The Packers and Da Bears: A Rivalry Renewed

The Green Bay Packers 2010 season, in which they captured their thirteenth NFL Championship, will be fondly remembered for many reasons.  “Teach Me How to Raji”, The Championship Belt, and last-minute interceptions ending fourth-quarter comebacks will forever engrave themselves into the lore of the greatest and most unique franchise in NFL history.

But, perhaps lost in the undercurrent of Super Bowl XLV is the re-igniting of the oldest rivalry in the NFL, as the Packers faced the Bears three times, including the NFC Championship game for the first time in 70 years.

A rivalry can be defined with two words: antagonistic competition.  And certainly, there is no rivalry in football that is more storied, or more antagonized, than the 182 games now played between Chicago and Green Bay, two of the oldest teams in the NFL.

There are three elements that create great rivalries:  proximity, familiarity, and a history of meaningful games.  Put these three things together on a consistent basis, and you get the fervor you have seen over the last ninety years from Packer and Bear fans.

The question that begs an answer is: why would the most storied rivalry in football even need to be rekindled?

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In the infancy of what would become the National Football League, two of the first teams were the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Staleys, which would in the following year, become the Bears.  There were several commonalities about the two coaches.  For one, they both played prominent roles of offense.  Secondly, they were both tremendously prideful, often to a fault.  And finally, they never shook hands after a game and forbade their players from doing likewise.

These were the days long before the context of sportsmanship filtered its way into every coach’s press conference.  And the war between Lambeau and Halas started with a bang.  In January of 1922, Halas thundered into the annual NFL owners’ meeting and demanded that Green Bay have its franchise revoked from the league.

Why? Just two months earlier, the Packers and Staleys played their first game, and Lambeau had signed some college players whose seasons had ended.  He put those players into that monumental first game, infuriating Halas.

The NFL mulled the argument until August, when it granted Green Bay its first official NFL franchise.  Halas graciously approved the re-admittance…mostly because the Bears had just signed the player the Packers had been courting.

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Proximity is always one of the key ingredients in any rivalry.  Even high school teams will circle the date they play not the best team in the conference, but the team across the river.  The border battle between Titletown and the Monsters of the Midway is firmly entrenched in that Bears fan being in the cubicle next to yours.

Such familiarity extends beyond football.  Certainly, Wisconsin politics in the early part of 2011 underscored the rivalry and uneasy relations between the Badger State and its neighbor to the south.  The annual infiltration of the Flatlanders to Door County and the Northwoods is an all-too familiar Cheesehead conflict of perceived invasion versus property tax revenue.

Familiarity is also a slam-dunk for Packers and Bear fans.  No matter the record, the two teams play each other twice a season, with the games being one of the most prized on the secondary market.  Ejections and arrests during Packer-Bear games make you think twice about bringing your young child to his or her first game.  And with Chicago still leading the all-time series 92-84-6, there’s always something to play for in the leagues’ oldest continuous rivalry (the strike-shortened 1982 season notwithstanding).

This leaves us our final rivalry factor: meaningful games.  Nothing stirs the spirits like two teams that hate each other, going at each other with something on the line, even if it is just pride.  But the Packers and Bears went through the last twenty years without any real barn-burning games that added to the mystique.

The Packers rivalry with the Bears may have hit its most intense stage in the 1980’s, when the Packers were wretched and the Bears were at the height of their power.  Games of that era were marked by the Bears toying with the Packers, and the Packers retaliating with some dirty plays.  Regardless, the Bears were vying for division crown each year and looking to go deep into the playoffs during that time: they didn’t see the Packers as their peers in the league.  The Packers, on the other hand, saw the Bears as their pride game, their most important game.  And, between 1985-1992, they were swept by the Bears in every season except 1989.

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1941 was the Year of the Bears…for the most part.  Leave it to Curly Lambeau to rain on the Bears’ parade.

The Bears were invincible in 1941:  the defending champions cut a swath through the entire NFL as war was brewing overseas.  The Bears were called “irresistible and unbeatable – the team of the decade” as they marched their 5-0 record into Wrigley Field against the Packers, who they had already pounded once that season.

