And so it boils down to the final week of the regular season for the Chicago Bears to possibly punch their ticket to the playoffs.
But first they have to get past the NFC North-inhabitant Detroit Lions Sunday in the Motor City and hope the division-rival Minnesota Vikings lose at home to the very familiar Green Bay Packers. If the NFC North scenario breaks down in the Bears' favor, they will return to the postseason for the first time since 2010 and just the second occasion in six years.
Chicago had paved a seemingly-comfortable road to the postseason with a 7-1 start, but then quarterback Jay Cutler lost his touch, running back Matt Forte wrestled with injuries and the defense failed to live up to expectations in losing five of six games. It all came together somewhat in Sunday's 28-13 victory at Arizona, which halted a three-game losing streak and kept the Bears' chances of extending the season very much alive.
Now the Bears just need to take care of business and root for the Packers.
"Hopefully we take care of business in Detroit and Green Bay can keep playing well," Cutler said after throwing for just 146 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals. "I saw they put up 55 today. Hopefully Aaron (Rodgers) can put on another show next week."
Forte sustained an ankle injury in the second half at Arizona and ran for 88 yards and a score. With fellow running back Michael Bush (ribs) already on injured reserve, Bears head coach Lovie Smith is in a pickle with no healthy backfield. If for some reason Forte doesn't shake the problem by Sunday, Smith will have to go with Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen against Detroit. Bell had 32 yards on 13 carries on Sunday, while Allen posted 24 yards on five touches.
"Depth at running back is a concern," Smith said. "Whenever you have a limited amount of guys this time of year anyway and when you have a player that goes down, it makes you shuffle things."
Chicago, which hopes to open the playoffs as the sixth seed and face either San Francisco or Seattle, is counting on the voice of its defense, linebacker Brian Urlacher, to make an impact this week in both practice and on Sunday. Urlacher has missed the previous three games with a hamstring issue and Smith noted that the veteran is "getting better" and the team is "hopeful" he will resume action in Detroit.
Of course, the Bears are facing a tough Lions squad regardless of what their record is (4-11). Detroit has the top-rated pass attack in the NFL (311.5 ypg), while the Bears are sixth in pass defense (211.2 ypg). One player the Bears have to be wary of is Lions All Pro wideout Calvin Johnson, who leads the NFL with 1,892 receiving yards and broke Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season. He had 225 yards on 11 catches in Saturday's 31-18 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the NFC's top-seeded team.
Johnson, aka Megatron, also set the record for most consecutive 100-yard games (8), most consecutive 10-catch games (4) and most 100-yard games in a season (11). His next goal is reaching the 2,000-yard receiving mark. Six players have reached the number -- all running backs.
"It's going to be a very tough task," Johnson told the NFL Network Sunday morning when asked about the 2,000-yard mark. "We have a tough Bears defense that we have coming into our place so we have to be on our P's and Q's this week, eliminate a lot of the errors we have on film from yesterday, and push forward. Finish this season on the right note."
Detroit will put the final touches on what has been a disappointing season, one which proceeded a 10-6 mark in 2011 and the first playoff berth since the 1999 campaign. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford's numbers dropped from 2011, when he passed for a career-high 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. This season, Stafford has passed for 4,695 yards with 17 TDs and 16 interceptions. He has been picked off at least 16 times in three of his four seasons.
Stafford threw for 443 yards with no touchdowns and an interception against the Falcons, and was asked about possibly reaching 5,000 passing yards again.
"Five-thousand yards, I mean I'd love to be able to be able to do it again, but I'd love for it to come with a win," Stafford admitted. "I'm disappointed that we didn't get the win today."
With a win or a loss the Lions, who are mired in a seven-game losing streak, will finish with the least amount of wins since going 2-14 back in 2009. The last time Detroit dropped eight in a row was during a winless 2008 campaign.
Besides the record-breaking season for Johnson, running back Mikel Leshoure enjoyed his first season at the NFL level. Selected in the second round of the 2011 draft, Leshoure missed all of last season due to an Achilles injury and came back even stronger with a team-best 741 yards and nine TDs on 200 carries. The last 1,000-yard rusher for the Lions was Kevin Jones, who tallied 1,133 yards back in 2004. Kevin Smith had 976 rushing yards in 2008.
It could be tough sledding for Leshoure against the Bears, who are ninth in rushing yards allowed at 103.7 ypg. In a 13-7 loss to the Bears back on Oct. 22, Leshoure had 63 yards on 12 carries and Johnson was held to a season-low 34 yards on three receptions. The Bears have won eight of the last nine meetings with the Lions, losers of four in a row at Ford Field overall.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Cutler could fail to reach the 3,000-yard passing mark for a second straight season if he struggles Sunday against the Lions. Cutler, who's thrown for 2,776 yards, 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season, also needs to stay protected in the pocket against a tough Detroit front line. Cutler was sacked five times in the first meeting with the Lions and has been brought down seven times in the past three games overall.
Cliff Avril and Ndamukong Suh each had a sack of Cutler in the first meeting. Avril leads the Lions with 9 1/2 sacks and Suh is right behind with seven. Expect the Lions' defense to come out full blast for this matchup and ruin Chicago's chances of moving on. If Forte is unable to play it will only put more pressure on Cutler to get the job done himself.
However, one problem Detroit could face is Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall. While Johnson will steal the headlines for possibly reaching 2,000 yards receiving, Marshall is just as dangerous. He had 81 yards and a score on 10 receptions in the first meeting and has a touchdown catch in three straight games (11 overall). Marshall understands what's at stake this week.
"All we can do is control what we can control," said Marshall, who already has set team records with 113 catches and 1,466 yards. "We do need help. If we could get that help, that would be good."
Johnson is the key factor for Detroit's success on Sunday. Poised to reach 2,000 yards receiving and clearly the Lions' top offensive weapon, Johnson will have to redeem himself of a poor showing the first time he faced Chicago. That will only occur if Stafford has enough time to find one of the NFL's most dangerous players.
"His best is yet to come and the best ... where he's going to lead this team, the best is yet to come," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said of Johnson.
Stafford was sacked three times by the Bears and goes against a Bears defense that produced four sacks in the win over the Cardinals. Bears veteran defensive end Julius Peppers had three of those sacks and owns 5 1/2 in the past four games. Peppers has posted double-digit sack efforts eight times in his career and four times in the past five seasons.
The Bears have been known to score a few points on defense, too, and veteran defensive back Charles Tillman kept that reputation intact by returning an interception for a score Sunday. Tillman has three touchdowns on the season and linebacker Lance Briggs has posted two for the Bears, who are 6-0 this season when scoring a defensive TD and have done so nine times in 2012. The defense could be even more stingy if Urlacher returns for the most important game of the season. Urlacher has been limited in practice this week.
The Bears may not be at 100 percent for Sunday's game, but they have stared adversity in the face before and prevailed. Miracles will not be a necessity for Chicago to come out on top against the Lions, but smart play and extra help in pass defense are important. Johnson will get his stats and the Bears can only afford to give up so much. Lost in all of the hype is Cutler, who can pick apart a defense when given enough time. Luckily for Cutler, he has a defense that can score as often as the offense. One more defensive score and Chicago will match the 1998 Seattle Seahawks with 10 in one season.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 26, Lions 23