The last time the Green Bay Packers paid a visit to Dallas, Tex., the circumstances were quite different.
At stake was Super Bowl glory, the fourth in team history, and the franchise's 13th world championship.
The Packers spent eight days in Dallas in late January and early February of 2011, four times as long as the typical road trip, culminating in a 31-25 defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV at what was then known as Cowboys Stadium.
It was an experience those within the organization will never forget.
"I think everybody will feel it when you pull into the tunnel," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "That's something that you don't ever forget, and it will never go away."
It's not as if Aaron Rodgers was an unknown entity prior to February 6, 2011, but by the end of that evening, he was catapulted into superstardom after having been named Super Bowl MVP.
What remains of that fateful night are fond memories, but the challenge this week for the Packers stands in stark contrast.
"I was going through the photo a few weeks ago in the team room of that group of guys, and it was interesting," said Rodgers, reminiscing on Thursday. "There was, I believe, only 28 of those guys in that picture are still with us. I think there's over 60 guys in that picture. Teams change year to year, and there's a big rollover. That's the nature of our game. But there's 28 of us who have some really good memories from that stadium."
Those 28 players and a slew of new ones will be looking to recapture some of the magic from that fateful night in North Texas.
Sunday's matchup between the Packers and Cowboys will be the first regular-season the Packers at the stadium that cost more than $1 billion to build, affectionately known as "Jerry's World," now complete with corporate sponsorship.
"Reality is, this is a different year, a different opportunity," said McCarthy. "We're going down there to play the home team, but Dallas, AT&T Stadium, will also have a special place for the Green Bay Packers."
It won't be like 2011 when the Packers were facing a neutral-site opponent. They're entering hostile territory to face a team with as much at stake as the Packers themselves. Both team are clinging to playoff hopes, Dallas with a 7-6 record while Green Bay stands at 6-6-1.
"The fact of the matter is, it's the fourth quarter of the season," said McCarthy. "Everything's on the line, and you just got to stay focused on what they do schematically, understand what the challenges are. "
The challenge for the Packers is to win and stay alive in the chase to win the NFC North division title. They have to hope the Detroit Lions lose at least once more, but that's out of Green Bay's control.
Not only will the circumstances on Sunday be different from 2011 when they played in the Super Bowl, they'll be different from just a week ago when the Packers beat the Falcons and the Cowboys lost to the Bears.
McCarthy knows the Packers can't just rest on their laurels riding their small wave of momentum. He knows he'll see a different Cowboys team than the team that allowed the Bears gain 490 yards on offense, convert 33 first downs and score 45 points on Monday Night Football.
He also knows it will be an entirely different habitat and conditions than the one the Packers recently experienced on grass at Lambeau Field in single-digit temperatures, as well as the one the Cowboys felt at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Said McCarthy, "Obviously the environment they played in Chicago is entirely different than the one that we'll be playing in on Sunday. ... It will be a fast track from my understanding, from the play surface"
There's one thing that will remain static for the Packers, however.
They'll be hoping that Rodgers is able to come back from a broken collarbone originally suffered back in early November in order to suit upon Sunday. But whether it's Rodgers or Matt Flynn under center, the challenge and what's at stake will stay the same.
If the Packers want to keep the dream of another Super Bowl alive, they'll have to be prepared no matter who's directing the offense.
"They're a good football team, a very talented football team," McCarthy said of the Cowboys. "They have excellent coaches, the whole ten yards. It will be a great environment for us to play in."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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