In one fell swoop, Halas’s Bears were dismantled by the Packers in front of their home fans, shutting them out 16-0 through the first three quarters.  While the Bears narrowed the score at the end, the ugly face of the rivalry showed itself.  The Bears were in position to kick a game-winning field goal with five seconds left when they called for a time-out. The officials claimed, as were the rules of the time, only the team captain could call a time-out, and the clock was allowed to drain.  Naturally, Halas cried foul, treachery, cheating, insider trading, and anything else he could, but it didn’t matter.  The façade of invincibility was gone.

Only days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Packers faced the Bears in a divisional playoff game with the confidence of being the only team to beat Chicago that season.  A coin toss put the game in Chicago, and the Bears wasted little time gaining revenge for the previous game’s ending, winning 33-14 and never looking back after the second quarter.

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1992 marked the turning point for both franchises.  The Packers began life under Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren and catapulted into the NFL’s elite.  The tables had turned: the Packers now approached Bears Week as just another notch in the schedule on the way to facing off against the 49ers or Cowboys in the playoffs.  Meanwhile, the Bears only made the playoffs twice from 1992-2004, going just 6-21 against the Packers during that time.

The Bears were no longer the threat they once were, and the Packers no longer viewed them as their primary target.  The rivalry took a back seat, at least in the eyes of most Packer fans, who turned their attention elsewhere.

If you asked a Packer fan how much they hated the Bears, you could almost tell when they started avidly following the team.  Fans that followed the team before the Wolf era still had that intense hatred for the Bears, with memories streaming back to the Bear-dominated 1950’s, the Packer-dominated 1960’s, the miserable 1970’s for both teams, and the Super Bowl Shuffle debacle of the 1980’s.  But the teams that don’t remember a quarterback before Brett Favre don’t seem to have as much of a vendetta for the Bears as much as they have for another NFC North team.

As the Packers fell from the NFL elite at the millennium mark, the Minnesota Vikings ascended into the Packers’ crosshairs as the top rival for the NFC North crown.  A motley cast of characters in purple helped fuel the animosity between the two teams:  Randy Moss, Chris Hovan, Cris Carter, and Duante Culpepper led the early feuds, with the defections of Darren Sharper, Ryan Longwell, and eventually, Brett Favre creating some of the most antagonistic match-ups of the decade.

The Bears had a couple of good years in 2005 and 2006, but those were years where the Packers declined dramatically.  While the Bears made it to the Super Bowl in 2006, the Packers were struggling to simply find their own identity under new coach Mike McCarthy.  When the Packers began to find their rhythm in the last few seasons, the Bears again fell into mediocrity.

Hard to have meaningful games when one team is their own biggest challenge.

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George Halas hated Curly Lambeau.  He hated the Packers.  But, he loved the rivalry.  He loved it so much that, much unlike his actions back in 1922, thirty-four years later he actually fought to keep the Packers in the NFL.

The Packers fell on hard times in the 1950’s.  It was already the only surviving small-market team left over from the early years, and the crash-and-burn firing of Curly Lambeau and power-grabs among the Board of Directors left the franchise hanging on by a thread year after year.  Rumors had the Packers getting dumped as the league contracted in 1951, then moved when the league awarded expansion franchises three years later.

The Packers hung their hat on new stadium, and began a drive to raise the funds for a new City Stadium.  But by 1956, it came down to a referendum to issue bonds to finish the stadium.  It was a watershed moment for a struggling franchise that most big-city Americans didn’t think belonged in a small town.

With the departure of Lambeau, a voice that could resonate the history of the franchise was gone, and eight years without a winning record was wearing on the loyal fans.  Imagine the surprise of Green Bay residents when they turned on their radio and heard a familiar—and hated—voice talking to them, encouraging them to vote in favor of the bond referendum.

Yes, Halas took to the airwaves himself to convince Packer fans to build that new stadium and insure the continuation of the rivalry that generated so much passion (and revenue) for both clubs.  Behind the scenes, Halas and other owners of “the conservative bloc” kept the pressure on NFL Commissioner Bert Bell and the less-visionary owners to keep the Packers in Green Bay, not Dallas or Buffalo.  Halas even spoke in person at a rally before the vote, standing next to none other than Curly Lambeau himself.

