Dating back to 2011, the Green Bay Packers have won 15 of their last 17 games against the Chicago Bears. In a decade in which the Minnesota Vikings have played the Packers competitively, even winning four of the last five meetings, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the Bears are considered Green Bay’s biggest rival. But after an improbable 24-23 Packers win last Sunday, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the NFL’s most-played rivalry is close to being competitive and reawakened.
For starters, the hype around the Bears from their fan base is as strong as it’s been in quite a long time. Throughout Lambeau Field, there were more “Let’s go Bears” chants heard through television Sunday night than this author can remember. Combined with a chorus of “Go Pack Gos” that would not be outdone during an intense comeback, Bears-Packers football was must-see TV. Changes undergone by both franchises may help ensure that trait continues for years to come.
The Packers, no longer content with just making the playoffs, made widespread coaching changes in the offseason and hired a new General Manager in Brian Gutekunst. They signed Aaron Rodgers to a “lifetime deal” while revamping a porous defense. To the south, Chicago has pretty much gone all-in over the past two offseasons, sacrificing draft collateral to grab key pieces in Mitch Trubisky and Khalil Mack. With these moves comes excitement and increased expectations. The Bears also tabbed Matt Nagy as the leader of their new movement.
A season of growth a year ago in Chicago received an unexpected lift in the form of Mack earlier this month, who is set to create havoc for Aaron Rodgers and irritation for Packers fans through at least the 2024 season. The league’s highest-paid players squaring off against each other directly for the considerable future is sure to heighten the bad blood and affect outcomes, as Mack almost single-handedly did last week.
But a once-feared Bears defense that dropped significantly back in the pack after the departures of players like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman has more reasons for optimism than just Mack. Second-year safety Eddie Jackson stepped into the starting lineup a year ago after falling in the draft and is a blooming star in the secondary. With the athletic but inconsistent Leonard Floyd on the opposite edge from Mack and Akiem Hicks destroying interior offensive lines (ask Justin McCray), the defensive front is one of the strongest in the league. Oh yeah, and first round pick Roquan Smith recorded a sack on his first professional snap after a long rookie holdout.
Adding to the defense and rivalry is Kyle Fuller, a cornerback the Packers clearly valued after briefly signing him to an offer sheet this summer. Though he had a rocky game against Green Bay in week one, he has become a Pro Bowl-caliber defender and is paid like one after Packer management forced the Bears’ hand in giving Fuller a long-term deal. Whether purposefully or not, Brian Gutekunst wasted little time in competing with a divisional rival for talent.
Offensively, the Bears are a work in progress but have shown flashes of development. Trubisky had an eye-popping first half with the help of Nagy, a creative playcaller. Though the second-year quarterback dropped off in the second half, his first series of the game was the kind of statement drive that made Packers fans collective let out a “whoa.” Even as a glorified game manager, Trubisky has the talent around him to succeed that other former Bears quarterbacks like Jay Cutler, Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton have not.
With a true thunder-lightning tandem in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, Chicago also has a 1-2 punch on the ground that it hasn’t really had since the 2006 days of Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones that gave Green Bay fits. With a Brandon Marshall-like weapon at receiver in Allen Robinson, the Bears are close to becoming a balanced, efficient offense not seen since the 2010 season that ended at the hands of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
While the Bears still will not be favored to make the playoffs in 2018, the possibility is becoming more realistic for the very near future. Like the Milwaukee Brewers knocked on the Chicago Cubs’ door last season before walking in this year, the Bears are beginning to even out the talent level in a similar timeline and fashion.
As a Packers fan, one finds this trend rather frightening yet entertaining. A rise from the Bears makes the road to the Super Bowl tougher and filled with more drama and misery than needed. But the emotional ties to this border battle game that were once felt in a childhood with troublesome Bears players like Urlacher, the A-Train, and Marty Booker have subsided. As a more experienced Packers fan mentioned privately:
The 1986 Charles Martin penalty sack on the Bears’ Jim McMahon was the last time the Packers and Bears seemed to have had a true rivalry. Mike Ditka and Forrest Gregg were coaches who festered it. Refrigerator Perry. I long for those days.
Packers-Bears should never be just another game on the schedule.
And with another exhilarating chapter in the series last week and a talented crop of newcomers on both sides, the twice-a-year meeting is on its way to becoming a true rivalry once more.