It's so rare for the Bears and Packers to be playing for more than bragging rights that a magnifying glass is needed to find games approaching Sunday's importance.
Although even little games can seem big amid the lore and legend, the truth is these ancient NFL rivals have a habit of confusing mystique with meaning. Since the 1970 merger between the NFL and AFL, they never have played each other for even a division title.
For once, everybody can agree a Bears-Packers game never has and never will get any bigger than Sunday's NFC championship. It's the biggest Bears-Packers game since, well, since three weeks ago when the Bears tried to avoid all this hysteria and keep the Packers from the playoffs in the first place.
Then there was the only playoff, in 1941, and that was a last-minute rubber match between two 10-1 teams. It wasn't scheduled until the Bears beat the host Cardinals in Comiskey Park on Dec. 7, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. Several Packers, who already had finished their regular season, were sitting in the stands rooting for the Cardinals when news of the Japanese attack was announced.
So a week later, the Packers and Bears met in Wrigley Field to decide the Western Division winner who would meet the Eastern Division champion Giants for the title on Dec. 21.
To attest to the lure of the rivalry, 43,425 fans came to Wrigley Field in 16-degree weather to see the Bears oust the Packers 33-14. A week later, despite temperatures in the high 40s, only 13,341 showed up in Wrigley for the title game against the Giants, an anticlimactic 37-9 Bears victory.
In many parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, the Bears-Packers feud remains more important than such newfangled nonsense as Super Bowls.
In the '30s and '40s, one of the two either won the NFL title or appeared in 15 championship games in 17 years. Before a layered playoff system, the two battled for regular-season dominance in their Western Division, which became the National Conference in 1950 and the Western Conference in 1953. But the only winner-take-all showdown was the 1941 playoff.
In their indispensable book on the Bears-Packers rivalry, "Mudbaths and Bloodbaths" (Prairie Oak Press, 1997), authors Gary D'Amato and Cliff Christl list 20 "memorable" games. Only five had a somewhat direct bearing on a title chase. Most games from their list of 20 happened during losing seasons for one or both teams. Although more than five meetings over the years have had playoff implications, some of them weren't particularly memorable at the time.
Some of the 181 games have become important only in retrospect and conjecture, such as when the 2008 Bears went 9-7 but missed the playoffs. If the Packers hadn't blown them out 37-3 on Nov. 16, the Bears would have beaten out the Vikings for the NFC North title. The Packers finished out of it at 6-10. The loss may have convinced the Bears they needed an upgrade over quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, who were a combined 17 of 33 for no touchdowns while young Aaron Rodgers went 23 of 30 for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bears could have learned that lesson earlier, of course, such as during the 1995 season when Rodgers' predecessor, Brett Favre, threw eight touchdown passes in the two meetings. The 11-5 Packers swept the 9-7 Bears and went on to win the NFC Central. Nobody knew at the time those September and early November games would mean that much.
A list of the most important Bears-Packers games ignores novelties like Refrigerator Perry barreling into the end zone or Chester Marcol kicking a touchdown or the "asterisk" instant replay controversy or the Monsoon Game in Soldier Field or Charles Martin planting Jim McMahon on his head or the Forrest Gregg-Mike Ditka sideshows. Instead, the list focuses on games meaningful to championships, even though every good Bears or Packers fan can be happy with third place if the other finishes fourth.
Credit Bears coach Lovie Smith for understanding as much the minute he arrived.
Notably, the most meaningful games have been played in Chicago because the Bears usually got the season's second meeting at home, an apparent holdover from the days when Wrigley Field was unavailable early as the home of the Cubs. In the most recent decade, each team played five second games at home, so George Halas no longer must be in charge of scheduling.
1. The first playoff, Dec. 14, 1941, Wrigley Field: Bears 33-14.The Bears became "Monsters of the Midway" after their record 73-0 championship triumph against Washington in 1940. For 1941, they added running backs Norm Standlee and Hugh Gallarneau to Bullet Bill Osmanski and Hall of Famer George McAfee.
The Bears handed the Packers their only loss early and then suffered their only loss to the Packers, who surprised them with a defense that befuddled their famed T-formation with man-in-motion running attack.
So for the playoff, the Bears made adjustments and overpowered the Packers. McAfee ran for 119 yards and Standlee added 79 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers scored first after Gallarneau fumbled the opening kickoff, but Gallarneau quickly scored himself on an 81-yard punt return.
Gallarneau told Christl and D'Amato: "I just about died, because Halas was somewhat unforgiving if you made a mistake like that in a Bear-Packer game. I also was worried my salary would be cut."
2. The showdown, Nov. 17, 1963, Wrigley Field: Bears 26-7.Both teams were 8-1 and don't tell anybody this wasn't the "real" Western Conference "title game" even though there still were four games to play and no playoff format existed.
Regular-season standings were the only path to the single NFL championship game between Western and Eastern conferences. The mighty Packers were two-time defending NFL champions under Vince Lombardi, but the Bears had opened the season with a 10-3 victory in Green Bay in what Halas labeled "the greatest team effort in the history of the Bears — 44 long years."