In the end, the Packers got their stadium and the rivalry continued.  But, as in any true rivalry, Halas didn’t get one thing he was hoping for.  Halas had been asking for years for his away game against the Packers to be played in Milwaukee instead of Green Bay, and hoped his efforts would earn him that caveat. He never got it.

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Lovie Smith endeared himself to the Bears’ faithful when, upon taking the job as head coach in 2004, he publicly declared his #1 goal was to beat the Green Bay Packers.  Packer fans scoffed:  after all, they’d taken the division crown two years running and made the last three postseasons.  That’s as high as you’re going to set your goals?

But Lovie Smith backed it up, going 7-3 against the Pack his first five seasons.  The games were rarely close, with one team usually battering the other.  The Bears, however, continued to use the Packers as their measuring stick, although they built their team much differently.

Unlike Ted Thompson, who continued to eschew trades and free agency and built his team almost purely through the draft and selective signings of street free agents, the Bears paid heavy prices for instant fixes, and 2010 was the year they made their biggest moves.

First, they traded away their first round draft picks in 2009 and 2010  (as well as a third-rounder) to the Denver Broncos in order to acquire quarterback Jay Cutler, a statement that the revolving door of quarterbacks the Bears had since 1992 was over (especially, when compared to the two Packer starters over that same amount of time).

Then, last season, the Bears threw $91.5 million at defensive end Julius Peppers, after going 0-2 versus the Packers in 2009, getting minimal pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and not forcing a single interception in either game.

Chicago came into 2010 loaded for bear, and their sights were set first and foremost on the Packers.  In the first game, as both teams met with equal 2-0 records, the Bears put themselves in the division driver’s seat with an embarrassing defeat of the Pack, who committed 18 penalties for 152 yards.  In the end, the Packers lost by a field goal as time ran out, but moral victories against a division rival ring hollow quickly.

The significance of the game was critical:  the Packers would spend the rest of the season looking up at the Bears in the standings, eventually hoping for a wild-card as the Bears cruised towards a first round bye.  As the season went on, that three-point loss to the Bears was the difference between first and second place, the difference between home field advantage and going on the road throughout the playoffs.

For the first time in years, the Packers had finally played a game of major significance with the Bears.

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The rise of Vince Lombardi’s Packers enflamed George Halas to no end.  In the early 1960’s, he began including “beating the Packers” right up next to “winning it all” as yearly goals for the team.  The playmanship between Lombardi and Halas was a different tone than the titanic Halas/Lambeau clashes.   Lombardi was the charming gentlemen, offering handshakes after games, and even talking trades with Halas (which often left Papa Bear slamming the phone down in disgust after declining offer and offer).  One might say that Lombardi was able to get Halas’s goat, both on the field and off.

But in 1963, the Bears were able to one-up Lombardi and the Packers.  The Bears were pummeled twice in 1962 by the repeating NFL Champions, and this was the year Halas would put a dent in Lombardi’s ego.  They stymied the Packers in their first game, picking off Bart Starr five times, then stunned the defending champions 26-7 in a November game.

The demoralized Packers started the season truly believing they were ready to three-peat.  But Halas turned his vendetta against Lombardi into two huge wins, and rode that wave of momentum all the way to the 1963 NFL Championship.

Ray Nitchke recalled the day that Halas came to the door of the locker room before a game in those days.  Asking for Lombardi, he told the Packers’ coach the Bears were going to kick their ass.

Halas’s subtle way of saying, I don’t accept your trade offer.

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After another roller-coaster season, the Packers were in position to grab the last wild-card spot as the came into Week 17.  All they had to do was beat the team that put them in that hole to begin with earlier in the season:  The Bears.  After going so many years without games of significance, the Packers now needed to defeat their greatest historical rival to make the playoffs.  The Bears were in a position to sweep the season and shut the Packers out.


And if you thought the Packers were going to come out focused and sharp, you would be mistaken.  This wouldn’t be a game for the ages, but an ugly game where the Packers’ offense went AWOL against a Bears defense that kept its starters in all game.  Sure, this was a meaningless game for the Bears: they had a first-round bye wrapped up and could afford to rest its starters, but remember:  this is McCarthy versus Lovie now.  If you promise to beat the Packers your first day on the job, you don’t go into any game half-assed.

