The NFL has its share of great rivalries throughout the league. Cowboys vs. Redskins. Bears vs. Packers. Browns vs. Steelers. Even recent feuds such as Ravens vs. Steelers and 49ers vs. Seahawks are starting to write their own chapters, in rivalry lore.
Perhaps the most overlooked rivalry in the NFL is one of the oldest rivalries in the history of the league. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions have been battling each other since 1930, yet very few talk about the great rivalry it really is. Granted, it is somewhat one-sided, as the Bears hold a decided 96-65-5 advantage over the Lions. In recent times, the Bears have increased their dominance over Detroit, winning 9 out of the last 10 contests.
The two cities are no strangers to sports rivalries. The Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls had one of the most heated rivalries in NBA history during the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. Who can ever forget the Bad Boys from Detroit going up against the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan and Da Bulls.
In hockey, the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks have been going at it since the Original Six days, which included five straight bitter playoff meetings in the 1960s, and has most recent as the 2013 playoffs in which the Blackhawks overcame a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Red Wings in overtime in Game 7.
Even baseball has a history between the Windy City and the Motor City. The Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs met in back-to-back World Series in 1907 and 1908. Of course the Cubs won in 1908 and haven’t won a World Series since. In fact the last time the Cubs appeared in the World Series was 1945, in which they lost in 6 games to the Detroit Tigers. Today, the Tigers are in the same division as the Chicago White Sox, and there has been some bad blood between the two. But it is football that remains the heart and soul of the two blue-collar cities and games between the Bears and Lions are highly anticipated affairs in each city.
As mentioned earlier, the first encounter between the two franchises took place on October 22, 1930 at Universal Stadium in Portsmouth Ohio, as the Bears faced the Portsmouth Spartans. In a low scoring affair that was common in those days, the Spartans emerged with a 7-6 victory. When the Spartans franchise moved to Detroit in 1934 and renamed themselves the Lions, a rivalry was born.
The Bears dominated the 1940s, winning 4 NFL Championships. That dominance carried over in their rivalry with the Lions, as Chicago went 15-4-1 against the Lions during that decade. The Bears were led by the likes of Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner, George McAfee and legendary head coach George “Papa Bear” Halas during that span.
The Lions best decade in franchise history was the 1950s, in which they won 3 NFL Championships. However, the Lions continued to struggle against Chicago, going 7-13 against the Bears during their glory years. Despite the fact the Lions had Hall of Fame players such as Bobby Layne, Doak Walker and Joe Schmidt on their roster, they couldn’t figure out the puzzle that was the Chicago Bears.
Both franchises struggled in the 1960s. The Bears did win the NFL Championship in 1963, but the rest of the decade was filled with mediocrity from both teams. However, their identities were forged during that time as both teams, along with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings were known for their tough and aggressive defenses. Thus the Central Division was known as the Black And Blue Division, as games were usually low scoring nasty affairs, befitting of the blue-collar attitude in the Midwest. The rivalry was tight and even throughout the decade, with the Bears holding a slight 10-9-1 record. Defense was king and both teams had violent defenders willing to do anything to win. The Bears featured renowned middle linebacker Dick Butkus, defensive end Doug Atkins and safety Rosey Taylor. The Lions countered with feared defensive back, Dick “Night Train” Lane, safety Dick LeBeau and defensive end Alex Karras.
The 1970s saw both teams go through some hard times. The Bears made just 2 appearances in the playoffs during the disco decade, while the Lions managed just a single appearance in the postseason. The Lions did fare well against Chicago in the 70s, going 12-8 against the Bears in that time frame. The most memorable game was on October 5, 1970, as the Lions and Bears met in the inaugural season of Monday Night Football. With Tiger Stadium filled to capacity, the Lions emerged with a 28-14 victory over their hated rivals. The two biggest stars for the Lions that decade were cornerback Lem Barney and tight end Charlie Sanders, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. The Bears were fortunate to draft running back Walter Payton in 1975. Payton turned out to be one of the best running backs in NFL history.
I was introduced to the rivalry in the 1980s, as my Detroit Lions fandom began in 1981. Suffice to say, I suffered the consequences. It was during that time that the Bears became my most hated team as they continually pounded the Lions throughout the 80s. The Bears owned the Lions, going 13-6 during the decade of Reaganomics and Glasnost.
