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You know this rivalry. It started in the 17th century when a small band of disgruntled ice fishermen fled the swamp city of Chicago by canoe, headed north on Lake Michigan and formed a toilet-paper cartel at the mouth of the Fox River in Wisconsin. The outcasts named their new home Green Bay, formed a football team called the Packers and declared war on the city to the south and its army, the Bears. Countless battles have been waged by these two bitter enemies, and many great heroes have arisen from the gore. On the Packer side the greatest of all was the deity Lombardi, who slaughtered Bears like insects and may or may not have actually existed. For Chicago there have been Packer slayers with iron-tough names like Butkus, Ditka and The Refrigerator. The last of these once wore Packer linebacker George Cumby on his shoulder pads the way an icebox wears a door magnet.
Such is the lore.
At any rate, as the two teams prepared last week for their 146th regular-season meeting and their second of this year (the Bears owned an 80-59-6 advantage going in), it was clear that at least one new legend was in the making. Grizzled Bear defensive tackle Steve McMichael, born before the invention of paper towels (well, in 1957, anyway), was about to break Hall of Famer Walter Payton's club record for consecutive games played. Not only would this be McMichael's 187th straight game in a Bear uniform, it would also be his 23rd against Green Bay. At 36 he already held the Bear record for safeties—three, all against the Packers—and the question put to him was how he had survived so long while so many others, friend and foe alike, had fallen on their swords.
The man known as Mongo and as Ming the Merciless pondered this. "This league is made up of individuals, not clones," he said in his lean Texas drawl. "Every man has his own breaking point. We're not just models of the same car, going around in a circle." Is this getting through? his look asked. "If it was choreographed, people might as well be in New York watching a play," he continued with some irritation. "People want to see wrecks. Me too."
All righty. And it seemed that a wreck was in the offing as the Bears, a team virtually without an offense, took the field against a Packer defense led by the highest-paid preacher in the Midwest, defensive end Reggie White. Indeed, so impotent is the Bear attack—last in passing and last overall—that it is a wonder opposing defenses don't put everybody on the line of scrimmage and count to 10-Mississippi before moving.
"All we ask for is 17 points a game," Bear middle linebacker Dant� Jones said early in the week, adding that if Chicago's offense could possibly muster two touchdowns and a field goal, the defense could "pretty much beat anybody."
Such a request! Take away a 47-17 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back on Sept. 26, and the 6-5 Bears were averaging a paltry 12 points a game this season. Still, the club was able to win three games on the road in just 12 days in November (an unprecedented NFL feat) by making almost no mistakes and by turning loose a specialized, attacking defense orchestrated by their first-year coach, defensive whiz Dave Wannstedt.
Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre rapidly moved his team upfield to the Bear 22, whereupon he played right into Chicago's game plan by throwing a pass toward tight end Jackie Harris at the 14, where the aforementioned Jones intercepted the ball, ran it back to the 20 and then lateraled it to cornerback Jeremy Lincoln, who went 80 yards for a touchdown. Jones, who already had three interceptions this season, was credited with a six-yard return and some very shrewd thinking. "That's a drill we practice every week," he said later of the lateral. "If Jeremy had dropped the ball, I'd blame it on Coach Wannstedt, because last week when I got an interception against Detroit, he said, 'Pitch the ball back!' "
The pattern had been established. The Bear offense, led (loosely speaking) by quarterback Jim Harbaugh, would hold the ball for a few minutes every now and then before punting it to the Packers, who would then move it up and down the field before turning it over to the Bear defense, which would then score with it.