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Green Bay at Chicago John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

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Packers and Bears rarely shared stretches of success in the NFL’s longest rivalry

After being dominant in the early decades, the Bears held on for dear life in this rivalry until recent Packers success took back the lead.

Across SB Nation, this week is Rivalry Week. Here at Acme Packing Company, we will be examining the Green Bay Packers’ greatest historical rivalries and those against their current divisional rivals. We conclude the look at the current NFC North rivalries today by examining the most-played rivalry in football: the Packers and the Chicago Bears.

For almost 90 of the 99 years since the two teams first met, the Chicago Bears held the upper hand in their rivalry with the Green Bay Packers. Chicago’s dominance in the 1940s and ‘50s set them up with a commanding lead in the series, one they would maintain until 2017. But thanks to recent dominance by the Packers, they turned the tables and overtook the all-time lead in football’s longest and best rivalry in 2017.

The Packers and Bears share a begrudging respect for one another, drawn in large part from the teams’ shared history as some of the NFL’s first teams in existence. Proximity plays a part here as well, with the teams’ stadiums separated by just 184 miles.

Interestingly, the two franchises have rarely been good at the same time. That makes this rivalry perhaps a bit less intense on a game-by-game basis than others, but more of a historical one, with the two teams vying for position in the record books. The Bears have the edge in Hall of Famers, but the Packers lead 13-9 in NFL titles and, as mentioned earlier, in the head-to-head battle.

In December 2019, the two teams played their 200th-ever game, playoffs and regular season included. The Packers won that game 21-13 at Lambeau Field en route to an NFC North title. Here’s a look at the history of those 200 meetings.

Overall Series History

Regular season: Packers lead 98-94-6
Postseason: Tied 1-1
Longest streak: Packers W10 (1994-98)

1919-1929: Lambeau and Halas

The Packers were founded in 1919, but did not join the American Professional Football Association until 1921. The Bears, originally the Decatur Staleys, started as an APFA charter member in 1920 before moving to Chicago in ‘21. With the league changing its name to the NFL in 1922, the Bears have technically been an NFL team for one more year than the Packers, who have in turn existed for one year more than the Bears.

The two men were player-coaches for their respective teams during this period, which saw the teams begin their rivalry in earnest in 1925. That year they would play each other twice before meeting three times annually (twice in Chicago) for the rest of the decade. While the Bears got the better of Green Bay early on, losing just once in the first 11 contests, the Packers began a seven-game win streak in 1928 that carried into 1930. Overall, the record sat at 7-6-3 in favor of the Bears at the turn of the decade with each team winning one league championship: the Bears (then Staleys) in 1921 and the Packers in 1929.

1930s: Two teams dominate the NFL

In the ten years from 1930 to 1939, six NFL titles went to either the Packers or the Bears. Green Bay completed a three-peat in 1930 and ‘31, followed by back-to-back Bears titles in ‘32 and ‘33. The Packers then won again in ‘36 and ‘39, taking a 5-3 lead on their rival in league titles.

The teams continued to play three times until 1934, when they moved to just two games in a home-and-home schedule each year. After the Packers’ early-decade dominance, however, the Bears ripped off seven straight wins from 1932 to ‘34, a year that would see the 13-0 Bears lose to the New York Giants in the title game in a bid to follow up the Packers’ three-peat with one of their own. (The Giants scored 27 points in the fourth quarter of that game to win 30-13.) But even in the Packers’ strong campaigns late in the decade, the two teams split their season series, letting Chicago’s win streak give them another narrow edge in the overall series. They led in the decade 12-11-1, giving them an overall 19-17-4 record after 1939.

1940s: The Original Monsters of the Midway

In the early 1940s, the Bears were the class of the NFL. And although the defenses are largely remembered as the core part of these teams, the offenses actually did most of the heavy lifting. With Sid Luckman taking over at quarterback in 1940, the Bears went to four straight NFL Championships, winning three of them and cementing themselves as the premier dynasty of the era. The Packers would win the title in 1944, pulling them even with Chicago at six, but the Bears would take the lead back in 1946 with their seventh overall championship.

One of those Bears titles, in 1941, came at the Packers’ expense. After splitting the season series and each finishing at 10-1, the two rivals met in a Divisional tiebreaker game at Wrigley Field. The Bears dominated for a 33-14 victory in the team’s only playoff matchup in the rivalry’s first 89 years.

The Packers, with Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell throwing to Don Hutson, had revolutionized football’s passing game. Bears quarterback Sid Luckman would be the finest passer of the decade, leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns three times each and earning five All-Pro honors. Luckman was and is still rightly considered to be the best quarterback in Bears history.

Head-to-head, however, this was a brutal decade for the Packers. They won just four games against the Bears all decade, as the Bears maintained an excellent level of play throughout while the Packers began to tail off following Hutson’s retirement. Regular season games went 15-4-1 to the Bears for a dominant 34-21-5 overall record, plus the one postseason victory.

1950s: Slippage on both sides of the border

Throughout most of the ‘50s, the Packers were on life support. The Bears fared better overall but could not win a postseason game as they lost a divisional tiebreaker in 1950 and an NFL Championship Game in ‘56. Both teams had a handful of losing seasons, though the Bears had just three to the Packers’ seven.

Based on those numbers, it’s not surprising that the Bears maintained their dominance in the rivalry. Chicago went 14-5-1 in the ‘50s, bringing their total in this one-sided rivalry to a 48-26-6 record.

1960s: Lombardi turns the tables

By 1960, the Packers had a new coach in town, making Curly Lambeau feel like a distant memory. The Bears, meanwhile, still had George Halas roaming the sidelines after the occasional stint outside of a coaching role. Lombardi would get the best of the NFL’s elder statesman, however, putting up a 13-5 record against the Bears during his tenure from 1959 to ‘67.

The only season that saw the Bears sweep the Packers was in 1963, Chicago’s lone championship season in the decade. Those two losses to Chicago were the Packers’ only two of the year, but with the Bears going 11-1-2, they advanced to the title game, where they beat the Giants 14-10. Green Bay would of course win five titles under Lombardi, holding a decade-long lead in the rivalry for the first time at 15-5 to pull the overall deficit back to 53-41-6.

In the early part of the decade, however, a young tight end named Mike Ditka would be a regular thorn in the Packers’ sides. Ditka caught nine passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-28 loss to Green Bay in 1961, and though he would have few big games against the Packers during his time as a Bears player, he would of course feature prominently in the rivalry two decades later.

1970s: A tale of two halves

In the decade following the retirement of Lombardi and Halas, both of whom stepped down as coaches of these teams after the 1967 season, the two franchises alternated competitive play. The Packers were moderately competitive in the first half of the decade before falling off when Bart Starr took over for Dan Devine as head coach in 1975. The Bears, meanwhile, were awful until 1976, losing at least eight games each year from ‘70 to ‘75 before bouncing back with two playoff appearances in ‘77 and ‘79.

It is also no coincidence that the Bears took off around then, as Walter Payton entered the league in 1975. The results between these two teams illustrate the breaking point after that season; before then, the Packers won eight of 12 games. After, they won again just once by the end of the decade, finishing 9-11 in the ‘70s and behind the Bears by a 64-50-6 margin.

1980s: Ditka, Jim McMahon, and Charles Martin

The Bears struggled early in the 80s to sustain their success, while the Packers made a playoff appearance in the strike-shortened 1982 season behind an explosive offense. But that year also saw two people arrive in Chicago to help define the rest of the decade: Mike Ditka, returning to Chicago as head coach, and quarterback Jim McMahon, the Bears’ first-round pick. Importantly, Ditka also kept defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan around and by 1984, the group had helped turn the Bears into a powerhouse.

It helped that the Bears drafted a slew of defensive talent in the first part of the decade as well, as those players would form the nucleus of the defense that would lead the Bears to their first Super Bowl win in 1985.

Following that title, Ryan would leave to take over as head coach of the Eagles. The Bears’ defense would remain elite for two more years, however, before a rough end to the decade with a 6-10 record in 1989. The Packers, of course, were mediocrity incarnate throughout the decade, with four 8-8 seasons, three campaigns with ten or more losses, and just one in ‘89 with double-digit wins.

