Bears and Packers Met in NFL’s First-Ever Non-Championship Playoff Game Nearly 80 Years Ago
Beginning in 1933, the National Football League divided into two divisions. The winner of each division played for the NFL championship. Seven times in the first eight seasons of this format, the Western Division representative in the title game was Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers.
Since their first regular season meeting in 1921, the year the Packers joined the NFL and Chicago was still known as the Staleys, this rivalry has been super-charged. But, as the 1941 season inched closer there was about to be even more fuel added to the fire. The Bears were coming off an NFL Championship season capped by a dominating 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins in the 1940 title game. The Packers, on the other hand, were rebounding from a disappointing 6-4-1 on the heels of a league title in 1939.
The first meeting between the clubs in `41 took place on Sept. 28 in Green Bay. Chicago had won their last three games against Green Bay and sported an overall record of 22-18-4 against their rival. George Halas, the Bears’ Hall of Fame owner and coach, worried that his team would come out flat since this was Chicago’s season opener and Green Bay had already beaten the Detroit Lions 23-0 and Cleveland Rams 24-7, during the previous two weeks.
However, that wasn’t the case as the Bears jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on a Ken Kavanaugh touchdown reception from George McAfee who had taken a lateral from quarterback Sid Luckman. Bob Snyder’s extra point was blocked. Chicago built its lead before the Packers surged for 10 points in the final four minutes of the second quarter and cut the Chicago lead to 15-10 at halftime.
When play resumed, Green Bay took its first lead of the day on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Clarke Hinkle. Trailing 17-15, Chicago answered as McAfee turned the left corner and breezed into the end zone on a 13-yard TD run. Holding a 22-17 edge, the Bears defense dug in and kept the Packers away from the goal line. Finally, with three minutes to play Snyder atoned for the earlier missed extra point when he kicked his second field goal of the game and all but clinched the victory. Green Bay threatened once more as the clock ran down but was stopped at Chicago’s 7-yard-line when Bears’ Hall of Famer Dan Fortmann picked off a Cecil Isbell pass.
The second matchup of the season proved even more thrilling than the first. Played on Nov. 2, the undefeated Bears hosted the one-loss Packers, who had won four straight since falling to Chicago five weeks earlier. This was a “must win” game for the Packers if they had any hope of a Western Division crown.
The rivals played for the division lead before a record crowd of 46,484. The Packers unveiled a new defense to help keep the Bears scoreless for three quarters. Offensively, Green Bay nearly doubled Chicago’s total yardage 276-159, but only managed 16 points due in part to three missed field goals by Hinkle. Trailing 16-0 in the final period Chicago rallied back with two touchdowns and looked poised to win the game on a field goal attempt with five seconds remaining. However, the referee let the clock run out and did not grant the Bears a timeout. Rules at the time required that only team captains could signal for a timeout. The Bears’ captain George Musso did in fact call for the time out but Emil Heintz, the referee, ignored his request.
Musso explained after the game, “several of the Bears joined me in the group and insisted to Heintz (the referee) that I was the team’s captain, but he refused to stop the clock.” Despite the officiating crew getting an earful from Halas at game’s end, the Bears never got the chance to attempt what would have been a long 40-plus yard field goal to win the game.
The 16-14 loss snapped the Bears’ four-game winning streak over the Packers and forced both teams to win out to have a chance at a division title and an opportunity to play the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game.
On Dec. 1, 1941, six days before the Bears played their regular season finale against the cross-town rival Chicago Cardinals, the NFL held a special coin flip to determine the site of a playoff game that would be scheduled if the Bears beat the Cardinals forcing a tie with Green Bay atop the Western Division.
Attending the coin flip for the potential “rubber match” was NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden, Halas, and the Packers’ Curly Lambeau. Halas’ Bears won the toss to host the playoff game. The trio also came to agreement that a sudden-death format would be used for the playoff game in the event it ended in a regulation tie.
As it turned out, the Bears downed the Cardinals to force the playoff against the Packers. The teams were greeted by 16-degree temperatures in the matchup. The game didn’t start in an ideal fashion for the Bears when rookie halfback Hugh Gallarneau showed some nerves early and fumbled the opening kickoff of the game. This set up Green Bay’s first score, a 1-yard TD run by Hinkle. On the next kickoff Gallarneau fumbled once again, but this time he recovered the ball and was knocked out of bounds. After a few possessions by each team Green Bay set up for a punt. Gallarneau fielded the punt, secured the ball, and he was off to the races for an 81-yard touchdown to atone for his earlier gaffe. Snyder missed the extra point, so the first quarter ended with Chicago still trailing 7-6 but the momentum had shifted.
The Bears, ready to roll in the second period, took the lead 9-7 on a Snyder field goal on their way to a 24-point outburst that quarter. The rout was on and the Bears went into the half with a 30-7 lead. Chicago only added a field goal in the second half, but the “Monsters of the Midway” defense held and only allowed a meaningless third-quarter score by the Packers.
After a season-long battle, the Bears had triumphed with this 33-14 win over the Packers in the first-ever non-championship playoff game in NFL history. Chicago was crowned Western Division champions and then successfully defended its NFL title with a convincing 37-9 win over the New York Giants in the ’41 NFL Championship Game.
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