The hype machine was going full throttle this week as talk of a bitter 90-year rivalry, feuds and hatred between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears reached a fever pitch.
Leave it to 24-year-old Clay Matthews to put things in perspective.
When asked whether playing the Bears for the chance to advance to the Super Bowl added anything to today’s NFC championship game, Matthews replied: “For me personally, not really.”
Say what? That’s the last thing media members with preconceived story lines wanted to hear. That’s not what avid fans seeking more ammunition in this border war needed.
But Matthews, in only his second year in the NFL, got it right.
Yes, today’s game at Soldier Field between NFC North rivals is huge. Yes, it will go down as the most important game in the 182-game history of the series. Yes, the winner will dance all the way to Dallas carrying huge bragging rights, while the loser will suffer through an especially long and painful offseason.
But no animosity exists between these teams, no matter how hard some try to manufacture it.
In reality, the Packers and Bears will stage a spirited, intense battle built on mutual respect.
Sorry to break the news to some, but this isn’t the 1980s anymore. Charles Martin and Ken Stills retired a long time ago. Forrest Gregg and Mike Ditka no longer stalk the sidelines. Matt Suhey and Jim McMahon needn’t keep one eye open when they sleep for fear of a cheap shot.
Some fans love to revel in the so-called good old days when these two teams despised each other, but that’s ancient history.
The Vikings are the Packers’ most hated opponent, hands down. Meanwhile, Packers and Bears players fraternize with each other in the offseason. They attend each other’s charity functions. They work out together and, dare I say it, look out for one another.
On Friday Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recounted a game against the Bears in December 2009 when he could have seriously injured his knee had it not been for the sportsmanship of Bears defensive lineman Tommie Harris.
Rodgers had just released a pass but his knee was in a compromised position as Harris was taking him down.
“Thankfully, he’s not a dirty player,” said Rodgers of Harris. “He plays tough, he plays hard. I hope maybe our friendship factored into that. … There’s a respect level on both sides the way he plays and I think he respects the way I play. He kind of pulled off and let go of my knee so that I could continue to finish out the season.”
Make no mistake, these teams won’t be roasting marshmallows together around a campfire this afternoon in Chicago. “There’s not going to be a whole lot of love on the field,” said Rodgers.
Both the Packers and Bears desperately want to win. Both would like nothing better than to send their longtime rival home for the winter. Both want to play in the Super Bowl so badly they can taste it.
But don’t expect either side to use underhanded tactics or low blows to achieve their goals. Don’t expect coaches to spew profanities at each other. Maybe they did that in the Gregg-Ditka era, but not now.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy had this to say about Bears counterpart Lovie Smith: “I have a lot of respect for Lovie Smith because I think Lovie is a tremendous football coach. I think he's clearly one of the class acts of our profession.”
Glowing words from one coach to another sometimes ring hollow, but in this case they are true.
Maybe the thaw in the Cold War between the Packers and Bears started in the 1990s when then Packers General Manager Ron Wolf signed former hated Bears players Steve McMichael and McMahon. Some Packers fans still find it galling that McMahon won a Super Bowl ring with the Packers as Brett Favre’s backup in 1996.
Maybe the relationship warmed up, at least on the Wisconsin side of the border, during a decade (1994-2003) when the Packers went 18-2 against the Bears. It’s hard to hate a team you can beat like a drum.
But the Bears have regained some pride under Smith, who has an 8-6 career record against the Packers.
It’s a highly competitive rivalry that has risen to a new level of intensity this week because a Super Bowl berth is at stake. But it’s not World War 3.
“I definitely think the media hypes it up to be more than it really is,” Bears safety Charles Tillman said. “Me personally, I try to look at it as just another game, another rivalry game.”
Fans on both sides enjoy taunting one another, but even that seems more good-natured than mean-spirited.
This is a rivalry built on hard-nosed, aggressive, old-school football. It’s only fitting today’s game will take place in cold weather on a sloppy track. May the best team win, fair and square, and may the combatants shake hands when it’s over.
That’s the way the game, and this legendary series, was meant to be played.