The Bears and Packers account for the most bittersweet of sports rivalries. It has been bitter for the Bears and far too sweet for far too long for the Packers.
More than a quarter of a century has passed since Brett Favre materialized in Wisconsin, turning biannual meetings between the teams into a wearisome routine.
Aaron Rodgers has been an even bigger bogeyman, dating to a devastating evening at Lambeau Field to open the season. Since then, there has been an astonishing turnaround for both teams.
Roles have been utterly reversed as the 9-4 Bears can clinch the NFC North title with a victory over the Packers on Sunday at Soldier Field. The Packers enter 5-7-1, just more than a week after firing longtime coach Mike McCarthy, and they're 0-6 on the road this season, joining the 49ers as the only teams without a victory away from home.
All that remains for the Bears is to beat the Packers, something they failed to do in the season opener when they frittered away a 20-0 lead midway through the third quarter. It was the latest example of how painfully frustrating things have been against the Packers, who ended the Bears' bid for a playoff spot in 2013, defeated them in the NFC championship game after the 2010 season and have won 15 of the last 17 meetings, eight in a row at Soldier Field and 40 of 54 overall since Favre's arrival.
"We've won eight in a row (there)," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "I'm not talking trash to their squad or Akiem (Hicks) or anything, that's just the facts. Great place to play. They have a fantastic fan base, they know when to cheer, they're loud, they're involved in the game."
Barring a miraculous finish and some help, the Packers will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. The last time that happened was 2005-06, coincidentally the last time the Bears had back-to-back winning seasons.
When the Packers slid to 7-9 last season, a big explanation was Rodgers had missed nine games. They hit rock bottom this season on Dec. 2 with a 20-17 home loss to the Cardinals — their third straight and fifth in six games. President Mark Murphy fired McCarthy two hours after the game, naming Joe Philbin the interim coach and eliminating what would have been four weeks of public speculation about McCarthy's future.
While the Bears expect to be preparing for a playoff opponent on New Year's Eve, the Packers likely will be launching their first coaching search since 2006. While the Bears have passed the Packers this season, are they finally in position to have an upper hand over their nemesis for seasons to come?
Whether there was more than creative tension between McCarthy and Rodgers isn't as important as the on-field product: The Packers were 22-22-1 in the last 45 games started by Rodgers under McCarthy. That eventually eroded job security for McCarthy as more is expected when your quarterback is a two-time league MVP.
Clearly things were amiss, though, and a Twitter post by Winston Moss, Packers associate head coach/linebackers, after McCarthy's firing highlighted that.
"Ponder this . what Championship teams have are great leadership! Period! It's not the offensive guru trend, it's not the safe trend. Find somebody that is going to hold #12 and everybody in this building to a #LombardiStandard! Period! #losingsucks!" Moss wrote.
That got Moss fired, and he quickly resurfaced Sunday on Fox's "NFL Kickoff," doubling down when he said, "Aaron Rodgers has been the head coach for the last nine years. Just joking, just joking."
Tough to walk that one back. And hard to believe there wasn't growing friction between the quarterback and the head coach.
How the Packers respond from here, hiring a coach to work under Murphy and with first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst will be interesting. It's one of the most appealing jobs in the league because the coach doesn't have to answer questions from an owner, but the newly created triangle of power is a little different. It's assumed Murphy, the former Northwestern athletic director who has never run an NFL coaching search, is going to seek a coach Gutekunst approves of.
Rodgers, 35, enters Sunday's game against the NFL's No. 1 takeaway defense with a record streak of 368 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. The contract extension he signed in August carries through the 2023 season, when he will turn 40, but accuracy aside, some personnel men question whether he is the same electric playmaker he has been in the past. He has a tendency to hold the ball too long, which can lead to magnificent improvisational plays — and take a play completely out of rhythm.
Even if Rodgers has regressed from his peak seasons, you're still talking about a quarterback with a 99.1 passer rating with 3,700 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and just one interception. The Packers have a strong rookie class led by cornerback Jaire Alexander and they have an additional first-round draft pick in 2019, acquired from the Saints. Gutekunst has already proved he's open to more avenues for player procurement than his predecessor, Ted Thompson. The Packers signed Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller to an offer sheet and had a solid offer on the table to the Raiders for Khalil Mack.
Under Philbin, the Packers rallied to beat the struggling Falcons 34-20 on Sunday and now they prepare to finish out the string. After the Bears, they play at the Jets on Dec. 23 and host the Lions on Dec. 30. Then they'll decide whether they can reload — a fancy term for skipping a rebuilding stage — with a new head coach. What provides confidence that will happen?
"Well, the leadership really," Rodgers said. "That's always been the case. I feel strongly about the men leading this organization and the women. And I feel good about our locker room. I think we have some of the right pieces in place moving forward. I think we have a pretty good young nucleus. I think the draft this year was a good one, really good one."
In New England Bill Belichick and Tom Brady serve as an example of how the coach-quarterback relationship can go through rocky periods. If Rodgers truly had checked out on McCarthy, perhaps the Packers can rekindle the success they've had, which included eight straight playoff appearances.
"I think we can get that back starting this year," outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. "I don't think it's all about next year saying, 'Well, this has been a wasted season because we didn't make the playoffs.' We have three more games and, yeah, the percentages of us making the playoffs are slim to none, but there is a lot of pride on the line and if you look at the success we've had, it's been with a lot of players in this room. We're dealing with some change with our head coach. It's about finishing the season strong and trying to play and at the same time leaving on a good note heading into 2019."
Times have changed if the Packers are talking about playing spoiler. The symmetry for the Bears is perfect with a chance to win the division while the Packers plot their next move.