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Ditka thinks his Bears are better now than Packers

CHICAGO -- Packers week always had a way of getting Mike Ditka riled up. Time hasn't changed that a bit.

It was Ditka who referred to the Bears' neighbors to the north as the "Red Bay Packers," because the Bears' coaches would get the red, um, rear end the week of the game.

"The coaching staff did get tight, believe me," he said.

Oh, we believe him.

I was standing close enough to Ditka to get hit with his spittle outside the locker room at Lambeau Field in September 1986 after a Bears victory that was more difficult than it should have been.

In the middle of his press briefing, he yelled at a heckling fan, "Aw, shut up!" He made a tossing motion and said, "Have a quarter, make a phone call!"

Two years earlier, Ditka blew up when Packers coach Forrest Gregg called a timeout late in the first half of an exhibition with the Packers up 11 points. The game was played at Milwaukee County Stadium, and the Packers and Bears were on the same sideline. Ditka cursed at Gregg, a former Packers adversary as a Hall of Fame offensive lineman. Gregg, a teammate of Ditka's on the 1971 Super Bowl Cowboys, cursed back. They had to be separated.

In a 1988 game at Lambeau, Ditka and Packers linebacker Tim Harris had a long, heated shouting match on the field. Then, with a 24-6 lead and 56 seconds remaining, Ditka called for a bomb. He and Packers coach Lindy Infante did not shake hands afterward.

This week, Ditka was a no-show for a scheduled conference call with the national media arranged by ESPN.

He wasn't very tickled by his cell phone's vibrations when I called him Thursday either.

"What do you want to talk about?" he said, clearly annoyed. "I mean, there's nothing to talk about. It's the oldest rivalry in football. They both have good teams. There's not much else to say. Somebody is going to win, somebody is going to lose. Somebody is going to move on to the Super Bowl.

"It's a terrific opportunity for the Bears. Lovie (Smith) has done a great job, they are playing great football right now. I mean, I don't know what else to say. I've said this 100 times to 100 people. I think the team that protects the quarterback best will win the game. I think the team that is under pressure is going to get hurt. There's not much else I can say."

Beautiful. Vintage Coach.

Of course, we want to hear from Ditka because no one else who still breathes casts a larger shadow over the Bears-Packers rivalry than the 71-year-old legend. And of course, after settling down, he is happy to oblige.

During the second week of the season, Ditka picked the Packers to go to the Super Bowl. But he's not picking them anymore.

"Right now, I'm taking the Bears to win the game," he said of the NFC championship game to be played Sunday at Soldier Field. "I think the Bears are a lot better football team. I think they are doing things better in every area right now. The only thing they can't do is turn the football over. If they don't turn the football over, and protect the quarterback, they'll be fine."

Ditka said his earliest memories of the rivalry, from his playing days, were of mutual respect.

"Don't forget, when we played the Packers, it was against Coach (Vince) Lombardi," he said. "Coach (George) Halas had great respect for Coach Lombardi, great respect. Yeah, you want to win the game. But our rivalry wasn't built on hatred. It was built on respect. They had a great team, we had a pretty darned good team. We beat them out in '63. They beat us in '61 and '62."

Ditka takes exception to the notion that there is natural contempt between the teams.

"It was not based on hatred," he said. 'If people think that's what it's all about, I think they are crazy. Play the game, play it as hard as you can. People are going to live and die and the world is going to go on one way or another. That's just a fact of life."

Of course, the rivalry took a nasty turn in the mid-'80s.

"It only became that way one time, when Forrest Gregg coached, the only time," Ditka said. "It became dirty football. They tried to hurt (Matt) Suhey. They tried to hurt (Walter) Payton. They tried to hurt (Jim) McMahon. That was bull. It never happened with Bart Starr there or anybody else."

Later in his career, McMahon became a Packer. So did Steve McMichael. Those defections hit Bears fans hard. It's difficult ever to imagine Ditka going green and gold though. More than anyone, he was a Bear.

"I don't think I could have," he said. "But I don't think they wanted me in their facility either. It worked both ways."

Too bad Ditka is going to be in Bristol, Conn., for ESPN's pregame show Sunday. With the way he's riled up, he would be the perfect choice to give the Bears a pregame speech.

Maybe he would even break a hand.

(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.