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Bears vs. Packers: A stone-cold matchup for the ages

Sunday's NFC championship game, the first playoff game pitting Chicago against Green Bay since 1941, evokes memories of two great football histories.

January 22, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Bears linebacker Dick Butkus shakes hands with Packers running back Jim Grabowski after a game in 1967.
Bears linebacker Dick Butkus shakes hands with Packers running back Jim… (Charles Harrity / Associated…)

The Bears and Packers aren't merely rivals. They're cellmates, about to go bonkers on each other at the height of a Midwestern winter. Did you see the grass at Soldier Field last week? It was gray as a cemetery lawn. You don't mow that stuff, you bless it.

Then it started to snow. Amen.

There's something wonderfully resonant about snow drifting down in super slow motion. It's like watching cells split and become a baby.

This weekend when the Bears and Packers square off, the prize being a trip to the Super Bowl, the spectacle threatens to be even bigger. About the second quarter, I expect it to start raining brats and beer. Just wait until you see that in super slo-mo.

This will be one for the ages, all right, the sort of game that summons strange things from the clouds. Lombardi will show up in one end zone, Halas in the other. Lombardi will hand the ball to Jimmy Taylor and yell, "Run you, idiot! Cram it down their throats." Dick Butkus will jump out of a tuba and crush him like a cheese curd.

How big is this game? Bigger than Christmas, because Christmas comes once a year. Bigger than a Rose Bowl — same thing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime assemblage, nothing like it since 1941, when the two teams last met in a playoff game. It's almost unfathomable. As if Romeo took Juliet to the prom. Or Charlie Brown finally kicked the stinkin' ball.

I hope I am not underselling this.

You know, this is the toughest time of year in the Middle West. You pour hot water in the gutters to get the Christmas lights down, and it's such an icebox the dog refuses to go out anymore. So it's natural they'd all gather out of doors for a ballgame. I just hope the folks don't get their expectations up too high.

Because over the past 50 years, I've seen some real clunkers between these teams. I saw one game where the only score came when Green Bay quarterback Frank Patrick, a green bean in a helmet husk, stepped out of his own end zone for a safety.

I've watched Bobby Douglass turn to hand off to Ronnie Bull when Bull was still suiting up in the locker room. As my friend Shaughnessy says, at least once a game, Douglass would turn to his left and the tailback would be on the right.

Oops. Bad news, Bears.

The Bears have made significant roster changes since then. Among them is this dude Urlacher (rhymes with "Hurt Locker").

Not since Mike Ditka has a player personified this city the way Urlacher does. Have you seen this guy? When he takes his helmet off, there's another helmet underneath. That's not a profile; it's like something that fell off the back of a Teamster truck. He doesn't shave, he chisels.

Thing is, Urlacher might not even be the best linebacker on the field Sunday. The Packers' Clay Matthews would be that. He and A.J. Hawk have more hair than the cast of "Glee." And they're crankier.

In fact, this may be the best linebacking talent we've seen since the last time Butkus stepped onto a football field alone.

Does it even surprise you that, in a season when excessive violence was such an issue, it's come down to the Bears vs. Packers on a bed of concrete? Talk about cells splitting.

That's what these teams represent: not finesse so much as the opposite of finesse. Ferociousness. Contempt. Brawn. Chipped teeth.

The Packers hit you like a snowplow. The Bears play pass defense like Paris pickpockets. Observe what the Chicago secondary did to the poor overmatched Seahawks last week. They should've been penalized for unnecessary groping.

We'll see what becomes of these Packers. You don't go into Chicago on a mid-January day and come away the same person. Doesn't mean you're a better person, just different. And with fewer toes.

Meanwhile, even out here among the palm fronds, the frenzy has begun. At Tinhorn Flats in Burbank, a scream-your-guts-out saloon where I once saw a customer open a Foster's can with his teeth, they expect the guests to start lining up at 2 in the morning for a noon kickoff. That's at a bar, mind you. In Burbank.

It'll be a lively crowd, to be sure. Da Bears. Da Packers. Da Game of Da Year.

See it with someone you love.

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