Sunday, January 16, 2011 6:56 p.m.
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist CHICAGO (AP) -- The NFL's first ejection for fighting came in a Bears-Packers game. No surprise there. That was 87 years ago, just three years after they first met, back when just about everyone played "caveman football." So while the league's oldest rivalry may no longer be its nastiest -- that title belongs to Ravens-Steelers now -- next Sunday's NFC championship should remind us that this one still might be the least evolved. In the intervening years, a parade of skilled offensive players named Payton, Sayers and Ditka on the Chicago side, Starr, Hornung and Favre in Green Bay, lasted long enough to make their mark on the series. But a succession of coaches, beginning with franchise founders George Halas and Curly Lambeau, never forgot their Midwestern towns were buffeted by some of the worst that winter had to offer. So they rarely got caught without monsters named Butkus and Urlacher, Nitschke and Matthews on the other side of the ball, ensuring the games never got too pretty. The Bears and Packers have played 181 times previously, with Chicago holding a 92-83-6 edge. Between them, they've won 21 NFL titles and sent four dozen players to the Hall of Fame. Incredibly, they met only once before in the postseason, in cozy Wrigley Field in December, 1941, a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "I'm still learning some of the stories and I'm already five years in," cornerback Danieal Manning said after Chicago clubbed Seattle 35-24 to seal the home game against Green Bay. Manning was one of the few players even willing to acknowledge that he'd invested some time learning the lore. Not so Julius Peppers, the Pro Bowl end who was lured to Chicago this offseason with a 91 million deal to shore up the Bears' defense. "At the end of the day, it's not going to come down to how many Hall of Famers, or whatever, played in the past," Peppers said. "It's going to be about the guys in this locker room and the one across the way." No kidding. Players used to go out of their way to deliver messages in the series, but they no longer fight over livelihoods; they all make plenty of money win or lose, playoff bonus or not. They also swap congratulatory text messages, training tips and even restaurant and nightclub reviews. The nastiness rarely spills over into public anymore. Yet scratch any middle-aged Bears fan -- even this week, when they should be celebrating -- and what you'll hear is a decades-old complaint about how Walter Payton once got run over by the Green Bay defense even though he was 15 yards out of bounds. Or how quarterback Jim McMahon was body-slammed to the turf by Charles Martin a good three seconds after the whistle, separating his shoulder and costing the Bears -- "at least three" -- more Super Bowls. Then drive the 184 miles north from Soldier Field to Lambeau Field and you'll think you've arrived at an alternate universe. All the stories about overzealous chases and late hits sound familiar, but this time the villains are always dressed in orange and blue. Chicago coach Lovie Smith grew up in Texas, so none of those grudges seem quite so personal. But he went out of his way to keep faith with the fans. He made a point of targeting Green Bay almost from the day he arrived seven years ago. Earlier this month, with both a playoff spot and first-round bye already locked up, but a chance to knock the Packers out of the postseason, Smith played his starters until the bitter end of a 10-3 loss to Green Bay. After the Packers beat Atlanta to book their spot in next Sunday's game, cornerback Charles Woodson said it didn't matter whether the Bears intended to knock out Green Bay. "I just look at it that it was a rivalry game. They wanted to beat the Packers and we wanted to beat the Bears," he said. "I don't know if they wanted to get us out of there so they didn't have to play us or not." Smith was just as careful. "You want to beat whoever you are playing, of course, and you know our rivalry with them," he said after the Seattle win. "You want to beat the Packers whenever you get an opportunity. Then, it was just about us playing to improve as a football team, that as much as anything." Right. After all, it's not like the Bears were pouring it on at the end against Seattle to get ready for the Packers -- or anything like that. "I think once the game got out of hand, scorewise, I felt like they were just doing stuff to do stuff," Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "Just trying to get all their coverages, all their blitzes on film for their next opponent. I didn't think it made any sense, really, to do what they were doing." Wouldn't be the first time one or the other team in this rivalry did something that hardly made sense. ------ Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke (at)ap.org
Sunday, January 16, 2011 6:56 p.m.