And of course, after their early struggles, the Bears dominated the decade, going 11-7 overall (the two teams did not play in 1982) and ripping off eight straight wins from 1985 to ‘88. In that span was the infamous Charles Martin incident. Late in the ‘86 season, the Packers nose tackle picked up McMahon and body-slammed him to the Soldier Field turf, ending his year and potentially dashing the Bears’ hopes for back-to-back titles.

Chicago led the all-time series 75-57-6 at the end of the ‘89 campaign.

1990s: The turning point

The early ‘90s were more of the same. The Bears swept Green Bay in 1990 and ‘91, but the arrival of Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, and Brett Favre in Wisconsin changed the entire face of the rivalry. Before the start of the 1992 season, the Bears led 79-57-6. Since then, the Packers have won 41 out of 56 games between the two teams, a run punctuated by a ten-game winning streak starting on Halloween Night 1994 and running through the end of the ‘98 season.

After Ditka left following a 5-11 season in 1992, the Bears had a few decent years under Dave Wannstedt, but slipped into the doldrums with three straight last-place divisional finishes to close the decade. All told, the Packers went 13-7 in this decade to close the gap to 82-70-6.

2000s: Lovie Smith’s promise

Dick Jauron was the Bears’ head coach from 1999 to 2003, and it was feast or famine for Chicago. They finished 13-3 in 2001 behind a first-place defense, but lost at least nine games and finished 20th or worse in points allowed in each of Jauron’s other four years as head coach. The Packers were responsible for two of the Bears’ three defeats in ‘01, and had won seven straight after the end of the 2003 season.

But in 2004, the Bears brought in a new face to coach the team: Lovie Smith, who had coached the St. Louis Rams’ defenses the three years prior. When asked in his introductory press conference what his first goal was, Smith said “Beat the Packers.”

Early on in his career, Smith’s Bears did just that, winning seven of their next ten games against Green Bay. They even got revenge for 2001, beating the Packers twice as Green Bay went 13-3 and made the NFC Championship. In doing so, they defeated Brett Favre in each of his last two games against them as a Packer. Chicago also made its first Super Bowl appearance in over 20 years, losing to the Indianapolis Colts after the 2006 season.

But in 2009, with Aaron Rodgers now under center for the Packers, the rivalry shifted back as the Packers swept the Bears in a sign of what was to come in the next decade. All told, the Packers won the decade 12-8 and closed the gap a bit further to 90-82-6.

2010s: Rodgers owns Chicago

The first year of the most recent decade got off to a fascinating start. With the Bears acquiring Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos, a budding quarterback rivarly seemed to be breweing. The Packers lost to the Bears early in 2010, but won in week 17 at home to clinch a playoff spot. Three weeks later, Rodgers and company went in to Chicago for the teams’ second-ever playoff meeting in the NFC Championship. Green Bay won 21-14 en route to a title in Super Bowl XLV.

Since then, the Rodgers-led Packers have dominated Chicago, going 16-4 in the regular season throughout the decade. In 2017, however, Green Bay achieved a massive milestone in the rivalry. With a series sweep in ‘16, the Packers had finally pulled even with the Bears all-time at a 93-93-6 regular season record (plus the 1-1 playoff mark). On a Thursday night in late September 2017, the Packers took the series lead back from Chicago for the first time since the middle of the 1930 season, when Green Bay was ahead at 8-7-2. Rodgers’ four touchdown passes were a fitting exclamation point to this historic mark.

Looking ahead to the 2020s

As has been the case for most of the two teams’ histories, the Packers have continuity at quarterback while the Bears are still searching. Mitchell Trubisky isn’t it, and Nick Foles will be the next man up. As a rookie head coach, Matt Nagy went 12-4 in 2018, but the Bears slipped to 8-8 a year ago with a bottom-five offense.

Chicago still has solid defensive personnel, building around edge rusher Khalil Mack and safety Eddie Jackson, and should remain strong on that side of the football. Whether their offense can catch up and how long Rodgers plays in Green Bay — along with the question of whether Jordan Love can be another elite QB for the Packers — will be the determining factors for who takes control moving forward.

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