've all come to know.
The key to beating the Bears won't necessarily be using a balanced attack at all times, but to convert in key situations; catching the Chicago defense off guard.
What Mike McCarthy must do
In his Wednesday press conference, McCarthy stated to the media how consistent the Chicago defense has been, despite having given up an average of 38 points per game to opposing offenses over the past three weeks.
For the Packers offense to have success, addition of two tight-end sets as well as wide receiver bunches must be utilized throughout the contest.
Mike McCarthy: 48-34-0, .585, (incl. 1-2 postseason); 5th NFL season
Lovie Smith: 65-50-0, .565 (incl. 2-2 postseason); 7th NFL season
Head to Head: Smith 5-4
vs. Opponent: McCarthy 4-5 vs. Bears; Smith 8-5 vs. Packers
With the regular season coming to a close, the playoffs are almost set and ready for take-off.
Whether or not the Green Bay Packers will be included in the postseason, is still yet to be determined.
With a win on Sunday (or by having the Buccaneers lose to the Saints and having the Giants lose to the Redskins), the Packers will have officially punched their tickets to the postseason, and would travel to Philadelphia for a Wild Card game on Jan. 8 or 9.
The potential rematch from a week one 27-20 Packers victory will bring an enormous amount of hype with it, as Vick looks for his first playoff victory since leaving the league back in 2006.
Nevertheless, a Packer victory on Sunday will make Green Bay's playoff hopes much more direct, as the green and gold control their own playoff destiny with a victory.
Let the magical season continue...