On the surface it seems awfully hard to believe: Over the last 90 years, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears — teams with the two richest back stories in professional football history — have met only once in the postseason prior to this weekend's NFC championship game.
Upon more careful thought, though, it makes sense. For much of the clubs' early existence, the NFL held few postseason contests. And in the 45 years of the Super Bowl era, the teams have alternated success — when one has been up, the other has been down. The 1960s belonged to the Packers and Vince Lombardi. George Halas's Bears? They suffered through mediocrity despite owning several of the game's finest players. The reverse was true in the 1980s, when the Bears were among the NFL's best and the Packers often among its worst. And over the past two decades the merry-go-round has continued to go round and round — until this weekend.
In that first playoff meeting in the winter of 1941, a 46-year-old Halas pitted his 10-1 club against Curly Lambeau's 10-1 Packers. Each team's only regular-season loss came against the other. Chicago won the Sept. 28 contest, 25-17, thanks to 10 unanswered points in the final quarter and a half. Green Bay avenged the loss on Nov. 2, jumping out to a 16-0 lead, thanks to a touchdown pass and run by QB Cecil Isbell, before allowing two fourth-quarter touchdowns by the Bears that made the final score 16-14.
The third meeting, played at Wrigley Field on Dec. 14, was sure to be a war.
The mood in the country at the time was somber. Exactly one week before, Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor, sending America into real war — the country's second major war in less than a quarter century. A football game pitting a pair of Midwestern clubs paled in comparison to the events of the time. Only the rivalry offered fans a chance to escape for an afternoon; a sellout crowd of more than 43,000 was in attendance — more than three times the number of fans that attended the following week's NFL title game.
Green Bay's best offense that season was surely its passing game. Isbell led the league in completions (117), yards (1,479) and touchdowns (15). Only Washington's Sammy Baugh was close in any of those categories. Of course, Isbell had it made throwing to Don Hutson, who won that season's Joe F. Carr Trophy (NFL MVP) and owned twice as many receptions (58) and yards (738) as the league's next closest receiver.
The Bears were just as dominant on offense, only with more conservative methods. Halas' club scored 36 points per game, and during one three-game stretch outscored their opponents 136-14. Much of that success was due to a rushing attack that scored 30 of the team's 49 offensive touchdowns. Four backs — George McAfee (474 yards, five TDs), Norm Standlee (414, five), Bill Osmanski (371, four) and Hugh Gallarneau (304, eight) — all gained at least 300 yards and scored four or more touchdowns.
The December 1941 contest was one of the NFL's first marquee ground-versus-air matchups.
It's not to say Chicago couldn't pass the ball. They owned the game's premier quarterback, Sid Luckman, who was two years away from writing passing records that would stand for many years. But in 1941, Halas still had the 25-year-old Luckman on somewhat of a short leash, opting to throw the ball only when needed (the Bears ranked seventh of 10 teams in passing attempts).
The league's first-ever divisional playoff game was also historic in that it allowed for a fifth quarter — sudden-death overtime — should the teams end regulation in a tie.
The Bears made sure there was no overtime period.
Writer Art Daley, who covered the game for the Green Bay Press Gazette, recently told Packers Report writer Matt Tevsh that the playoff game provided him with his first opportunity to take a train ride: "To be honest with you, I don't remember a hell of a lot about the game itself because it's almost 70 years ago. I do remember that Don Hutson was hurt, though. That was the thing that really hurt the Packers. He only caught one pass. And he was the big shot, the No. 1 player."
Whether he was fully healthy or not, Hutson did factor into the key play of the game. With the Packers holding a 7-0 lead, he got behind the Bears' defense and uncharacteristically dropped a bomb from Isbell that would have given Green Bay a two-TD lead. Instead, Green Bay was forced to punt and Gallarneau returned the kick 81 yards for a touchdown that swung the momentum in Chicago's favor.
Luckman and his fantastic backfield took over from there, scoring 24 points in the second quarter to stake Chicago to a huge 30-7 halftime lead; ultimately, the Bears won 33-14.
The following week, Chicago prepared for the Eastern Division-champion New York Giants.
"Chicago is not nearly so excited for this fray as it was for the Western playoff a week ago," the New York Times' Arthur Daley wrote. In front of a Wrigley crowd of 13,341, the Bears scored 28 second-half points to claim a 37-9 victory, capturing the franchise's fifth NFL title.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football" (Alpha, 2010).