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Bears-Packers: Oldest rivals meet for just 2nd playoff game ever

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 22, 2011

Green Bay and Chicago are the oldest pair of rivals in pro football. The Packers and Bears have battled 180 times in NFL history and once in 1921 as members of the American Professional Football Association. The Lions have met both NFC North rivals just over 160 times, and only three other pairs of NFL teams have met even 130 times: New York and Washington (158), New York and Philadelphia (158) and Philadelphia and Washington (154). As two of the three oldest franchises in the league -- the Arizona Cardinals franchise, playing in Normal Park on Racine Avenue in Chicago, trace their history back at least one year further than Green Bay -- the Packers and Bears have a storied and long history together. Chicago won the head to head serieses in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, before Vince Lombardi flipped the script in the 1960s. Chicago edged out Green Bay in the '70s and '80s, but Brett Favre helped Green Bay get the upper hand over the past two decades. As the Bears and Packers begin their 10th decade of battle, the teams split their two games in 2010. Tomorrow, they'll meet for just the second time in playoff history. The first one, in 1941, was a titanic clash of the titans, with George Halas and Curly Lambeau on the sidelines.

The 1940 Bears assembled more Hall of Fame talent on offense than any team before or since, as six starters would one day wind up in the Hall of Fame. In addition to QB Sid Luckman and back George McAfee, the '40 Bears were one of just two teams (the '71-'73 Raiders) to start four HOF offensive lineman. LT Joe Stydahar, LG Danny Fortmann, C Bulldog Turner and RG George Musso all have busts in Canton (and Stydahar, as you may recall, would coach one of the greatest offenses the football world has ever seen a decade later). Ed Kolman replaced Stydahar on the blind side in '41 while Ray Bray stepped in at right guard. Behind a still dominant offensive line, George McAfee graded out as the most dominant running back of the '41 season. Chicago quarterback Sid Luckman was the top quarterback in the league and in the prime of his Hall of Fame career.

The Packers had fielded a high flying offense for much of the late '30s and '40s, thanks to Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell and the second greatest receiver of all-time. Herber and Isbell both played tailback but were the first great passers in pro football. Herber led the league in yards and touchdowns in '32, '34 and '36, but was starting to give way to the younger Isbell at the turn of the decade. In '41, Isbell posted numbers that even look good today: 15 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions in 11 games, with a 7.2 yards per attempt average and an 81.4 quarterback rating. But the start was Hutson. At the time, Don Hutson was in the middle of his dominant seven year stretch where he was the best wide receiver in the league each season. Hutson won the receiving triple crown in '41, the second of five such times in his career that he led all in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Clarke Hinkle, the all-time great fullback for the Packers, was in the final year of his Hall of Fame career in '41, and he led the league in rushes.

The Bears were the defending NFL champions, courtesy of a 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship Game. As a result, it's safe to conclude that with Luckman and most of the core returning, Chicago was considered the prohibitive favorite to repeat. The Packers won the championship in '39, defeating the New York Giants 27-0. While Green Bay regressed to 6-4 in '40, they were better than their record, leading the league in first downs and finishing with almost identical points for/points allowed numbers to Chicago (both teams scored 238 points; the Bears allowed 152 and Green Bay allowed 155). So when both of these two teams took the league by storm as the '41 season began, it wasn't a big surprise.

The Packers raced out to a 2-0 record with 23-0 and 24-7 wins over the Lions and Rams, respectively. The Green Bay defense, an achilles heel in years past, allowed just 293 yards in the two games while forcing 12 turnovers. The Bears did not play the first two weeks of the NFL season, catching up to Green Bay by playing a game during the Packers' bye and finishing their season one week after Green Bay. As a result, Chicago's trip to City Stadium (current home of the Green Bay East High School football team) was their first game since winning the NFL title in 1940.

The Milwaukee Sentinel has a nice recap of the game, noting how close Packertown came to feasting on Bear steak. Chicago attempted just 6 forward passes, completing only one, but it was a valuable one. Checking out PFR's boxscore of the game alongside the Sentinel's account shows how the interesting way in which the Bears first score of the day unfolded. PFR credits Ken Kavanaugh with a 63 yard pass from George McAfee, but the Sentinel says the Bears were just 1 of 6 passing for 44 yards and no yards lost attempting forward passes. The game recap solves the mystery: "a lateral-forward, Luckman to McAfee to Kavanaugh, netted a touchdown when the Big Chicago end got behind Canadeo and Laws. Schneider's try for extra point was blocked." Luckman must have completed a pass to McAfee who lateraled to Kavanaugh at the 19, where he then ran in for the score in Boise State-like fashion. As a result, 44 yards passing and 19 yards via the lateral, but a 63-yard touchdown pass. Chris Berman marveled at Chicago's trickeration.

