Thursday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, the longest continuous rivalry in the National Football League, will be another huge encounter between the two oldest franchises.
Many feel that, given the recent run of big games between the two teams going back to 2010 when the Packers defeated the Bears in the NFC Championship game, it's the most highly anticipated matchup in the league.
That’s difficult to argue.
But last Sunday’s game between the Packers and the San Francisco 49ers sheds a brighter light on that rivalry—one that could soon overtake Packers vs. Bears. In fact, I would argue that Packers vs. 49ers is fast becoming the premier rivalry in the entire league.
You could counter with Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore or New York Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles or Indianapolis vs. New England or even Miami vs. New York Jets, but in my opinion, all of those rivalries have gone cold.
Coming on strong are the Packers and 49ers, not only because of the importance of last weekend’s game, but because of the intensity of games the two teams have seen the past couple of decades.
Games between the two teams date back to 1950. Between 1950 and 1966, the teams played twice each season. Between 1950-58, the Niners won 13 times, while the Packers turned the tables during the early part of the Vince Lombardi era (1959-64) by winning 10 of 11.
However, it was those games the past 15 years that have had the greatest impact on both franchises—most notable were the several playoff games during that stretch of time.
Starting in 1995, as the Niners were coming off their years of dominance with Joe Montana and company, the Packers used huge wins over San Francisco to propel them to elite status in the league. In the 1995 NFC divisional round, Green Bay’s 27-17 win out west was considered by many the game that made Brett Favre—it was also the game that brought the Packers into national prominence.
Green Bay followed that win with two more playoff wins over San Francisco in succeeding years.
The Packers defeated the Niners 35-14 in the 1996 divisional round, the game that helped send them to their first Super Bowl win in decades. The next season, Green Bay defeated San Francisco 23-10 in the NFC Championship—the game that sent the Packers to their second straight Super Bowl.
In 1998, the two teams met for the fourth straight season, with the Niners winning on quarterback Steve Young’s last-second heave to Terrell Owens. It was San Francisco’s only win in 14 tries against the Packers up to that point.
However, Packers fans also remember how Jerry Rice’s uncalled fumble a few plays before that touchdown turned the tide in that game—the event that brought instant replay back to the NFL for good. It was also quite difficult for Packers fans as they watched Owens cry like a baby after catching the winning touchdown.
More recently, the Packers dominated the Niners on Dec. 5, 2010, at Lambeau Field. The Packers won that game 34-16 on the strength of Aaron Rodgers’ arm and touchdown catches by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.
In fact, it was Driver’s catch and run for a touchdown that is considered his most memorable in a Packers uniform. Driver broke several tackles, got a hellacious block from rookie tight end Andrew Quarless and then fell into the end zone with three defenders draped around him.
It was the turning point of that game and the point in that season that helped propel the Packers to their fourth Super Bowl title.
Last Sunday’s game only puts an exclamation point on this rivalry, as the Niners showed why they should be considered heavily as one of the elite teams taking the field this season. They played a near-flawless game in all three phases—offense, defense and special teams.
The Packers—though playing badly for three-and-a-half quarters—nearly came back, but were denied by the Niners defense as the clock wound down.
Not only did this last game prove that the Packers are not invincible—especially at Lambeau Field—but it also emphasizes that on any given Sunday, teams can rise to the occasion.
If both teams stay healthy and win the games they are supposed to win, a rematch in the playoffs could become reality.
However, we all know how different teams in December can look from those that took the field in September.
If it’s in the cards and both teams are playing well in December, we could be in for a rematch—a fact that could underscore why this rivalry is fast becoming the premier matchup in the league.