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The Packers, meanwhile, are the hottest team in the postseason and quarterback Aaron Rodgers its most dangerous player. In last Saturday night's 48--21 blowout of the No. 1--seeded Falcons in Atlanta, Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns. He was not only efficient but also creative, at least six times escaping pressure to deliver completions or run for positive yardage. "That was about as well as I've ever seen a quarterback play in person," said Rodgers's backup, third-year QB Matt Flynn. "The ability to break tackles, extend plays, throw on the run with accuracy. I mean, I see a lot of that stuff every day, but today it seemed like he stepped it up a notch."
Rodgers has now thrown an NFL-record 10 touchdown passes in his first three playoff games (a loss at Arizona last year and wins over Philadelphia and Atlanta this month). On the morning before the Falcons game, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, "I'll tell you what—Aaron is in a groove right now." And in the visitors' locker room in the Georgia Dome, the Packers could not hide their zeal for a matchup that was sealed the next day. "Whoa," said wideout Greg Jennings. "That would be great."
It would be the NFL's smallest market—a remnant of professional football's beginnings in places like Dayton, Providence and Rock Island—against its second-largest, and if that subtext has been dulled by the modern NFL's antiseptic sameness, fans cling to their differences. "Bears fans always think they're better than the Packers, because we're Chicago and they're Green Bay," says Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who played tight end for the Bears from 1961 to '66 and coached the Super Bowl XX champions. "Even when we weren't better."
Bryce Paup, who started 41 games at linebacker for the Packers from 1990 to '94, says, "I heard stories from people in Green Bay that people from Chicago say they're better than the hardworking people up here. It became entrenched in the culture up here."
They are mirror franchises, each defined by a single, towering figure—the Bears by Halas (more so than Ditka or Red Grange), and the Packers by Vince Lombardi (above even Hall of Famer Curly Lambeau, who founded the team in 1919 and coached it until '49). Halas was with the Bears from the beginning (like Lambeau a player-coach for a time), and across the next five decades he would coach for 40 years and be voted as a charter member of the Hall of Fame. Lombardi famously joined the Packers in '59 and won five titles in nine seasons. The league's championship trophy is named in his honor.
It is largely through oral histories that we learn how much those two icons admired each other. Bill Curry, who played center for the Packers in 1965 and '66, says that before a Bears-Packers matchup in his rookie season, Lombardi stood in front of his team, nodded toward his counterpart and said, "Don't you guys just love that old man over there?" Curry said the Packers were dumbfounded. "Even his own players didn't love him! But it was very clear that Lombardi had great admiration for Coach Halas."
Yet there was more than mutual respect at work. Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung, the Packers' Golden Boy, recalls the competitive side of the relationship. "This might have been in [Lombardi's] first year," says Hornung. "Before Coach gives his speech to the team, [equipment manager Gerald] 'Dad' Brashier comes in and says, 'Coach Halas is in the equipment room, and he wants to talk to you.' Lombardi went out, and Dad followed him, and Coach Halas said, 'Vince, I just want to tell you that you better have your team ready because we're going to kick your ass.' Vince was flabbergasted."
For those who played in them, the games have left indelible memories. Like this one, from Packers Hall of Fame tackle Forrest Gregg, who played for Green Bay from 1956 to '71 and coached the team for four seasons in the '80s: "I think it was my second year, and I remember blocking this linebacker," says Gregg. "I blocked him all the way past the running back, and then I fell to my knees. The linebacker—I don't remember his name now—reached down, grabbed my helmet and swung it and hit me right in the mouth. Knocked out two of my teeth. And I said, 'Well, that's what Bears week means.'"
Or like this one, from former Bears quarterback Jim Miller, who played in Chicago from 1999 to 2002, when the Bears were for the most part mired in mediocrity: They went to Lambeau on Nov. 7, 1999, to play Brett Favre and the Packers on the weekend after the death of Payton, the Bears' Hall of Fame running back. Chicago was 3--5, and the Packers were 4--3 but a perennial playoff contender in that era. "There was a rally down at Soldier Field," Miller says. "Former players came out and spoke to us about the greatness of Walter Payton. We had to play up at Lambeau, and nobody really gave us a shot. We ended up pulling out the victory on a blocked field goal by Bryan Robinson. It's like the football gods were looking down on Lambeau Field that day."
Or this one, from Curry, who came to the Packers in 1965 as a 20th-round draft choice from Georgia Tech and found himself sitting in a locker room at County Stadium in Milwaukee before a late-August exhibition game against the Bears: "Bob Skoronski comes up to me, dead serious, and starts talking. He says, 'Kid, I'm blocking [Bears Hall of Fame defensive end] Doug Atkins tonight. He's eight feet tall and weighs 1,000 pounds [6'8", 257]. If you slide over and cut him in the knees, he's going to get up and kill you. Then he'll kill me.' So I start laughing, and Skoronski grabs me by the shoulder pads and his eyes are bugging out of his head and he says, 'I'm not kidding.' For an exhibition game."