Both Rodgers and Cutler were stymied through much of the game, with Rodgers passing for the only touchdown in the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter, his only shining series in the game.  The Bears had kept themselves in the game by sticking with running back Matt Forte, but down 10-3 with time running out, Cutler began to drive down the field for a game-tying score.  Already in field goal range with under a minute to play, Packer safety Nick Collins intercepted Cutler’s last pass at his own 11-yard line, ending the game in dramatic fashion.

The impact of this loss on the Bears might have been just as significant as the Packers’ loss earlier in the season.  The Bears went all in with their starters and couldn’t generate more than three points against the Packers’ defense, despite holding the Packers to just 284 yards.

But, more importantly, the Bears had a chance to end the Packers’ season, to end their dreams.  And the Packers prevailed to play another day.  While the Bears had a week off before hosting their next game, the momentum shift to their rivals was palpable.

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Poor George Cumby.  Before the word “posterize” was formally accepted as a verb, Cumby could have been the spokesperson for its induction into Webster’s Dictionary.

In 1985, Cumby’s role in the goal-line defense was pretty simple: cover the fullback.  In normal circumstances, it meant to shed the block so he or a teammate could get to the ball carrier.  Simple, right?

But the Bears decided to unload their secret weapon on the hapless Packers’ only prime-time appearance of the season, a Monday Night game in October.  For Green Bay, this was their only opportunity to shine for the nation.  For the Bears it was just a high-profile step in their Super Bowl Shuffle.  And, an opportunity for coach Mike Ditka to embarrass the Packers for all to see.

The secret weapon?  Mammoth rookie William “The Refrigerator” Perry—as much a cartoon character as a defensive tackle—who lined up in the offensive backfield with the Bears on the goal line.  It was no contest for George Cumby, who was knocked backwards into the end zone, giving Walter Payton a canyon to run through.  The Bear fans went crazy and petitioned for Ditka to do it again.  An interception on the ensuing drive put the Bears right back on the goal line and Perry in the backfield again.

This time, quarterback Jim McMahon gave the ball directly to Perry, who bulldozed through several players, including Cumby, for the touchdown.

Only two weeks later, the two teams met again with tempers flaring.  Two Packers were ejected from the game for exacting revenge for the Monday Night Humiliation, but it was to no avail.  And poor George Cumby sat on the goal line again, covering a fullback named Fridge, determined to meet him at the line of scrimmage.  You have the feeling Cumby thought of nothing else all week but to stand tall at the line and undercut Perry. 

But, the Bears pulled another trick on the Packers, sending Perry in motion, with a tentative Cumby following him across the line.  When the ball was hiked, Cumby lunged forward to absorb the block, but Perry strolled right past him and caught a pass for a touchdown, with nary a Packer within ten feet of him.

The Bears went on to win the Super Bowl that year.  George Cumby was cut from the team the following off-season.  The former Pro Bowler was never the same again.

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The improbable had happened.  In fact, the statistically rarity had come to pass: in a 16-team Conference with six playoff teams from four divisions, two teams from the NFC North would square off in the NFC Championship Game for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

But, not just any two teams.  The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears—historical rivals who had split the regular season with two ugly, narrow margins of victory in the last minute—would square off for a third and final time with one goal in mind:  not just to go to the Super Bowl, but to prevent the other from going.

This is the position the Bears and Packers simply hadn’t been in for too long; why the luster of the rivalry had faded for the last twenty years or so.  This game was no longer just about a win or a loss.  It was about crushing the hopes and dreams of the other, of taking their season of blood, sweat, and tears to its pinnacle, and making it all empty and hollow…and making sure they knew it was you that did it to them.

The Championship game came with every bit of hype you could imagine; as would be expected for two teams that had rediscovered their own histories.  Young fans were given stern lessons about why the other team was so despised, and both coaches realized this was a game that would define their tenures, even if they won and went on to lose the Super Bowl.

