Regardless of records, time and place, and whatever else might be at stake concerning a Packers-Bears contest, you can always count on one thing: Each team is going to line up and play it's hardest until the clock expires.
That proved to be true once again on Christmas Day, when the storied franchises met for the 171st time in what serves as one of the best rivalries in all of professional sports. And like so many of the other games in the storied rivalry, the outcome was undecided until the final play.
Despite entering the game with a 3-11 overall record and playing a Christmas Day contest, the Packers had several reasons to be up for the game. In addition to the rivalry, and the excitement of playing in front of a national audience, the Packers also had a chance to prevent the Bears from clinching the NFC North title at Lambeau Field.
The Bears marched out quarterback Rex Grossman in his first start of the season, and he undoubtedly gave the team a lift on offense. The Packers took their opening possession down to Chicago's 32-yard line, but failed to move the chains on a 4th down completion to Donald Lee that went for no gain. Grossman took over and led his squad on a 68-yard drive that was capped by a Muhsin Muhammad 12-yard touchdown catch to give the Bears a 7-0 lead.
The Packers answered the Bears when running back Noah Herron scored his first NFL touchdown from a yard out. Initially, it appeared that the Green and Gold evened the score up just two plays earlier when another player notched his first NFL touchdown-right tackle Mark Tauscher.
However, Tauscher who was an eligible receiver on the play, had his touchdown and Lambeau Leap wiped out when Grey Ruegamer was charged for holding. Despite eventually tying the game at seven points, taking the crowd-pleasing play off the board served as another disappointment in what has been a difficult season.
The Bears gained much of the momentum in the second half and led the game 24-7, but the Packers refused to go easily. Antonio Chatman returned a punt 85 yards for the first special teams touchdown of his career, which brought the crowd to their feet and reenergized his teammates with 8:12 left in the game.
The Packers got the ball back at their own nine-yard line with 1:26 left in the game and needing a touchdown to force overtime. Donald Driver stepped up with a 56-yard reception bringing the ball down to the Bears 35-yard line. Yet, the Packers, who had to burn all of their timeouts on the Bears previous possession, failed to gain another yard and lost the game 24-17 in front of 69,757 fans.
Linebacker Nick Barnett admitted that close losses like this one have taken a toll on the Packers throughout the season.
"Who thinks losing feels good?" Barnett said rhetorically. "It affects your life. It affects your family, it affects everybody around you. It's disappointing, especially how many times we have lost this year."
Barnett acknowledged that seeing the Bears win the game as well as the division was disheartening.
"It's unbearable" Barnett explained. "They played good this year, but it's disappointing watching them celebrate on our field and being the NFC North champions. We've done that for three years straight, and anything less than that is a disappointment to us.
Defensive end Aaron Kampman, who finished with seven tackles, agreed with Barnett.
"It's a rough deal because we protected that thing (NFC North) for the last three years and now they flipped the script on us," Kampman explained. "We went down there (Chicago) last year and we continued to show our winning ways down there. So it was frustrating.
But I know the league is a fickle thing. There's a number of variables we'll look for next year, but hopefully we'll defend it better next year."
The Bears swept the season series with the Packers for the first time since 1991 and moved to 10-4 on the season. Chicago, which did it in 2001, is the last team since the Packers to win the division. Several players in the Packers locker room were ready to give credit to their bitter rivals.
"They're just the better team right now," Chatman said. "Their getting it done and we're not. It's plain and simple."
Despite losing several key players throughout the season, the Packers refused to turn to that factor as the main source of defeat, however.
"We're not trying to make excuses," Herron said. "I think we have a lot of capable people in here to fill the roles that are needed. Hats off to them (the Bears). Their offense and defense complement each other very well."
Still, the Packers played both games against the Bears with a strong effort and if you took a quick glance at the box score on Sunday, you may even think the Packers should have won. After all, they outgained the Bears 365 to 292 yards and also had the edge in time of possession.
But Head Coach Mike Sherman said that the reason the Packers fell short was a simple one.
"It's obvious that we didn't score enough points," Sherman said. "All of that yardage and whatnot is irrelevant when you don't score points."
Sherman added that he wasn't pleased with the results, but he couldn't fault his team's effort.
"I'm proud of how they played," Sherman said. "I'm disappointed that we lost the game. It was a great crowd out there and the fans were into it all the way. I'm disappointed we weren't able to win at home."
Barnett said that the Packers have played with passion all season and have never lost their will to win.
"We stayed positive and tried to get better this year," Barnett said. "We've still got one game to try to keep our heads up high against a very good NFC team."
Of course, that team is the Seattle Seahawks and they will invade Lambeau Field on New Year's Day for the final game of the Packers season. Judging on the effort demonstrated throughout the season, the Seahawks-just like the Bears learned on Sunday-will be in for a battle, regardless of what is at stake.