Bears claim NFC North title; Hester is best ever

Bears claim NFC North title; Hester is best ever
December 21, 2010, 4:40 am
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Monday, Dec. 20, 2010
Posted 10:47 PM Updated 12:53 AM
By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

MINNEAPOLIS The pregame and first several minutes of Monday nights game belonged to Brett Favre. The rest of the game belonged to Jay Cutler, Devin Hester and the now-NFC North division champion Bears.

The Bears shook off a 60-yard Minnesota drive on the games opening possession to score 17 unanswered first-half points and 10 more in the opening minutes of the third quarter to bury the Vikings 40-14 and assure themselves a first trip to the playoffs in the four seasons since their Super Bowl run in 2006.

The victory, coupled with Green Bays loss at New England Sunday, gave the Bears (10-4) their first division championship since their Super Bowl season of 2006. It was the Bears highest point total since they put up 48 against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 4, 2009 and made the Bears the first team in 2010 to clinch a division championship.

It feels good to win it, said defensive end Julius Peppers, who intercepted his second pass of the season, deflected two others and added five tackles. But that is just one of our goals. There are other things that we want to accomplish. We are going to celebrate but at the same time we have to stay focused on the main prize.

Indeed, it was a relatively subdued locker room in the aftermath of a convincing blowout of a division rival. But as someone in here said, center Olin Kreutz said, this is when the real work begins.

Work underway

Cutler threw touchdown passes to Johnny Knox and Hester in the first half and another to Rashied Davis in the third quarter. In a game played in severe weather conditions and which placed a premium on avoiding turnovers, Cutler completed 14 of 24 passes, was sacked once, threw one interception and posted a passer rating of 106.6.

Cutlers teams are now 20-0 in his career when he registers a rating of 100 or more.

Hester broke returns totaling 143 yards in the third quarter as the Bears put the game and the division title comfortably away. Hester returned the second-half kickoff 79 yards to set up a field goal, then broke a punt return 64 yards to set the NFL record for return touchdowns.

Weve been getting closer and closer every week, said Hester, and for it to come down to clinching a division championship, that just makes it all the better.

Favre, a surprise starter after being listed as out last week, lasted until he suffered a concussion and shoulder injury on the first career sack of rookie Corey Wootton midway through the second quarter. It may well have been the final play of Favres long and distinguished career.
Star power

But the players of the night were Hester and Cutler, who was largely unaffected by conditions that began as snow and degenerated into freezing rain with a minus-2 wind chill sweeping across the artificial turf of TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. It wasnt enough to discourage a hearty crowd of 40,504 but it appeared to be more than the Vikings cared to deal with on top of the Bears.

Cutler threw for the two scores and a passer rating of 103.3 through the first two quarters. He suffered a cut chin when he was struck by the helmet of blitzing cornerback Antoine Winfield and had a third touchdown pass in the closing minutes of the first half called back due to offsetting penalties. In one of his few blunders on the night he then badly underthrew Knox to squander the scoring opportunity but the Bears had effectively taken control of the game.

Cutler added a third TD pass late in the third quarter when he found wideout Rashied Davis matched against middle linebacker E.J. Henderson for a 20-yard touchdown that bumped the Bears lead to 34-14.

The Bears put up 207 yards in the first half and sacked Minnesota quarterbacks three times. After the Vikings 60-yard drive to open the game, the Bears limited Minnesota to 80 net yards for the rest of the half.

The defense had five takeaways, on interceptions by Peppers, Chris Harris and Charles Tillman, and two fumbles recovered.

Hester half

The Bears nearly matched that on the opening kickoff after halftime when Hester dashed 79 yards to the Minnesota 6, not quite enough to get him the NFL record for return touchdowns but enough to position the Bears for a 23-yard Robbie Gould field goal.

Hester then secured the record with his 14th scoring runback when he sprinted through coverage almost untouched and cruised for the score.

He is at the point now, said coach Lovie Smith, where every time they kick him the ball, you think he can score.

Stumbling start
Initially it was the Vikings coming out and playing like a team with something to play for. Favre directed a six-play drive that covered 60 yards, the last 23 on a swing pass to wide receiver Percy Harvin who breezed through poor tackling in the Chicago secondary for a 7-0 lead.

We settled down after that, Smith said.

The Bears had a chance to deliver a decisive response when defensive tackle Henry Melton pressured Favre and tipped a pass that Peppers intercepted to give the ball to the Bears at the Minnesota 14.

That turnover produced three points but also some concern as the Vikings held the Bears to 3 yards in three plays to force a 29-yard field goal by Gould.

The offense made its' own opportunity a series later when Cutler spotted a crease in coverage and threw to Knox for the 67-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead for the first quarter.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.