The Green Bay Packers entered into last year's playoffs with a tough path to the big game. As a sixth seed with no help from home field advantage and an injury report longer than the dictionary, the Pack took one game at a time as they hit the road.
The journey began in Philadelphia and the defense was forced to focus in on Michael Vick and his speedy receiver, DeSean Jackson. As Vick was leading the Eagles on a potential game-winning drive in the final minutes, CB Tramon Williams picked off an errant throw and punched the Pack's ticket to Atlanta.
After handling the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, the Packers traveled to Soldier Field to battle a familiar Bears team in the NFC Championship game. When on offense, the Pack had to constantly be aware of the presence of linebacker Brian Urlacher. On defense, the game plan was to pressure Jay Cutler and create turnovers.
Despite all his preparation and knowledge of the situation, Aaron Rodgers still did not see Urlacher in the redzone and was forced to make a touchdown-saving tackle after the veteran picked off one of his pass attempts. On the other side of the ball, the team was able to shut down the Bears offense and knocked Cutler out of the game on their way to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers brought a slew of star players on defense to Dallas that Green Bay had to account for on every down, including the Defensive Player of the Year, Troy Polamalu. However, Rodgers and the Pack managed to pick apart the Steel Curtain on the way to their thirteenth NFL Championship.
The point is, while football is a team sport, there are always impact players that teams are forced to game plan around and watch out for during the course of a game. Just like in the 2010 postseason, the Packers will have several of these game-changing stars to control during their upcoming quest for a repeat.
Here are 18 players that Green Bay must keep in check to return to the playoffs in 2011. Many of them revolve around protecting Aaron Rodgers, the undeniable leader of the Pack. Feel free to comment if I've missed any.
Sources: Stats gathered from ESPN.com.
Robbie Gould has a knack for nailing game-winners, even with the often sloppy conditions of the Chicago Bears' Soldier Field.
He has been an enemy of the Pack since his 2005 rookie season and he is now one of the best kickers in the NFL.
Last season, Gould silenced Green Bay with a 19 yard boot in the final seconds of the two teams' MNF matchup and the Bears won 20-17.
The Packers will be wise to stay out of Chicago's reach in the 4th quarter next season, or at least keep Gould out of field goal range as the clock winds down.
Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, hurt the Pack most in their regular season loss to Atlanta. He caught six passes for 51 yards and scored once.
In the playoffs, it was he who got hurt in the third quarter, after only one reception for seven yards.
Pretty soon you'll start to sense a pattern. The Falcons have several impact players, and the Packers can't afford to sleep on Gonzalez even if it is his final season.
When the Packers last battled the Rams, Steven Jackson rushed for over 100 yards, and put up nearly 50 receiving.
He isn't as good as he once was, but he's as good once as he ever was.
In other words, if the Packers are caught napping, Jackson still has the skill to take advantage, especially if St. Louis brings in another back to share the load.
The Packers secondary slowed down Roddy White in 2010, as he wasn't even able to eclipse 100 yards in two games against Green Bay.
White will still have to be watched closely along with his new receiving partner, Julio Jones.
Michael Turner torched the Packers for 110 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in their regular season meeting last season. In the playoffs, however, he was held to only 39 yards and a score.
The Falcons will be one of the Pack's main rivals in the NFC next season and containing Turner will be the first step in stopping their talented offensive attack.
Lance Briggs had 23 tackles and two interceptions in three games against Green Bay last season.
He will always be second to Brian Urlacher when the Packers face off against the Bears, but he's a six-time Pro Bowler and the Pack had better keep their eyes open for him.
Kansas City is also home to a serious threat on the defensive side of the ball.
Tamba Hali was the AFC's sack leader in 2010 and although he is a free agent, the Chiefs gave him the franchise tag.
The Packers offensive line will have to face exceptional pass rushers like Hali, Peppers, and Suh in the final three weeks of the season. Controlling these players will be crucial in keeping Aaron Rodgers healthy heading into the postseason.
Brian Urlacher is getting older and has recently dealt with multiple injuries, but that doesn't mean he's done taking it to the Packers.
In last season's first meeting, Urlacher forced a key fumble and then picked off Aaron Rodgers in the redzone during the NFC Championship game.
He is not happy about his rival's Super Bowl success and will be fired up for revenge. Green Bay's offense better know where he is at all times or Urlacher will make someone pay.
The Packers may have the league's best secondary at the start of the 2011 season, but Drew Brees is still one of the best QBs in the NFL.
Green Bay's defense will be tested early on opening night by the Saints' air attack as the last two Super Bowl winners go head to head.
Even though they only allowed an average of 194 passing yards per game last year, the Pack can't fall asleep with Brees behind center.
The Packers certainly focused on Julius Peppers in their three matchups with Chicago last season because he did not come up with a single sack.
However, that does not mean he didn't pressure the quarterback. Peppers was fined for a helmet to helmet hit on Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship game.
Green Bay can not let that happen again after Rodgers' recent concussions.
Elvis Dumervil had a 17 sack season in 2009 and then missed all of 2010 with a chest injury suffered in training camp.
Now in 2011, he'll be back on quarterback attack at defensive end in Denver, making him one of the most feared pass-rushers on the Packers' schedule.
Green Bay will do well to keep Dumervil away from their most valuable asset in Aaron Rodgers.
John Abraham was held to only four tackles and one sack in two matchups with the Pack in 2010, but that doesn't mean he won't be mocking Aaron Rodger's championship belt celebration again in 2011.
Unless, of course, he has learned his lesson.
Abraham, along with all of Atlanta, isn't too happy about the blowout loss that the Packers handed him at home in the Divisional Round last season, and he'll certainly have more than enough motivation to cause trouble in Green Bay's backfield when he gets the chance.
According to his standards, Jared Allen had a down year in 2011, but he did manage to sack Aaron Rodgers once as well as pick him off in his team's two losses to the Packers.
Allen is still one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league. It isn't likely Rodgers will allow him to get his hands on the ball again and it would also be wise to keep the mulleted man far from his body.
Philip Rivers is still after the same thing Aaron Rodgers had been seeking for several seasons-- a string of playoff victories.
The Chargers have disappointed year after year, but Rivers has not. He is often underrated although he is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.
When the Packers come to town, Rivers will be striving to show that he can play on the same level as the glorified Aaron Rodgers, and Green Bay's secondary can't let that happen.
The Packers will travel to Arrowhead Stadium in Week 15 to take on Charles and the Chiefs, who will be looking to give the speedy back a greater workload.
Jamaal Charles is only 24 years old and is looking to improve on a nearly 1500 yard season in 2010. He will certainly test Green Bay's front seven, but if they can find a way to slow him down, it should turn out to be a good week for the Pack.
Peterson gathered over 200 yards and a score in two meetings with the Packers in 2010.
The explosive back cannot be stopped, but he can be slowed down, and that is probably all Green Bay will have to do to take two from the Vikes next season.
In Week 4 last season, Calvin Johnson snagged two touchdowns in a close loss to the Pack at Lambeau Field.
In recent matchups between the two teams, the 6' 5'' receiver has always been the lowly Lions' greatest threat.
Detroit's offense will be looking to get on the right track in 2011 within the return of Matthew Stafford, and that means the Packers will have to focus even more of their attention on Johnson.
The 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year only brought Aaron Rodgers down one time last season, but after a year's experience, Ndamukong Suh will be hard to keep out of the Packers backfield.
Suh also has two very talented linemates in Corey Williams and rookie Nick Fairley so he may spend some time at defensive end in 2011.
Green Bay's offensive line will have to be at their best to withstand to the Lions ever-improving defensive front.