After a Snyder field goal, Ray McClean rushed for a 13-yard score with four minutes left in the half. The kick failed again, but the Bears held a seemingly insurmountable 15-0. But "Cec" led the Packers past midfield, and "got one off" to Hutson for 23 yards down to the 22-yard line; from there Hutson evaded one tackler and then another, rushing in for a 45-yard touchdown catch. He helped his team's cause by kicking the extra point through the uprights. The Bears fumbled on their second play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, and the "Bays" responded with a field goal as the half expired.

The fireworks were just getting started. Green Bay marched down with Hinkle, Brock and Hutson leading the charge. A one-yard plunge made it 17-15, Green Bay, and the crowd could feel the upset coming. But following a great kickoff return -- not by Devin Hester -- the Bears responded with three strong runs out of their T-formation, with Osmanski going left guard for 23, Nolting through center for 14, and then McAfee scored on a 13-yard sweep on the right edge. Chicago added another field goal to go up 25-17, and a late interception by Danny Fortmann sealed the Chicago victory. But the Bays had 15 first downs to Chicago's 11, giving them some hope for the rematch.

For the day, Chicago outrushed the Pack 258-77, more than making up for the 137-yard edge in passing yards held by Green Bay. Notable features of the game: with a crowd of 24,876, it was the largest crowd in Green Bay to ever see a football game. And, like all games between these two teams, the game "resembled a dock wallopers' brawl." The Bears had led the league in rushes, rushing yards and rushing scores with their vaunted T-Formation in 1940, and picked up right where they left off in '41. By the end of the year, Chicago rushed for over 300 more yards and 14 more scores, while upping their YPC average, and led the league in all four rushing categories.

With their toughest rival out of the way, the Bears ripped through the rest of the league, winning 48-21, 53-7 and 49-0 over the Rams, Cardinals and Lions. A game against the Steelers mercilessly ended at 34-7. Meanwhile, the Bays struggled over the next few weeks, edging Chicago's other team 14-7 and winning in Cleveland 17-14, sandwiched around a 30-7 blowout against the Brooklyn Dodgers. In late October the Bays went to Detroit and won 24-7, pitting them at 6-1 before they traveled to the Windy City for the rematch against the Bears.

How dominant were the Bears over their first five games? To date, the '41 Bears remain the only team to outscore its first five opponents by 150+ points, and only the '00 Rams join them in the 200-point club. Chicago entered the rematch as 10.5 point favorites, with the Packers on the money line paying off between 4-1 and 7-2.

A Bears win would essentially lock up the Western Division, and fans flocked to the game. Wrigley Field was sold out, with 46,864 in attendance, a new Chicago record. Just about all of them would go home unhappy. As the AP put it: "The myth of the Chicago Bears' invincibility has been blasted to bits, so now national football league teams can settle down to the business of deciding the professional championship. Until Green Bay smacked the Bears over yesterday, 16 to 14, they were the talk of the country. Superlatives flooded the accounts of their games as coaches and writers acclaimed them as irresistible and unbeatable - the team of the decade." Some were so surprised that the only explanation they could provide was that the game was fixed, a reasonable Chicagoan response of that era. Rather than concede that their team was beaten on the field, fans were forced to focus on the huge incentives a rematch would provide to the gate.

After averaging 219 rushing yards in their first five games, Chicago was held to just 65 yards on the ground, prompting some to credit a "secret" Packers defense. Sid Luckman had the more reasoned response than the point-shaving crowd, saying "It was just one of those days. I'll admit I called too many passing plays, but the seven man line is an invitation to pass. Our running game wasn't of the best and I wasn't hitting my receivers." Someone please forward this article to Peyton Manning, as hearing him note that "Joseph and the running game just wasn't of the best today" would be a nice change of pace from his typical post-game press conference.