Two games stand out during this time. On Thanksgiving in 1980, the Bears travelled to the Silverdome, to face the Lions. After four quarters, nothing was settled and the game headed into overtime. The Bears won the coin toss and would get the ball first. The offense didn’t need to step on the field. Dave Williams returned the overtime kickoff 95 yards for the game winning touchdown before a stunned crowd in Pontiac. It was the first time in NFL history that a kickoff was returned for a touchdown in overtime. The Bears won the game 23-17.
The 1985 season was completely dominated by the Chicago Bears. Many regard this version of the Monsters of the Midway as one of the greatest teams of all time. The final game of the 1985 season showed the Bears at their terrifying best as they walloped the Lions 37-17. The game is noted for two events. One is Wilber Marshall’s devastating hit on Lions quarterback Joe Ferguson. By today’s standards, that hit would probably get Marshall fined and suspended. Back then however, it was considered a good football hit. At the end of the game, the Bears were celebrating their 15-1 regular season by dancing right on the Lions logo at the 50 yard line. The Lions couldn’t do anything about it as Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, and the rest of the Bears were happily doing their Super Bowl Shuffle, while the Lions just sat back and stared despondently. It was then my hatred for the Bears began.
The 1990s saw a reversal of fortunes for both teams, and the emergence of a new superstar. Barry Sanders. No Detroit Lion player enjoyed greater success against the Bears than the elusive running back. Sanders was a Bear killer throughout his career and the Lions were the beneficiaries during the 90s, going 12-8 against the Bears during the grunge decade. A pair of Lion wins against the Bears stand out. Both happened on Thanksgiving. One week before the Bears game, the Lions lost right guard Mike Utley with a career ending neck injury that left him paralyzed. While being stretchered off the field, Utley flashed a thumbs up sign to his teammates. That became a rallying cry for the Lions. The next game against the Bears was dedicated to Utley by his Lion teammates. The Lions came through, with a 16-6 victory thanks to 4 interceptions from the secondary.
In 1997, the Lions were challenging for a playoff berth when the Bears came to town. After spotting the Bears a 17-3 lead, Barry Sanders took over. Sanders carried the ball 19 times for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Lions romped to a 55-20 rout of the Bears. Sanders had TD runs of 15, 25 and 40 yards as he completely stole the show. Bear defenders were left gasping for air, wondering how in the world could they stop him. The reality was, there was no stopping Barry Sanders, until he abruptly retired in 1999.
The new millennium saw another changing of the guard. The Bears regained their superiority over the Lions, going 13-7 from 2000 to 2009. The tone of the series changed on December 24, 2000. The Lions needed a win to secure a playoff spot, while the Bears were playing the role of spoilers. With starting quarterback Charlie Batch going down to injury in the first half, the Lions had to rely on Stoney Case to guide them to the promised land. However, it was Bears kicker Paul Edinger who shattered the Lions hopes. On the final play of the game, the side-winding kicker booted a 54 yard field goal, to give the Bears a 23-20 victory, which eliminated the Lions from the playoffs. That loss set a chain reaction the reverberated throughout the Lions organization. Head coach Bobby Ross was fired and general manager Chuck Schmidt was put on notice. The Lions hired Matt Millen was hired as president and CEO of the Lions and things went to hell. The Lions were awful and the Bears laughed at their misery.
Another memorable game took place on November 24, 2002. With Soldier Field under renovations, the Bears were playing their home games 135 miles south of Windy City in Champaign, on the campus of the University of Illinois. The game went into overtime and the Lions won the coin toss. However, Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg elected to take the wind at his back, instead of the ball. While it was a windy day, there is no way you should turn down receiving the ball in overtime, after winning the coin toss. The Lions would pay for Mornhinweg’s stupidity, as the Bears drove down the field, and won the game 20-17, on a 40 yard field goal from Paul Edinger.
While the Lions wallowed in misery, the Bears had some success, led by an excellent defense. With the likes of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman staring down opposing quarterbacks, the Bears reached the Super Bowl in the 2006 season while sprinkling in playoff appearances in 2001, 2005 and 2010.
So far this season, the Bears are off to a terrific 3-0 start, thanks to some clutch quarterback play from Jay Cutler, and an opportunistic defense that has forced 11 turnovers. The Lions are 2-1 and are looking to regain their 2011 form, in which they made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. With Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson, the Lions are a threat every time they touch the ball.
These two longtime rivals get reacquainted this Sunday in what will be another chapter in a rivalry that should be talked about more.
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