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.
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."