Are winds of change blowing in Bears-Packers rivalry?
Shades of 2005-06, when the Bears finally got the upper hand on Brett Favre, this could be a turning point vs. the indomitable will of Aaron Rodgers and the voodoo curse he seems to have on the Bears
Of course, Aaron Rodgers beats everybody. He’s just inflicted more pain on the Bears — and Bears fans — than any other opponent.
It’s not just the big games — five touchdown passes in 2011 at Lambeau Field; six touchdown passes in the first half in 2013 at Lambeau. It’s the crushing, uncanny, Jordan-like moments: a 50-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings with 1:11 left to win 21-15 in 2009; a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on fourth-and-eight with 38 seconds left to steal the division title from the Bears in 2013; the 60-yard pass to Jordy Nelson with four seconds left to set up a winning field goal in 2016 at Soldier Field; and of course, the 75-yard touchdown pass to Cobb with 2:13 left to cap a rally that turned a 20-0 deficit into a 24-23 Packers victory last year at Lambeau.
But it’s not even just those clutch moments that have burnished the Rodgers legend in the minds of Bears fans. It’s the Jedi mind tricks Rodgers seems to play on the Bears that compel Nathan Vasher to slip on the Jennings play; or Chris Conte to get caught in no-man’s land on the Cobb touchdown in 2013; or Vic Fangio to put undrafted rookie Cre’Von LeBlanc in single coverage on Jordy Nelson in 2016; or Kyle Fuller to drop a sure interception in his breadbasket to give Rodgers another chance last year at Lambeau; or James Anderson and every Bears defender to ignore a fumble after a strip-sack of Rodgers by Julius Peppers that somehow, someway, turned into a Packers touchdown in the 2013 finale.
Even Rodgers’ bad moments still find a way to inflict pain on the Bears. After Shea McClellin broke Rodgers’ collarbone on a sack in Week 9 in 2013, Rodgers returned in Week 17 to beat the Bears for the NFC North title. After Roy Robertson-Harris knocked him out with a sack last year, Rodgers returned in the second half to pull off a miraculous comeback.
Even in beating Rodgers last year at Soldier Field, the Bears still suffered. When the Bears ended Rodgers’ NFL-record streak of 402 consecutive passes without an interception, safety Eddie Jackson sprained his ankle on the return and missed the wild-card playoff game the Bears lost by one point. Jackson has made a living returning takeaways for touchdowns in his brief NFL career. But he intercepts Aaron Rodgers one time — and gets hurt.
Come to think of it, Brian Urlacher suffered the worst injury of his career — a season-ending dislocated wrist in Week 1 — against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Jay Cutler — in the biggest moment of his career — suffered an injury against Rodgers and the Packers that knocked him out of the NFC Championship Game in 2011. It’s almost like Rodgers has a voodoo curse on Bears fans that prevent them from enjoying anything. He is the ultimate Bear-killer.
But, for what it’s worth, it’s nothing personal.
“I have a lot of respect for the city of Chicago and their fans,” Rodgers said this week. “ I grew up a fan of Michael Jordan. And one of the channels we had on our 10-channel TV was WGN, so we got the Cubs games as well. So I grew up watching some Chicago sports. I was a fan of Brett Favre and had an appreciation for the [Bears-Packers] rivalry. Obviously playing in it takes in a whole life of its own because you realize how special it is — not just to the players, but even more to the fans who’ve seen years and decades and decades of this rivalry, and there is a hatred on both sides between the fans.
“We’ve had some great moments down there. Some fun games. Some big games. Obviously the NFC Championship, 2013 was a fun one. The R-E-L-A-X I think started down there. James Jones coming back [with two touchdowns in 2015]. And we’ve had some tough ones as well — 2010 we went down there on a Monday night I believe and got beat — we had like 16 penalties that game. It was a tough one. Obviously last year they stuffed us pretty good.
“So it’s been some great games over the years. Again, I have a lot of respect for their fans. They know when to cheer. They’re loud. It’s a tough environment. They have a lot of really good trash talk on the sideline. But we’ve also won in that place before and you take that confidence with you.”
Rodgers never misses a chance to take a shot at the Bears and revel in his success against them, but it’s always in the spirit of one of sports’ greatest rivalries rather than mean or pointed. His indomitable will and competitiveness is admired, even by Bears players.
“A hundred percent,” safety Prince Amukamara said. “Even in his speech at the NFL honors when they won [Moment of the Year], he took a dig at us — ‘There’s nothing like beating the Bears.’ But if I was a quarterback and I had this team’s number for however many years, of course I’m going to feel like, ‘I can beat them whenever I want.’ And I’m sure he has that confidence. But we’re trying to change things now.”
Therein lies the opportunity that awaits the Bears in the season opener against the Packers on Thursday night at Soldier Field. It’s a chance to not only beat the Packers, but, coming off last year’s victory at Soldier Field, turn the course of the Bears-Packers rivalry in their favor.
It’s gone back-and-forth over the years — the Bears winning eight in a row in the heart of the Ditka era; the Packers winning 18-of-20 in the heart of the Favre era; the Bears winning five-of-six in the heart of the Lovie Smith era; and the Packers winning 17-of-20 in the heart of the Rodgers era.
Bears fans can feel the winds of change blowing again. Rodgers’ will is as strong as ever, but his supporting cast is not. The Packers are coming off a 6-9-1 season even with Rodgers starting all 16 games. More importantly, the Bears are on the rise, with a top-ranked defense led by a true game-wrecker in Khalil Mack and a developing offense that hopes to take a big step in 2019 behind quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
A year ago, Trubisky opened on a roll — completing 11-of-14 passes for 109 yards as the Bears drove for a touchdown and field goal on their first two drives before faltering. With a year of maturity in Nagy’s offense, he figures to be better.
“There were so many unknowns last year [with Trubisky],” Nagy said. “And this year he knows how I call a game. Remember, last year I had no idea what his favorite plays were. Now I know what he likes. Now I can take plays I came with from Kansas City that I really liked or that Alex Smith liked and put those off to the side because I know what Mitch likes better. And that’s where we have grown and have been able to get better.”
As confident as the Bears defense is against Rodgers, Trubisky might be the better antidote. If he’s good, Rodgers will have pressure to keep up that he’s rarely if ever had against the Bears.
The Bears aren’t overplaying the idea that this is their chance to turn the rivalry in their favor. “We approach it the same,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said. But they know Bears fans have a great sense of anticipation heading into this one.
“Mentality-wise, for sure. We understand it all, of it being more than just a rivalry,” Robinson said. “With everything being said, everybody in their head — they know. Nothing has to be explained. We hear it. We see it. We understand what’s at stake.”