The Packers scored a touchdown early, and went up 16-0 in the third quarter before the Bears ever scored a point. Chicago rallied back and had a chance to win late, but ultimately fell, 16-14. Chicago Cardinals coach Jimmy Conzelman, himself in the Pro Football HOF, said "Don't let that Green Bay defeat fool you. I have always said the Bears might beat themselves, and that's apparently what happened. The Packers are a great team but look at the way those Bears moved in that last quarter. This will make the Bears tougher than ever. There won't be any more over-confidence." It is comforting to know that coach-speak hasn't evolved in the last seven decades.

Apparently the Packers and Rams were not close enough to share secrets, as the Bears smacked over the Rams for 247 rushing yards in a 31-13 win the following week. That brought Chicago to 6-1, a half game behind the idle Packers, who stood at 7-1. On November 16 the Bays outlasted Conzelman's Cardinals 17-9, thanks to two Don Hutson touchdowns. One state over the Bears ended the Redskins' playoff hopes with a 35-21 victory. Chicago then won big in Detroit and Philadelphia, running their record to 9-1, while the Packers crushed the Steelers and squeaked by the Redskins to finish their season 10-1. Six teams would play on the final Sunday of the year, but only the Bears/Cardinals contest had playoff implications. If the Bears won, they'd tie the Packers for best record in the Western Conference, forcing a playoff. A Cardinals victory would spoil the hopes of their cross-town rivals. The Packers chose to enjoy their bye week by traveling to Comiskey Park to root on the Cardinals, or at least get a chance to study their biggest rivals in person. But the game's large implications dissipated just after kickoff.

In the middle of the last regular season games of the 1941 season, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At the Polo Grounds, the loudspeakers informed all servicemen to immediately return to their bases. As Sid Luckman said,:

They announced it over the loudspeaker. It was a tremendous shock to everybody in the stadium. The teams just didn't have the same emotions knowing our country had just been attacked."

The Bears trailed 24-21 in the 4th quarter, but ultimately pulled away with a 34-24 victory. With the regular season over, the Bears looked dominant. Chicago gained 2,156 yards on the ground, over doubling the 1,076 rushing yards they allowed. The 30 rushing scores far outpaced the 6 they allowed. In the trenches, the Bears were unstoppable, but they paced the league in almost every major category, leading the league in points scored, points differential, net yards per attempt, net yards per attempt allowed, every rushing category, rushing yards allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed. But the Packers also stood at 10-1, and looked every bit the Bears equal in their first two games. While the Giants had locked up the NFL's Eastern Division title, a playoff would have to be instituted to see which Western team would get to play for the title. How would the site for that playoff game be determined?

On Dec. 1, 1941, six days before the Bears played their regular season finale against the cross-town rival Chicago Cardinals, the NFL held a special coin flip to determine the site of a playoff game that would be scheduled if the Bears beat the Cardinals as both the Bears and Packers would finish with 10-1-0 records and in a tie for first place in the Western Division.

Attending the coin flip for the potential "rubber match" was NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden, [Halas, and the Packers' Curly Lambeau. Halas won the toss and the Bears would host the playoff game. The trio also came to agreement that a sudden-death format would be used for the playoff game in the event it ended in a regulation tie.

The hype for the game was enormous, prompting one sportswriter to make the most inappropriate comment seven days after a national tragedy that you'll ever read. After the season, many players, including the Bears' star backs McAfee and Standlee, would leave the NFL and served in World War II. But first, a Western Division had to be decided.

Playing in front of a hostile crowd of 43,000 and in 16 degree weather, the Bays nonetheless started red hot. Clark Hinkle punched it in from one yard out less to give Green Bay a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game. The teams went back and forth for a few minutes, before the Bears blew the game wide open over a 15-minute stretch. In the final minute of the first quarter, the Bears scored on an 81-yard punt return touchdown (again not by Hester). The Bears kicked a field goal early in the 2nd, to take a 9-7 lead. Isbell them fumbled on his own 18, and Norm Strandlee scored from three yards out to go up 16-7. The Packers quickly punted, and in short order, Standlee was crossing the goal line once more, giving Chicago a 23-7 edge. Before the half ended, Luckman took the team down 65 yards to go up 30-7.

Whatever "secret" the Packers had earlier in the year was ineffective in the playoff game. Chicago rushed 48 times for 277 yards and 3 scores, while holding the Packers to more carries than yards in a dominating performance against the run. The Bears shut down Hutson to just one catch for 19 yards, although the Bays did gain 222 yards through the air. Even with 12 penalties for 128 yards couldn't contain the Bears on this day, and they would go on to crush New York to win the title one week later. We will soon see if history repeats itself.