Three weeks ago it seemed that pride would be the only thing on the line for the Bears in their regular-season finale against the Packers.
But after following a six-game losing streak with three straight wins, the stakes will be much higher for coach Matt Nagy's team Sunday at Soldier Field. The Bears will earn a wild card spot in the NFC playoffs with a victory over their fiercest rival or a Cardinals loss to the Rams in Los Angeles.
"Three to four weeks ago it wasn't looking like this," Nagy said. "But our players and our coaches have battled. We've all now, together, put ourselves in a position where you win a football game, last game of the year, and you're guaranteed to be in the playoffs. So that part's exciting."
Their 41-17 rout of the Jaguars coupled with a Cardinals loss to the 49ers this past weekend put the Bears in control of their own playoff destiny heading into the season finale. To say that players are excited about the opportunity ahead of them would be a gross understatement.
"The mood is what you'd expect it to be," said safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. "It's just a bunch of guys who have persevered through a lot of adversity this year. From starting 5-1, to a six-game losing streak, to be able to position ourselves to be where we're at now, I think you can understand that the mood right now is that we're at an all-time high. It's good energy, man. And that's all you can ask for.
"Obviously we know the job isn't done, and I don't think that anybody is looking too far ahead. But to be able to position ourselves right now to control our own destiny, where we're don't need to tune in and worry about what's happening with the next team? There's no better feeling right now than controlling what you can control and doing your job. I think that's the mood right now. We understand the big test that lies ahead of us."
The intensity level at Halas Hall this week figures to be much higher than it was a year ago at this time when the Bears had already been eliminated from the playoff race before they headed to Minnesota for a meaningless season finale.
"We're all wired that way," Nagy said. "The competitive nature that I have, that our coaches have and that our players have, there's just a really good feeling and vibe in our locker room. There's that good feeling from the guys talking, their communication, where they feel we're at right now collectively.
"But also, there's that balance. I think what you can't do is you can't fall into that deal where you hype the game up so much that you play different. You can't have that. We're in a good place right now. We've got to stay the course. We've got to understand what's in front of us."
Studying Week 12 loss to Packers
Much of the preparation for this weekend's showdown will involve dissecting a deflating 41-25 loss to the Packers Nov. 29 in Green Bay. The Bears were dominated from the outset of that Sunday night game at Lambeau Field, falling behind 27-3 in the second quarter and 41-10 entering the fourth period.
"We've got to see what we didn't do well, why everything happened the way it happened the first time we played these guys," Nagy said. "And then, we've got to work off of that. The beauty of having division opponents is you get to play them twice. And now, this will be an opportunity for us to see what we can do."
Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdown passes and posted a 132.3 passer rating. The two-time NFL MVP tossed TD passes on Green Bay's first three possessions, capping drives of 75, 75 and 80 yards.
"They got after us from the very first play of the game," Nagy said. "That's one of those games that you never want to have. [But] it happened. And now what we've got to do is we've got to learn from it, as coaches and as players.
"Why did that happen? We're already all over that. We've been talking about it since [Sunday] night on the plane and [Monday] morning as to the 'why' part, which is going to be important. And then making sure that the players understand it and what can they do the same or different. And how do we get to that point? And then we've got to go out and do it on Sunday."
“Three to four weeks ago it wasn’t looking like this. But our players and coaches have battled.” Bears coach Matt Nagy
Focusing on Packers superstar quarterback
Containing Rodgers, of course, would be a good start. At age 37, the future Hall of Famer leads the NFL with 44 touchdown passes (versus just five interceptions) and a 119.4 passer rating. Rodgers has won 17 of the last 19 games he's started and finished against the Bears and has thrown 30 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in his last 12 games versus Chicago.
Rodgers is a major reason the Packers have won 18 of the last 21 meetings with the Bears since 2010, including nine of the last 10 at Soldier Field. The Bears' only win in Chicago during that span came in 2018 when they clinched the NFC North title and eliminated Green Bay from the playoff race with a 24-17 victory.
"He is arguably the best guy to ever play the game at that position," said inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone. "He's a special player. There's nothing he doesn't do great. So it's going to be the type of game where it's going to be a team game. From a defensive standpoint, it's going to be 11 players flying to the football on every single play, playing like a team like a bunch of crazed dogs. That's what it's going to take to win."
The Packers (12-3) have already clinched the NFC North title but have yet to secure the No. 1 seed—and the first-round bye and homefield-advantage throughout the playoffs that comes with it. They can earn that spot Sunday with a win over the Bears or a Seahawks loss to the 49ers. So don't expect Green Bay to rest Rodgers or any other key players.
With so much at stake, it should make for a fun final Sunday of the regular season.
"The biggest thing that you want in this league is playing meaningful games in November and into January," said receiver Allen Robinson II. "So that's where we find ourselves at right now. It's going to be exciting, especially against Green Bay, a divisional opponent. Everyone is looking forward to it."