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 Dantè 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.
So when the Bears' opening drive at Soldier Field was three plays (for eight yards) and a punt, it was simply business as usual. The Bears had the Packers right where they wanted them: on offense.
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.
After Favre hit wideout Sterling Sharpe with an 18-yard touchdown pass to tie the game midway through the first quarter and the Bears' Kevin Butler kicked a 29-yard field goal late in the half, Chicago took a 10-7 lead into the locker room at intermission even though the Packers had 255 yards in net offense and the Bears had 66.
On the first series of the third quarter Favre, who might be the most up-and-down athlete since Spiderman, reared back to throw, only to have the ball fly out of his hand as though it had been greased. The fumble was grabbed by a diving Jones, who got up and carried the ball 32 yards for a touchdown and a 17-7 Chicago lead. The real indignity came as Jones leaped over Favre—and his pathetic attempt at a tackle—en route to the end zone. "It was great," Harbaugh said of the bench time he and his offensive buddies spent observing the Bear defense, which was in for 83 plays. "It gives you a real charge to see them running up and down the sideline, hurdling over people. I've never see a game like that before."
Nor had many people. Late in the fourth quarter, after the Bears had taken a 23-17 lead on two more field goals by Butler, Chicago seemed out of luck. Favre was moving the Pack to what would certainly be the game-winning touchdown. But on fourth-and-one at the Bear 26, stud go-to guy Sharpe (10 catches, 114 yards) dropped a ball thrown directly into his gloved hands, and the drive died. Luck apparently shuttles in for all of the Bears' big stands.
With just under two minutes left in the game, the Packers would make one more attempt at a victory march. It was shortlived, however, lasting one play. Favre, hurried by none other than old man McMichael, threw an off-target pass down the middle that was intercepted by Bear free safety Mark Carrier, who ran it in for a 34-yard touchdown. That ended the scoring at 30-17 and gave the Bears a most improbable yet appropriate win. "I don't think you ever count on any defense to score your touchdowns," Carrier said later. But not only had the Bear defense outscored its own offense 21-9, it had also outscored the Packer team 21-17.
Suddenly the Bears, considered a six-win team before the season, found themselves with a 7-5 record, tied with the Packers and the fading Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC Central Division. This was no small victory; this Bear-Packer showdown, incredibly, marked the first time in three decades that both teams had winning records going into their second matchup this late in the season. Moreover, the Bears are now the league's leading practitioners of the new, much-debated and ultimately boring form of winning football—that is, using your offense as crash-test dummies and using your high-tech defense to ambush the other team.
It used to be that offenses would at least try to run the ball and eat up the clock to shorten the game for their defenses. Now teams like the Bears simply acknowledge that they don't have enough weapons even to do that, and their offenses don't try to do anything at all. Run a reverse? Uh-uh, you might take a loss. Throw deep down the middle? God forbid—that's where interceptions occur! Drop back and look around? Forget it; Sack City.
"They don't want me to hold the ball, they want me to get rid of it," said an unscathed Harbaugh, who took just one harmless sack for no yards lost. (White, by the way, had one tackle for the entire Sabbath.) "It seemed to work today. So, uh...it was a good day." Harbaugh completed 10 of 20 passes for 141 yards, and the Bear backs rushed for 69 yards on 23 attempts—high school numbers. Favre, on the other hand, threw for a career-high 402 yards and two touchdowns. And, of course, he lost.
"What's changed so much, even since I came into the league in 1987, are all these defensive substitutions," says Harbaugh. "Everybody plays; they're all fresh; two guys do the job of one. But you can't rotate in offensive linemen like that, or your timing will be all off. So they wear you down. And Wannstedt is probably the leading practitioner of that."
Ironic, huh? Harbaugh gets booed when he enters the game, when he leaves the game and most of the time in between—because the Bear offense is duller than dirt. But as he says, "If I'd been Favre, I'd need the Secret Service to get out of here."
The Bear defense is getting it done with specialization and wholesale substitutions—"Sometimes it's like I-90 out there," says veteran strong safety Shaun Gayle, who had eight solo tackles in the game. But the D is also doing it with talent. Defensive end Richard Dent is having a Pro Bowl year, as are Gayle, Carrier, cornerback Donnell Woolford (10 tackles) and the underappreciated Jones, who has replaced retired Hall of Famer-to-be Mike Singletary in the middle after five years as a part-timer. At Oklahoma, Jones was overshadowed by flamboyant teammate Brian Bosworth. "I was even in the shadows at Skyline [Dallas] High School," he says. "A guy named Donnie White. He went to East Texas State. But sooner or later my time always comes."
It may be here now. Just as it is here—has been here for, lo, the past 13 years—for McMichael. He stands now in the locker room, wearing a black silk T-shirt, black pants, black boots and a black belt with a longhorn steer on the buckle. In his sunglasses and ponytail, chewing on a cigar, he looks like a bit actor lost somewhere between Paris, Texas and Scarface.
One wonders if he knows that Jones, a fellow Texan, has a town house furnished with little more than a bed, a dresser, weights and a deluxe miniature-car racetrack with autos that Jones loves, he says, "to crash." One imagines the two teammates together, controls in hand, Packer slayers both, delighting in the chaos they can wreak.