Both teams were loaded with quality players.  Old, grizzled veterans like Brian Urlacher and Donald Driver, and Charles Woodson were playing for their last chance at a ring.  Both teams were loaded with young, talented players ready to get it for them, like Aaron Rodgers, Devin Hester, and Tramon Williams.

The game, again, was no piece of art.  Both teams started out hot, but turned ugly again very quickly.  Jay Cutler was chased from the game early, only to be replaced with a third-string quarterback.  However, Rodgers and Co. went cold for the rest of the game.   With the Packers’ offense unable to stay on the field in the second half, an exhausted Green Bay defense was faced with a comeback attempt by Chris Hanie, who passed for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that narrowed the Packers’ lead to 21-14, and following another Packers’ punt, was driving deep in Green Bay territory for a game-tying score with minutes to spare.

On the final play, the game could have gone either way:  a momentum-shifting touchdown for the Bears that would have sent the game into overtime, or a stop that ended the Bears season.  No one in Solider Field was sitting, and neither were most of the fans across the nation watching from their living rooms or the local tavern.

Hanie took the ball from the shotgun and flung over the middle to Johnnie Knox inside the 15-yard line, but Sam Shields intercepted his second pass of the game at the most critical time.   A stunned Bears crowd could only stand and watch in horror as the home-field team had just frittered away all they had worked for, how their high-priced quarterback had left the game early, and how a Packers’ street free agent had sent Green Bay to the Super Bowl.

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If you ever want to get completely under a long-time Bears’ fan’s skin, skip Marcol’s blocked-kick-for-a-touchdown, gloss over Charles Martin’s body slam of Jim McMahon, and go directly to 1989.

After years of mediocre play, the 1989 version of the Green Bay Packers became known as “The Cardiac Pack” for their ability to pull fourth quarter comebacks, going 10-6 and narrowly missing the playoffs.  Head coach Lindy Infante and quarterback Don Majkowski may have to look to this season as being their only bright spots in their NFL careers, but one game will live in Packer-Bear lore for all eternity.

With a 4th-and-goal from the 14-yard line with 41 seconds to go, the Packers needed a touchdown to pull ahead from the 13-7 hole they were in.  Packer fans in the stadium and watching televisions across the nation nearly passed out when Majkowski scrambled to his right and threaded a needle to Sterling Sharpe between three defenders in the end zone.

But what happened next kept a desperate stranglehold on the hearts of fans from both teams.

The field judge had called Majkowski past the line of scrimmage when he passed the ball, negating the touchdown.  But, the call went to the replay booth, something that was still new in the eyes of most football fans.  And now, the entire game hinged on the call.

Adding to the stress in the Lambeau Field bowl is that there was no large-screen replay, so Bear fans and Packers fans were left to verbally describe the play as they each saw it, in increasingly louder and more aggressive tones.  By the time the call came down to the field, the atmosphere in the stadium was at a fever pitch.  There may have been no bigger catharsis in Green Bay than referee Tom Dooley declaring Sharpe’s touchdown counted.  The Packers went on to win 14-13.

Bear fans still complain about their own safety leaving the stadium that day.  Mike Ditka decried the Packers, instant replay, the officials, and anything else he could think of. The Bears placed an asterisk next to the game in their media guide for ten years. And the Chicago front office used that game to push changes both in the line-of-scrimmage rules and instant replay usage.

But sour grapes will never take away one of the Packers’ most Majikal Moments.

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As the history books will tell us, the Green Bay Packers won the 2010 Super Bowl, something that can never be taken away.  But in 2011, the journey will start all over again, with the Bears looking to exact revenge for their lost opportunities, not unlike how George Halas, Curly Lambeau, and Vince Lombardi savored retribution against the other.

The one-upsmanship has already started.  In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Packers saw several offensive lineman slipping to their spot at #32.  Many thought Ted Thompson had his eye on Wisconsin Badger Gabe Carimi as the heir apparent to Chad Clifton.   However, just three picks ahead at #29, the Bears snatched Carimi away.

Now, did the Bears need an offensive tackle?  Sure they did.  Jay Cutler had a lot of company in the backfield last year, and Carimi might have been the best player available.  And the Packers landed a solid tackle themselves with Derek Sherrod, which even Thompson hinted that he wanted more than Carimi.

