Packers open 100th season against long-time division rival Bears

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV/NBC Sports/AP) -- The Green Bay Packers open their 100th season against long-time division rival, The Chicago Bears, on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

"One thing about the NFL, there's familiarity with the teams, with the uniforms, with the stadiums. There's nothing more familiar in football than the Bears and the Packers. This is the most-played rivalry in the history of the National Football League,” NBC Sports Anchor Mike Tirico said. “Next year, the NFL will celebrate 100 years. The Green Bay Packers pre-date the league, so they start their celebration of year 100 [on Sunday, Sept. 9]. And, on top of that, you have Aaron Rodgers who is as exciting an individual player as the league has.“

NBC’s Sunday Night Football coverage begins at 6 p.m. with its pre-game show, Football Night in America. The game kicks off at 7:20 p.m.

The game also has two ties to the Madison-area: Two F-16s from the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard will perform a flyover prior to the game. During halftime, the High School Quarterback Challenge competition will feature players from Madison East High School and Aquinas High School in La Crosse.

A blockbuster deal brought a new wrinkle to the NFL's oldest rivalry. The Chicago Bears visit to Lambeau Field will likely be star pass-rusher Khalil Mack's debut. Mack is second in the NFL with 36 1/2 sacks since 2015.

The Packers are debuting their own high-profile offseason addition in Jimmy Graham. The tight end standing at 6 feet and 7 inches should be an enticing target in the red zone for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can finally take the wraps off the Packers' revamped scheme against the Bears.

“Now the Bears with all their excitement in a second year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. A lot of good players they've acquired, and then drop in a former defensive player of the year in Khalil Mack, in the prime of his career, a great pass rusher who's going to try to get to Aaron Rodgers if he plays. A great story for the opening weekend, now has been racheted up. It'll be a terrific way to start the must-watch TV that is Sunday Night Football," Tirico said.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy and starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers also know the importance of the game.

"This particular opener is an all-in-one for sure. I mean, it's the 100th season anniversary, We're playing our division rival—[it’s our] 197th opportunity to compete against the Bears,” McCarthy said. “It's your home opener, and just the focus for 2018-- it's a division game. It's our first division game, and we clearly understand the importance-- you have to win those division games."

"I think it's great for our fans. We've played [the Bears] 196 times, so the rivalry's been around for a while. We're up too, actually, Sunday Night Football, 100th year, 100th season of Green Bay Packer football, we might as well play our oldest rival,” Rodgers said.

After enduring their share of bumps and bruises, the Packers had 52 members of their 53-man roster on the practice field Thursday. McCarthy said then that his team has been “blessed” with the limited injury report.

"Stay healthy and you win the games you're supposed to win. We have a tough schedule, especially tough in the middle with some of the road trips we have to take, so we have to be playing the right way at the right time. This will be a work in progress, but we got to find a way to win our home games and win some tough ones on the road,” Rodgers said.

This weekend is the Packers’ traditional alumni weekend celebration, with more than 50 alumni returning to Lambeau Field to celebrate 100 Seasons of Packers football.

In advance of the game, NBC’s Peter King spoke with Rodgers about the impact Bart Starr has had on him personally.

“I’ve got to ask you about Bart Starr. He's 84. You're 34. What unites you?" King asked.

“Well, for me, it was just the sincere appreciation for him reaching out in 2008. You know, when the changeovers happened with Brett. Him and his wife Cherry started writing me letters,” Rodgers said.

“What were his letters saying?” King asked.

“Just super supportive and encouraging. And it meant the world to me because I knew I had the support of one of the greatest players of all time and definitely one of the greatest Packers of all time,” Rodgers said.

“Do you understand the impact you have on his life as well?” King asked.

“Well, it's about paying it back. It really is,” Rodgers said.

You can catch more of that interview with Rodgers right here on WMTV during NBC’s Sunday Night Football coverage.