Only once before in the 90-year rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers have the two teams squared off for a spot in the NFL title game. That was seventy years ago, when Green Bay and Chicago finished the 1941 regular season with identical 10-1 records. They also split the season series, each winning on their rival’s turf and conceding defeat at home. When all was said and done, it all came down to one game, a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that would determine the Western Division champion and representative opposite the 8-3 Eastern Division champion New York Giants in the NFL championship game.
The teams met at Wrigley Field in Chicago before 43,425 fans on December 14 to see what was in the eyes of every spectator the true NFL championship. It was a duel between Sid Luckman, league leader in completion percentage and passer rating, and Cecil Isbell, who threw for a league-leading 15 touchdowns and 134.5 yards per game. But more than that it was a battle of philosophies — with Isbell and end Don Hutson the Packers were ushering in the first throes of the aerial era in the NFL, while the Bears were guided by the three-headed backfield monster of Norm Standlee, George McAfee and Bill Osmanski and still led the league in both rushing and passing. Curly Lambeau led his Packers into Wrigley to face George Halas’ Bears, the excitement building as the two best teams in the league met one another.
The Packers would get the early upper hand, Clark Hinkle punching the ball in at the end of a first-quarter drive from a yard out. Hutson’s extra point made it 7-0 for the visitors, but Chicago would soon turn the pressure up and render the early effort futile. Hugh Gallarneau, who would otherwise factor into the game with three rushes for 11 yards and two kickoff returns for 19 more, returned a punt 81 yards for the touchdown — but Green Bay would still lead after fifteen minutes when Joe Stydahar missed the extra point, 7-6.
The lead wouldn’t last long, as Bob Snyder’s 24-yard field goal early in the second quarter gave the defending champion Bears a lead they would not relinquish. Norm Standlee punched in two more touchdowns for Chicago, Stydahar succeeding in the conversion both times, and Bob Swisher added a 9-yard run over the goal line before halftime to punch the lead to 30-7. Hal Van Every, rotating in the backfield, would catch Isbell’s 10-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, but another Snyder field goal set the final score at 33-14. The 19-point victory by Chicago was won despite Luckman going just 4-of-9 for 41 yards passing, as the Bears ran for 277 yards on 48 carries (5.5-yard average) and kept the Packers from ever getting a ground game going. They would be outgunned in the air by Isbell and crew 222 yards to just 48, but the even greater rushing disparity would carry the game. It was a sloppy affair, with Green Bay throwing two interceptions and coughing up two fumbles and Chicago putting the ball on the carpet three times of its own.
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But a win it was nevertheless, and Chicago would go on to win their second straight championship while Green Bay was forced to make the long, abject trek back over the Illinois-Wisconsin border knowing it was an opportunity lost to a better foe. Little did anyone realize at that point, though, that it would take another seven decades before Green Bay would get another trip to the Windy City with championship dreams on the line…
The small city in eastern Wisconsin and the metropolis in northeast Illinois, separated by just 200 miles, have seen more than their fair share of glory moments in NFL history. Unfortunately for both, too many of those happened in a time when their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were able to enjoy the ride. For the past few generations of Bears and Packers fans, there has been too much unrealized potential, too many seasons squandered when another title looked within reach. Green Bay would take the first two trophies that would come to be named after the iconic coach who led those Packers teams to victory over the AFL’s best. But it would be thirty years before they would win another. And Chicago, likewise, has had but one occasion on which it could break out the Super Bowl Shuffle. Both teams have had one other appearance in the modern era in which they faltered against the AFC — Green Bay to Elway and the Broncos, Chicago to Manning and the Colts.
But now they know that the only thing standing between themselves and another appearance in the biggest game of the season… is one another. Just like in 1941, they split the season series (this time winning at home instead of away). Separated by a mere game in the 16-game season standings, Chicago would take the #2 seed while Green Bay squeaked in as the #6 and final seed with that 10-3 season finale over their rival. Now, seventy years after their one and only previous playoff encounter, the two oldest rivals in the National Football League will square off once more with a direct pipeline awaiting for their own Lombardi dreams.
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Green Bay has put in virtuoso performances in each of the past two weekends, following up their wild-card victory over Philadelphia with another road masterpiece in the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons. Both times Aaron Rodgers has been nothing short of elite. His game against the NFC’s top seed was amongst the greatest in Packers history, 31-of-36 passing for 366 yards and three touchdowns and another 13 yards rushing on two carries… one of which ended with his fourth combined score of the game.
Long pilloried, Jay Cutler had his coming-out game for the Bears a day later. Facing a Seahawks team that had come into Soldier Field earlier this season and dealt them a surprise home defeat, Cutler showed his worth in crunch time for the first time since high school and delivered a W for his team. Less accurate than Rodgers, he nevertheless go the most out of Mike Martz’s offense. He would finish against Seattle with 274 yards and two passing touchdowns while completing just over half of his throws (15-0f-28). But he also added in another eight carries for 43 yards and two more scores, not to be outdone in the touchdown department by his NFC North rival.
So when these two teams duel next Sunday, the stakes will be as big as they have ever been in the 181 previous games between them. After all, this is for all the marbles, the right to take on either Pittsburgh or the Jets in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas in February. They both have potent offenses, fierce defenses and all the motivation in the world before adding in the heated atmosphere of the league’s deepest-entrenched rivalry. Another opportunity is there to either be squandered or seized… who will emerge one step closer to the ultimate dream?