In the end, both teams probably got the player they wanted, but this is what a renewed rivalry makes a passionate and antagonistic fan do:  look for any perceived slight the other guys might be up to.  As the rivalry intensifies, the chip on each team’s shoulder gets that much bigger.

And, don’t think the renewal of the Packers-Bears rivalry is lost upon the NFL.  Both teams will have September 25th circled on their calendar, when Green Bay returns to Chicago in Week 3.  Don’t doubt for a second that the hype for that game will reach a fever pitch, especially if both teams are 2-0 again.  You know the Bears fans will be filling Soldier Field and bringing their “A” game for any Packer fans that show their face.

And both teams will be looking for a late Christmas present, as they will play in prime time on December 25th, right in Lambeau Field.   The Packer-Bear rivalry has always been a draw for the NFL schedulers, but in 2011, its pure gold.

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Mike Holmgren was signed to coach the Green Bay Packers in 1992, replacing a string of failed coaches stretching all the way back to the departure of Vince Lombardi in 1969.  Holmgren wasn’t part of the Lombardi coaching tree, as were former coaches Phil Bengston, Bart Starr, or Forrest Gregg.  Instead of trying to tap into the Glory Years, the Packers targeted Holmgren, the kid genius offensive coordinator for perennially-contending San Francisco 49ers.

Holmgren came from an environment far different than what Green Bay fans were used to.  He wore two Super Bowl Championship rings on his fingers, winning twice out of his three years as OC.  The Packers had to cough up a second-round pick to get him from the disgruntled 49ers, who had given the pick to the Green Bay in exchange for former holdout Tim Harris.  Was it the Packers’ fault Harris promptly got himself arrested two weeks later for drunken driving?  Caveat emptor, perhaps, but the 49ers were not going to let the Packers sign away their golden boy without getting something in return, creating one of the few instances in NFL history where a draft pick was traded for a coach.

During one of his first “Mike Holmgren Show” airings in Green Bay, the new coach was taken aback by his reception in his new digs.  In San Francisco, he was a rock star.  His goals year in and year out were to win the Lombardi Trophy, and he viewed the NFL’s elite teams as his primary competition.  He smiled as he shared the story of the little old ladies who confronted him at the supermarket.   He would explain his plans to implement the West Coast Offense in Green Bay.

Unimpressed, the old ladies would shake their heads, offer him good luck, and tell him, “Just make sure to beat those damn Bears.”

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Rivalries are full of mixed emotions.  Just as love is just as intense as hate, so runs the gamut for fans.  A win against a rival brings euphoria.  A loss has them setting up the firing line.

But the Bears and Packers have more than just a rivalry, but a storied history filled with anger, frustration, jubilation, and triumph.  The Bears have delivered some of the Packers’ most heartbreaking losses, and have been the victims of our most memorable victories.

Even the hate we have is mixed with respect, if not admiration.  While there are certainly players from the other side that are truly despised, the fact that both teams have been perennial winners for nine decades means both have had some truly great players and coaches.  Dick Butkus admitted he idolized Ray Nitschke; highest praise might ever be cast upon a Packer.  You’d be hard pressed to find a Packer fan who couldn’t begrudgingly acknowledge the greatness of Walter Payton or the intensity of Mike Singletary, and even a Bear fan that hates Brett Favre has to tip his hat to a guy who beat them with regularity.  Heck, even Jim McMahon won another Super Bowl ring while wearing Packer green and gold.

A rivalry, as George Halas knew all too well, isn’t something fleeting or easily transferred to another team.  There’s a reason that he spoke out so strongly to keep the Packers in Green Bay: because you could never replace the emotion and history attached to those two teams.  Every fan views their team as superheroes, and every superhero needs an arch-enemy, the one that is difficult to defeat, the one that wins just enough times that it makes eventual victory that much more satisfying.

The Packers came away with the biggest prize in 2010, adding a fourth Lombardi Trophy to the Packer Hall of Fame.  But they also came away with a gift that will hopefully keep on giving for the next decade:  two games a year fought tooth and nail against their sworn enemy, with fans passionately living and dying on each play.

As two young player/coaches back in 1921 might have told you, that’s what football is all about.