CHICAGO, Ill. (WFRV) – With all the hype and fanfare surrounding the Packers-Bears kicking off the NFL’s 100th season, Mike Ditka prefers to watch the game in his restaurant or at home.
“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy around here,” Ditka said. “It will be a great atmosphere for this rivalry game in Chicago. An amazing rivalry, all the tradition, the great players, from George Halas and Vince Lombardi to Bart Starr and Walter Peyton and so many more. These two franchises embody the NFL.”
Ditka chuckled and recounted—as he always does when these teams meet—what Halas first told him when the first-round draft pick from the University of Pittsburgh arrived in Chicago as a rookie tight end in 1961.
“Halas said you have to beat the Green Bay Packers,” Ditka said. “That says something—the first thing he said. I was honored to be part of it as a player and then a coach—it’s a very special rivalry in all of sports. You compete against your rival hard, let the best man win.”
When Green Bay and Chicago meet for the 199th time (Packers lead the all-time series 97-95-6 including playoffs) at Soldier Field tonight, there’s more new blood in the rivalry.
Last season, new Bears head coach Matt Nagy invaded Lambeau Field in the regular-season opener, a game in which Aaron Rodgers overcame a knee injury and willed his team from a 20-point deficit to a stunning 24-23 comeback victory.
This year, Matt LaFleur is at the helm for Green Bay, a team that faltered to a 6-9-1 mark in 2018, which led to the dismissal of Mike McCarthy with four games remaining in the season.
Meanwhile, Chicago fashioned a 10-6 record and dominated the NFC North division; expectations are for a strong Super Bowl run in 2019 among the Bear faithful.
“You got to remember, it’s just the first game of a 16-game season,” Ditka said. “It’s a division game, which is always important. But with Minnesota and Green Bay and Chicago, 4-2 in the division could win it. There are some good solid football teams there, and whoever emerges from that division can do some damage in the playoffs.”
Like all football fans, Ditka is intrigued to see how Aaron Rodgers performs in a new system with a new head coach.
“I liked Mike McCarthy and the Packers organization made a tough decision last season,” Ditka said. “Life in the NFL goes on as the head coach always bears the brunt of the blame—which I certainly know firsthand. I don’t know exactly what the Packers will do with a new coach—we’ll find out. What we do know is they have Aaron Rodgers, who is the best quarterback in the league in my opinion and they improved on defense. Obviously the Bears are going to come after Aaron. I like our defense and quarterback and the Bears can run the ball pretty well. It will take some balance and a solid performance in all three phases—offense, defense, and special teams—to win this game. Got to limit turnovers.”
Like Brett Favre before him, Rodgers has owned the Chicago Bears, beating them 16 times in 21 starts over his Hall-of-Fame career. The 35-year-old veteran did not play a single snap in preseason as he digests a new offensive scheme and bonds with the 39-year-old LaFleur—and he knows the offense is a work in progress.
“It’s a new scheme,” Rodgers told reporters Wednesday. “We have a lot of room to grow from what we put on the field Thursday.”
Green Bay ran the ball the least of any NFL team in 2018, and that is a major focus of the Packers to rectify that imbalance. Enter Aaron Jones, who led the league with a 5.5-yard average per carry but was again unable to finish the season due to injury
Jones and the Green Bay offensive line will be challenged by a talented Chicago front seven and elite pass rusher Khali Mack. Rodgers has Pro Bowler Davante Adams and speedster Marquez Valdes-Scantling as his top targets, and a healthy Jimmy Graham at tight end could be a factor this season after an injury-riddled and disappointing 2018 campaign.
Hendricks’ Week 1 Predictions
Formidable opener. . . at Chicago, ultra-hyped rivalry game, national spotlight. A match-up of Matts (LaFleur-Nagy) with plenty of time to game plan. The edge goes to Bears and their top-ranked defense (sans Vic Fangio) as Aaron Rodgers and offense adjust to a new scheme. Running yards come hard against talented Chicago defensive front seven.
Bears 24, Packers 20.
NFC: Minnesota, Dallas, New Orleans, LA Rams. Wild Cards: Philadelphia, Green Bay. Championship: New Orleans over LA Rams.
AFC: Pittsburgh, New England, Houston, Kansas City. Wild Cards: Cleveland, LA Chargers. Championship: Kansas City over New England
Super Bowl LIV in Miami: New Orleans defeats Kansas City
Marty Hendricks is Local 5’s Packers digital contributor. Hendricks breaks down each Packers game weekly leading up to kick off.