The Bears' only loss was to the 49ers and they figured nobody else was going to help them beat the Packers. The Pack was playing the season without suspended star Paul Hornung. Quarterback Bart Starr was sidelined for the second Bears game with a broken hand, but backup John Roach had won three starts in a row.
The Bears forced seven turnovers and dominated from the opening kickoff with J.C. Caroline's resounding hit on Herb Adderley.
Tickets that cost $2.50 were being scalped for an unheard of $100 and the Tribune reported: "Tickets to the Russian circus and baseball rainchecks were among the most common items shuffled through the pass window, to no avail."
The Bears tied their next two games and finished the season 11-1-2 before beating the Giants for the NFL title. The Packers finished 11-2-1.
3. A monster upset, Nov. 2, 1941, Wrigley Field: Packers 16-14.After opening with a 25-17 victory in Green Bay, the newly minted Monsters were cruising at 5-0. But the Packers were 6-1 and undaunted with stars Clark Hinkle, Cecil Isbell and the incomparable Don Hutson, the league MVP.
"Our players kept reading, day after day, about the Bears being the wonder team, the unbeatable team," Packers coach Curly Lambeau said. "We knew the Bears were reading the same stuff. We hoped they believed it. We didn't."
The Bears weren't prepared for a seven-man defensive line and the Packers took a 16-0 lead before the Bears rallied in the fourth quarter and nearly pulled it out.
The Wrigley crowd of 46,484 was the largest ever for a pro football game in the Midwest. It included 3,000 Packer fans, many of them arriving via four special trains from the north.
It was reported that nine people in Wrigley Field suffered heart attacks. Two died, including Mary Halas, wife of Bears' traveling secretary and Halas' brother, Frank. She was 59.
If the Bears had won, there would have been no need for that playoff.
4. Packers' first title, Dec. 8, 1929, Wrigley Field: Packers 25-0.It was the last game of the season for the Packers and their third against the Bears, whom they dominated for the first time, outscoring them by a combined 62-0 in a humiliating sweep.
Before 1933 and the split into two divisions, NFL titles were decided strictly by regular-season standings. The Packers finished undefeated at 12-0-1. The Bears never were competitive and finished 4-9-2. But if the Bears had upset the Packers, the Giants would have been awarded the title with their 13-1-1 record.
The Packers had played eight straight games on the road, their last three in a 10-day period. Upon their return to Green Bay, 20,000 fans met the Packers, half the population celebrating the little town's entrance to big-league status. Coincidentally, for that season Lambeau had added talented Cal Hubbard and Mike Michalske from New York and notorious night-clubber Johnny Blood, who negotiated a paycut so Lambeau would delay his curfew on bars until Thursdays. All three made the Hall of Fame.
In Chicago, Halas wrote that his team's first-ever losing season meant "the time had come for me to stop playing. I was 34. I no longer had speed." Also, Halas wrote: "The time had come for Dutch (Sternaman) and me to stop coaching, or, more accurately, mis-coaching."
Halas began his first of three sabbaticals from coaching and hired Ralph Jones, his former freshman coach at Illinois who was athletic director at Lake Forest Academy. Jones began to work on installing the T-formation with man-in-motion.
5. Bronko Nagurski's run, Dec. 11, 1932, Wrigley Field: Bears 9-0.The Bears were 5-1-6 and the Packers were 10-2-1. Ties were thrown out and titles were decided on winning percentage. The Packers appeared to be on their way to their fourth straight title until losing to the Portsmouth Spartans the week before the Bears' game. With a 6-1-4 record, the Spartans (forerunners to Detroit Lions) also had a better winning percentage than the Packers.
Snow and a frozen field held the Bears-Packers crowd to 5,000 and the score to 0-0 until Paul "Tiny" Engebretson, a tackle from Northwestern who played only that season, kicked a field goal.
Then the immortal Bronko Nagurski iced it with a 56-yard run enhancing his legend in front of such teammates as Red Grange, Bill Hewitt and Luke Johnsos.
With the Bears and Spartans tied in the standings, last-minute arrangements were made for a playoff in Chicago. The weather grew worse, so the game had to be played inside Chicago Stadium on an 80-yard field. The Bears won it 9-0 when Nagurski faked a run and threw a pass to Grange that the Spartans thought violated the rule that required a passer to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Rule changes soon ensued, but if the Packers had beaten the Bears the previous week, the Spartans would have been crowned champions without the indoor game and who knows when the passing game might have evolved?
6. On the way to 73-0, Nov. 3, 1940, Wrigley Field: Bears 14-7.The Bears opened their season with a 41-10 victory in Green Bay and were 5-1 when they met the 4-2 Packers for the second time.
The Bears won 14-7 when Gary Famiglietti scored on a 7-yard run in the second quarter. With Hutson the league's foremost receiver, the Packers got to the 20-yard line three times in the fourth quarter but the Bears' defense held.
The Bears ended up 8-3, which gave them the right to play the Washington Redskins in their most famous title game. The Packers finished second in the West at 6-4-1. If they had won that second encounter, they would have placed ahead of the Bears and might have beaten the Redskins 74-0.
7. War games, Nov. 7, 1943, Wrigley Field: Bears 21-7.With the league reduced to eight teams because of the war, the Bears and Packers tied in the season opener and met in the second game knowing it probably would decide the Western title.
The Bears still had Hall of Famers Sid Luckman, Danny Fortmann, George Musso, and Bulldog Turner and lured Nagurski back to play tackle five years after his retirement. The Packers had Tony Canadeo and Hutson.
The 5-0-1 Bears beat the 4-1-1 Packers when Luckman threw a 38-yard pass to Harry Clarke in the third quarter.
After the Bears lost to the Redskins two weeks later, they had to beat the crosstown Cardinals in the season finale to stay ahead of the Packers. Behind 24-14 entering the fourth quarter, coach Hunk Anderson (Halas was in the Navy) moved the 34-year-old Nagurski to fullback and he carried 16 times for 84 yards in the final quarter to lead a 35-24 comeback that clinched the West ahead of the Packers and set up the Bears' 41-21 title victory over Washington.
8. Farewell, Halas and Lombardi, Nov. 26, 1967, Wrigley Field: Packers 17-13.This was the final game between coaching giants Halas and Lombardi, who both moved upstairs after the season.
The Packers were on their way to a three-peat and Super Bowl II. They clinched the NFC Central title against the Bears with three games to go by going ahead in the second quarter on a Donny Anderson touchdown run.
They lost their final two games to finish an uninspiring 9-4-1, two games ahead of the 7-6-1 Bears. If the Bears had split with the Packers, both teams would have tied at 8-5-1 with point differential deciding the division winner at the time. But nobody was using 1967 Bears and Super Bowl in the same sentence.
9. Bart Starr fades, Dec. 18, 1983, Soldier Field: Bears 23-21.Ahead 21-20 with 90 seconds to go in the season finale, all the 8-7 Packers had to do was hold on to make the playoffs.
Walter Payton, who had gained 148 yards, was on the bench with a rib injury, but the 7-8 Bears drove behind quarterback Jim McMahon to set up Bob Thomas for a game-winning 22-yard field goal with 10 seconds left.
Packers' coach Starr was criticized for allowing the clock to run during the Bears' winning drive and later admitted he should have used his timeouts. He was fired the next day after nine long years and Forrest Gregg replaced him.
Both teams finished 8-8, but that marked the start of the Bears' dominance in the '80s.
10. What if, Sept. 16, 1984, Lambeau Field: Bears 9-7.In their next game the following year, the first Gregg-Ditka clash, the Bears won on three Thomas field goals. The Bears finished 10-6 and got to their first NFC title game since the merger.
The Packers finished 8-8 and beat the Bears in their second game in Soldier Field. If they had won that first game, their 9-7 record would have won the tiebreaker over the Bears' 9-7. Who knows? Maybe the Bears wouldn't have entered 1985 so confident.
11. Don Horn's in, Dec. 15, 1968, Wrigley Field: Packers 28-27.
In the season finale, the 7-6 Bears had to beat the 5-7-1 Packers to win the Central. The playoffs had been expanded to divisions in 1967. Quarterback Bart Starr was out with a rib injury and backup Zeke Bratkowski went out in the first quarter with a rib injury, so the Packers had to turn to third-stringer Don Horn.
Horn completed 10 of 16 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown and Ray Nitschke intercepted Jack Concannon at the 35-yard line with 1:07 left to ruin coach Jim Dooley's hard-luck initial season.
The Bears got to the brink despite a broken collarbone to Concannon early in the season, a shoulder injury to Rudy Bukich, a desperate move to Larry Rakestraw, some promising starts by rookie Virgil Carter and a devastating knee injury to superstar Gale Sayers, only to have the Packers dash their playoff hopes.
12. Packers get revenge, Nov. 1, 1936, Wrigley Field: Packers 21-10.
Arnie Herber to Hutson became the league's most potent passing combination. Clarke Hinkle was a Hall of Fame running back.
When Hutson was a rookie in 1935, his first reception went for an 83-yard touchdown against the Bears in a 7-0 victory that ended a Bears' streak of 17 straight regular-season triumphs. In their next meeting, the Packers overcame a 14-3 deficit in the final 2 1/2 minutes when Herber threw two touchdown passes to Hutson in an improbable 17-14 victory. The Packers and Bears finished behind the Lions that year.
In 1936, the Bears won the season opener 30-3 and went into their second Packer game with a 6-0 record. The Packers were 5-1. The Packers won when Hinkle rushed for 109 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter on a 59-yard run. The Packers went on to beat the Boston Redskins for the NFL title after beating out the Bears in the West with a 10-1-1 record to the Bears' 9-3.
Longtime Bears and NFL reporter Don Pierson retired from the Tribune in 2007 after 40 years.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times