SportsPulse: Every year there’s roughly 50% turnover in playoff teams. Trysta Krick predicts 6 teams that will be in and out of the playoffs as well as who’s winning it all in Miami.
USA TODAYCHICAGO — Why, you might be asking, is the NFL kicking off its 100th season Thursday night with Packers-Bears, rather than the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots?A valid question, and one that can be answered in any number of ways. Packers-Bears is the league’s oldest rivalry. Trace the history of both teams and it’s like tracing the history of the league itself, the most notable names a Who’s Who of the NFL.More than anything, though, Packers-Bears epitomizes the NFL.There are other storied rivalries in sports, other grudge games. But nothing comes close to matching the grit, passion and significance of the games between the teams separated by 200 miles. “I grew up watching some Chicago sports, was a fan of Brett Favre and had an appreciation for the rivalry. Obviously playing in it takes on a whole life of its own because you realize how special it is, not just for the players but even more to the fans who’ve seen years and decades and decades of this rivalry,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is as enthusiastic about the rivalry as anyone, said Sunday.“There is a hatred, I think, on both sides between the fans.”To appreciate Packers-Bears, most will point to the days of George Halas and Vince Lombardi, who took games against each other so seriously they refused to shake hands on the field. Or Forrest Gregg and Mike Ditka, who nearly came to blows during a game. An exhibition game.But to fully understand what has made this rivalry endure, through lean years and one-sided stretches, you need to go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.This was when the Packers were mired in mediocrity, the glory days of Titletown so remote they might as well have been a mirage. The Chicago Bears weren’t much better, still a few years away from that perfect storm of Ditka, Sweetness and the 46 Defense. But it hardly mattered.After years of being disparaged with profane acronyms as they made their way to their vacation homes and cottages across the border, Bears fans finally had a worthy retort.Cheesehead.It was both condescending and dismissive, a reminder that Chicago was worldly and sophisticated while Green Bay — and the rest of Wisconsin along with it – was a bunch of country bumpkins. Chicago had skyscrapers, stock exchanges and toll roads. Wisconsin had farmlands and blue-collar industries.In truth, beyond its main city, Illinois isn’t much different than Wisconsin. But for a state that has always had something of an inferiority complex about its neighbor to the south, it was the perfect troll.“It was always big Chicago against little Green Bay,” Rodgers said.Then, in 1992, the Packers acquired a young quarterback from Mississippi. It might not have been apparent at the time, but Brett Favre proved to be the perfect fit for Green Bay, as much a country bumpkin as the team – and state – he represented.The Packers went 9-7 his first year, only their second winning season in 14 years. His second year, Green Bay made the playoffs for only the third time since winning a second consecutive Super Bowl in 1967. Three years after that, Favre and the Packers won the Super Bowl.As Favre turned around the Packers franchise, so, too, did he reverse its fortunes in the rivalry with Chicago.The Bears beat Favre and the Packers in his first appearance in the rivalry, their 15th win in their last 18 games against Green Bay. But a month later, at Soldier Field, Favre and the Packers would beat the Bears to start a decade-long run of dominance.Favre and the Packers would win 20 of their next 23 games against Chicago. Rodgers has had similar success, with Green Bay winning 18 of the 23 rivalry games since 2008, including the 2010 NFC title game at Soldier Field. That Cheesehead moniker, once an insult designed to make Wisconsinites bristle, is now a point of pride. If Green Bay is good enough for two of the best quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen, well then, that’s good enough.Besides, who doesn’t love cheese? Throw in some brats and beer, and you have pretty much the perfect menu.While Wisconsin might have embraced its small-town identity, the animosity between the teams and their fan bases has never waned. When Lovie Smith was hired as coach of the Chicago Bears, he made it clear his primary goal was to beat the Packers. Khalil Mack will never have to buy a meal in Chicago again after sacking Rodgers in his first game in a Bears uniform.And Rodgers delights in tweaking the Bears whenever he gets the chance, pointing out the overall edge Green Bay now has in the rivalry.“Chicago, with the way they’ve been playing and how much it means to our fans, that rivalry is right where it needs to be,” he said, “for our fans, for their fans and for the NFL.”Most people don’t celebrate birthdays or anniversaries with guests who hate each other. For the NFL, however, it’s the perfect party.Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext SlideIf you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders.