New faces, same old rivalry

Packers await improved Bears in season opener

As if any further drama was needed, the long-awaited opening day for the Green Bay Packers got an 11th-hour injection of hype.

There was plenty of excitement already, as with any NFL opener, and for the Packers at the outset of their 100 Seasons celebration, all the pieces were in place for a strong, momentum-building takeoff.

Sunday night’s nationally televised game pits the Packers against the Chicago Bears, the oldest rivalry in pro football but one that has taken a lopsided turn over the past few decades. Of their 50 games played since 1993 – the year the Packers acquired Reggie White, and Brett Favre’s first year as the opening-day starter – the Packers have won 37.

Chicago is a better team than the one that opened the season against the Packers three years ago, but they’re still young and unproven. A quarterback matchup of Aaron Rodgers vs. Mitch Trubisky heavily favors the Packers, and the expected win over the Bears was to set the table for Minnesota’s Week 2 arrival at Lambeau Field.

Then things got really interesting with the trade of Oakland’s Khalil Mack, one of the best edge defenders in the game over the past four seasons. A three-time pick for the Pro Bowl and the only player to make first team All-Pro as a defensive end and a linebacker, Mack – the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year – was viewed by many Packers fans as the single missing element to a Super Bowl run.

Only, it was the Bears, and not the Packers, who landed him. Chicago traded away a couple of No. 1 draft picks and opened their checkbook to the tune of $141 million for six years. A Bears defense – which last year ranked in the top 10 in fewest points and yards allowed – got a huge, albeit cap-smothering, upgrade.

Spending a king’s ransom on a great edge rusher is justified today because as the NFL evolved to become a pass-heavy league, the second-most important position in the game became the edge rusher.

It’s easy to imagine the improvement brought to a defense by a guy like Mack, who has 40½ sacks and nine forced fumbles over his four-year career. To put a finer point on his impact, the Bears went from a 100-1 long shot to win the Super Bowl all the way down to 40-1 after the trade.

Closer to home, the Packers were installed as an 8½-point favorite over the Bears, a line that has since dropped to 7½ after the Mack trade.

There is good reason for the Packers to feel unsettled and unsure of what lies ahead, but that reason is called Opening Day. No one knows what to expect at the start of a new season, and everyone gets butterflies. Beyond that, any excess hand-wringing over Chicago may be a waste of energy.

Apart from their 4-0 sweep of the AFC North last year, the Bears went 1-11 against the rest of the league. Their Week 10 loss to the Packers was the only non-overtime win for quarterback Brett Hundley. The Bears are improved, but until otherwise demonstrated they are still the team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2012.

The Packers, whose coaching staff did a commendable job of keeping key players out of most preseason action, were coming into the fray as one of a handful of favorites in the league. That hasn’t changed.

In a perfect world, the Packers have Khalil Mack and four or five other All-Pros like him on defense. In this world, they will have to make do with the league’s best quarterback in his prime, an improved defensive front seven and a promising corps of wide receivers. Locking in Rodgers for the remainder of his career was a win for the Packers’ front office.

The Mack-and-Cheese matchup adds a savory ingredient to an already big deal. Packers, Bears and Opening Day says it all. After the Packers’ lost season of ’17, and with nearly all hands on deck today, the wait is over and it’s finally on.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@newmedia-wi.com.