Green Bay Packers linebacker Erik Walden sacks Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during second quarter of the 2010 regular-season finale Jan. 2 at Lambeau Field. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Slowly but surely, year by year, the Green Bay Packers have been methodically closing the gap on the Chicago Bears in their all-time series that dates to 1921.
It is pro football’s oldest rivalry, and when the two teams square off Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago, it will be their 183rd meeting. While the Packers have captured more NFL championships — 13 compared to Chicago’s nine — the Bears have led the overall series since 1933.
But the Bears’ once commanding 24-game lead has shrunk to eight games (92-84-6), and a season sweep by the Packers this year would pull them as close as they’ve been since 1942.
“Really?” said Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, who was born in the heart of Bears country in Barrington, Ill. “That’d be great.
“The whole series thing, I can’t grasp perspective on that.”
Here’s all Bulaga needs to know: As recently as 1992, when Bulaga was 3 years old, the Bears held a seemingly insurmountable 81-57-6 lead in the series. But over the past two decades, the Packers have dominated the head-to-head matchups by a 27-11 margin. If this keeps up, the Packers could overtake the Bears by the end of the decade, maybe sooner.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he is more focused on Sunday’s game than the all-time series but is mindful of the storied rivalry.
McCarthy showed his players a 3½-minute video on Friday of Packers-Bears games, something he does before the first Chicago game each season.
“We have a responsibility to our history and tradition here,” said McCarthy.
Although Bulaga was a 49ers fan growing up, he learned to appreciate the uniqueness of the Bears-Packers series.
“I kind of knew this was an intense rivalry just growing up, watching this game on TV and seeing it and kind of understanding how much the Bears fans and Packers fans clashed,” said Bulaga.
What once was a bitter, almost hateful rivalry between players and coaches has turned into an ultra competitive series between opponents that respect each other.
“It’s totally different than what they did back in the days,” said Packers receiver Donald Driver, who has suited up for more Packers-Bears games than any other player on the roster. “They weren’t hugging and talking about the wife and kids. It was straight brawl, who can make whose nose bleed.
“You think about those guys back in the days. Those guys couldn’t stand each other. In the Vince Lombardi days, it was straight nose bleed. (Now) it’s totally different.”
What has also changed is the Packers’ recent dominance in the series.
Although Curly Lambeau deserves credit for co-founding the Packers franchise and guiding it to six championships during a 30-year span, his record against the Bears was just 21-35-5. It got worse from 1950-’58 when three different Packers head coaches combined to go 4-13-1 against the Bears.
Lombardi helped stem the tide with a 13-5 record vs. Chicago, and Phil Bengston (4-2) and Dan Devine (6-2) followed with surprisingly good results against the Monsters of the Midway. But the Bears dominated the next 16 years against three different Packers head coaches, including Bart Starr (6-10 vs. the Bears), Forrest Gregg (1-7) and Lindy Infante (2-6).
Credit former Packers coach Mike Holmgren with being the biggest Bear killer of all with a remarkable 12-2 record against Chicago, including 10 straight victories. Mike Sherman (8-4) continued that success, and McCarthy (6-5) has won five of his last seven games against the Bears, including the biggest in the history of the series last January in the NFC championship game.
McCarthy understands the disdain Packers fans feel toward the Bears, but he doesn’t share that sentiment. He has a genuine respect for Bears coach Lovie Smith.
“Everybody wants you to spit and cuss, but the reality is I really enjoy playing this game,” said McCarthy. “I enjoy coaching in this game. I know our players enjoy playing in this game.”
The feelings are mutual for Smith, who said he doesn’t have to work very hard to get his team fired up for the Packers.
“You start off with we’re playing the Super Bowl champs,” said Smith.
“I don’t have to start off with a whole bunch of George Halas speeches about getting ready for the game. We know who we’re playing. We know about the rivalry. … The guys will be ready for this week.”
McCarthy is careful not to obsess on the Bears. After he showed the Packers-Bears video at the start of the team meeting on Friday and the lights came on, McCarthy said to his players: “OK, that’s it. Enough about the Bears. Now it’s all about us.”
During the final 51 hours before kickoff, McCarthy said the Bears won’t even be mentioned.
Even though these teams have been battling each other for 90 years, and the Packers have the chance this season to pull tantalizingly close in the all-time series, McCarthy wants his team to maintain its perspective.
“You have to make sure our players clearly understand how important this is to our fans, to our organization from a tradition standpoint,” he said. “(But) at the end of the day, we’ll be talking about how the Packers are going to play. This won’t be about the opponent anymore.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.