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'It's going to be electric' at Lambeau for primetime Packers-Bears

A recent historical review of new Chicago coaches’ first trips to Green Bay, and Packers’ home openers in general

Lambeau Field
Lambeau Field

GREEN BAY – Three years ago, when Matt LaFleur coached in his first Packers-Bears game, there was a lot more in the air than just the rivalry.

It was LaFleur's first game, period, as a head coach, and the first game of the entire 2019 NFL season, televised nationally in prime time.

The fans at Soldier Field also broke into a full-throated nonstop cheer during the national anthem as Jim Cornelison – the regular anthem singer at Chicago Blackhawks hockey games, where the noisy tradition was established long ago – belted out "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"It was complete chaos in that stadium," LaFleur recalled. "Obviously opening the NFL season on that Thursday night game, then the national anthem. I'll never forget that."

It won't be quite the same spectacle Sunday night at Lambeau Field when new Chicago head coach Matt Eberflus coaches in his first Packers-Bears game, but it'll still be pretty intense nonetheless.

As the Packers' home opener, it marks the 17th consecutive year the NFL's oldest rivals will play in prime time, so the whole country has seen this rivalry up close for a long time now.

Strangely, in a series dominated by Green Bay over the past few decades, recent history actually resides on Eberflus' side in his first Packers-Bears game at Lambeau Field.

Four of the last five Chicago head coaches have won their first Lambeau game in this rivalry, and it would be five straight if not for the Packers' comeback from a 20-point deficit in the 2018 opener – Matt Nagy's first game – when quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned from a knee injury to rally Green Bay to an improbable 24-23 victory.

As in that game, the previous rivalry debuts at Lambeau by Chicago head coaches all featured something rather out of the ordinary occurring.

To wit:

In 1999 (Dick Jauron), six days after Walter Payton's death, Bryan Robinson's "hand of Walter" blocked Ryan Longwell's chip-shot field goal on the game's final play to preserve a 14-13 Chicago win.

In 2004 (Lovie Smith), Mike Brown scooped up an Ahman Green fumble late in the first half and ran it back 95 yards for a score – the second-longest fumble return ever against the Packers – to completely turn around a game the Bears eventually won, 21-10.

In 2013 (Marc Trestman), Shea McClellin's first-quarter sack of Rodgers broke the quarterback's collarbone and the Bears triumphed, 27-20.

In 2015 (John Fox), a steady Thanksgiving night rain dampened the celebration of Brett Favre's retired No. 4 being unveiled on the stadium façade, but the Packers looked poised to win with a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line and 51 seconds left, only to throw four straight incompletions. Final: 17-13 Chicago.

Even stranger in this context, Jauron won just two Packers-Bears games in his coaching tenure, and one was the aforementioned Lambeau rivalry debut. For Trestman and Fox, the only Packers-Bears games they won are the instances listed above.

It's hard to know what to make of all that as the Eberflus era begins, but at least the Packers altered the rivalry pattern in 2018 against Nagy even though at first, with Rodgers' knee injury, the game appeared headed the wrong way.

A strong historical trend working in Green Bay's favor, though, is the Packers' success in home openers.

Regardless of opponent, Green Bay has won nine straight home openers and 14 of the last 15, with the only loss in that span coming to San Francisco in 2012. Seven of those 14 victories have come against NFC North opponents, including the last four in a row (2018-21).

Even for veteran players, to whom new seasons are old hat, there's still something special about walking out of the Lambeau Field tunnel for the first time in a given year.

"Oh yeah, it's going to be electric," said Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kenny Clark, now in his seventh season. "I love this game, I love everything it brings to me. I take nothing for granted. Anytime I get a chance to run out of that tunnel, especially a division rival, the Bears, and it's the first home game of the season, it's a dream."

There may not be tens of thousands hollering at the top of their lungs for the entire 90 seconds of the national anthem, but a Sunday night Packers-Bears home opener will carry an atmosphere all its own.

"You're just juiced up, man," Clark said. "There's nothing like that first game … nothing like it."

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