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NFC Championship Game: Papa Bear George Halas Helped Promote Packers Rivalry

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The Bears and Packers have a storied history, going back to the league's beginnings. But without George Halas' help, the Packers might not have become the juggernaut they were in the 1960s.

Every Green Bay Packer crashing at full speed into a Chicago Bear Sunday should pause a minute and thank.... George "Papa Bear" Halas.

If not for NFL co-founder Halas' magnanimous nature, desiring to see the fledgling league as a whole succeed instead of total self-interest for his Bears, the Pack may not have survived much beyond their infancy. And on another plane involving Halas, Green Bay might not have become the 1960s dynasty that bedeviled the Bears so much and eclipsed them as an NFL flagship franchise.

Gone for 27 years now, Halas would have immensely enjoyed the national hype surrounding the first-ever NFC title clash between the two blood rivals. Usually one team was up, the other way down in even considering the mathematical possiblity of such a showdown. They have not dueled in the postseason since 1941, when a first-round game at Wrigley Field drew nearly a full house one week after Pearl Harbor, contrasting with a small crowd seven days later for the NFL title game against the New York Giants.

That was good for the league, Halas reasoned, at a time of both overflowing profits and looming labor showdown. Realizing how the NFL began as a barnstorming operation, run on a shoestring, and how he came within hours of losing the Bears when he had to buy out his partner in 1932, Halas always advocated the sum is greater than its individual parts.

He was an early backer of the revenue-sharing system -- legalized socialism among the country's most fervent capitalists -- that enabled a tiny-market team like Green Bay to enjoy the same dollar amount of network TV revenue as the Bears, Giants and Rams in the country's three biggest markets.

Halas also backed then-Giants assistant coach Vince Lombardi's ascension to Packers coach in 1959, which subsuently allowed Green Bay to catch, and then pass, the Bears in NFL primacy. Lombardi's championship teams of ensuing seasons were partially credited with boosting the NFL past baseball as the nation's sporting pastime. Meanwhile, Halas' organization increasingly became creaky and old-fashioned, not reviving until the early 1980s after years of good drafts by GM Jim Finks and the final key part -- hiring Mike Ditka as coach.

Although Halas considered Lombardi a renowned colleague, he may have questioned the Packers coach's brilliance, especially head-to-head. Lombardi beat Halas 9-6 in his first game as coach on Sept. 27, 1959. Then, armed with his dynastic talent led by quarterback Bart Starr, Lombardi really started adminstering some beatings to Halas -- a 41-13 wipeout at Wrigley Field on Dec. 4, 1960, 24-0 at Green Bay Oct. 1, 1961 and twin massacres -- 49-0 at Green Bay on Sept. 30 and 38-7 on Nov. 4 in Chicago -- in 1962, the worst blemishes on an otherwise decent  9-5 Bears season.

Chastened and embarrased, Halas spent the 1963 off-season and training camp with laser-focus on beating Lombardi, tightening up the defense and fashioning a ball-control offense behind quarterback Billy Wade. The tactic worked with a 10-3 Bears victory to open the '63 season on Sept. 15 in Green Bay. Led by running back Willie Galimore's brilliant performance, the Bears again beat the Pack 26-7 on Nov. 17 at Wrigley Field. They were opportune victories -- the only two losses Lombardi suffered all season. But finishing ahead of the Pack still required Ditka's legendary run-after-catch, in which he steamrolled or shed tackles of at least nine Steelers defenders in Pittsburgh to set up Roger LeClerc's tying field goal in a 17-17 final at Pittsburgh on Nov. 24. The Bears made the NFL title game against the Giants on Dec. 29 on the strength of their 11-1-2 record compared to the Pack's 11-2-1.

Lombardi lost only one more time in eight games to Halas in his final four seasons in Green Bay, which coincided with Papa Bear's final quartet of years on the sidelines.

For the next 15 years, Bears-Packers matchups largely were confined to regional bragging rights with both teams usually out of contention. There were some exceptions. Mac Percival beat the Pack 13-10 on a rarely-used "free kick" play while Gale Sayers had his last big, dominant rushing performance in Green Bay on Nov. 3, 1968. In the '68 season finale on Dec. 15 at Wrigley Field with the 7-6 Bears' playoff hopes hanging in the balance, backup Pack quarterback Don Horn had the game of his life in a 28-27 knockout of his hosts.

The Pack played the final NFL game in Wrigley Field in a 35-17 loss on Dec. 13, 1970. The two times the Bears did made the playoffs, in 1977 and 1979, they had to beat the Packers amid late-season runs, 21-10 in '77 and 15-14 in '79, just to survive to fight another weekend. And when nothing was on the line in 1980, head coach Neill Armstrong had no motivation to call off the dogs in a 61-7 pasting of the Pack at Soldier Field on Dec. 7.

The greatest period of Bears dominance over the Pack began in the Super Bowl XX season in 1985. Through 1988, Chicago nailed Green Bay eight straight times. Ditka settled age-old scores with the Pack and former Lombardi-mainstay-turned-head coach Forrest Gregg. Of course, all three of Fridge Perry's 1985 regular season touchdowns were against the Pack, two via memorable goal-line flattenings of hapless linebacker George Cumby on a Monday Night extravaganza on Oct. 21, and the other via a short pass from Jim McMahon at Lambeau Field on Nov. 3.

In his period, the only way the Pack could fight back was, well, to fight and maim. Ken Stills' out-of-bounds clotheslining of Walter Payton in the Nov. 3, 1985 game was one example of the viciousness brought to a head. Even worse was Charles Martin throwing McMahon to the turf like a rag doll in Chicago on Nov. 23, 1986, a dirty play that helped shorten McMahon's effective Bears career.

The Pack finally ended their losing streak in a controversial 14-13 victory on Nov. 5, 1989 in Green Bay. Pack quarterback Don Majkowski tossed a go-ahead touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe with the ball on the Bears' 14-yard line. It appeared the Majik Man had stepped over the line of scrimmage to toss the pass, with one referee ruling as such. However, the newly-instituted instant-replay system overruled the original call and the TD was upheld.

Majik soon gave way to Brett Favre, and a Pack era of dominance over the Bears prevailed. Most embarrassing was a Monday Night game on Halloween 1994, played amid torrential rains that thoroughly soaked a ceremony to retire Dick Butkus' and Gale Sayers' numbers. Favre carved up his favorite turkey to the tune of 33-6.

That brings us to this week's showdown, Bears-Packers for the right to go to Dallas. From a competitive standpoint, this matchup is the apex of the rivalry. Yet for emotionalism and blood-lust, it's just another in an endless series of gladiator matches transferred to the icy Midwest.