Bears claim NFC North title; Hester is best ever

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Bears claim NFC North title; Hester is best ever

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.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."

Did Brandon Marshall disrespect Jay Cutler with Hall of Fame shade?

Did Brandon Marshall disrespect Jay Cutler with Hall of Fame shade?

Brandon Marshall is no stranger to keeping it real.

The outspoken All-Pro receiver never minces his words and that continued over the weekend when he showed off his signed jersey collection.

Marshall took to Instagram and showed off "Santa" hanging all of the jerseys he's swapped with other NFL players:

Santa doing work.. . #jerseychallenge

A post shared by Brandon Marshall (@bmarshall) on

The list includes a host of current and future Hall of Fame players: Champ Bailey, Cris Carter, John Lynch, Darrelle Revis, Lance Briggs, Adam Vinatieri, Adrian Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Joe Thomas.

When almost all the framed jerseys were hung, Marshall took his followers through:

@nfl #jerseychallenge

A post shared by Brandon Marshall (@bmarshall) on

Marshall compliments each player before, calling them "Hall of Famers" before getting to Jay Cutler at the end and going "Hall of..." multiple times.

Was that Marshall throwing shade at his former quarterback in both Denver and Chicago? If it was an innocent mistake or whatever, there's no way Marshall would've posted the Instagram video, right?

Marshall and Cutler were good friends from the beginning of their careers with the Broncos. So much so that the Bears traded a pair of third round draft picks in March 2012 to allow the two to continue their bromance by the lake:

But Marshall and Cutler have had a contentious relationship since.

Last summer, Marshall responded to a Tweet saying "of course" he misses Cutler. Last August, Marshall hopped on ESPN's First Take and said he thought Cutler could win the MVP Award in the 2016 NFL season.

At the same time, Marshall talked about his relationship with Cutler and said he was the only person on the Bears with the "huevos" to hold the enigmatic quarterback accountable. Marshall also said he was "sad" he didn't talk to Cutler much in the year leading up to August 2016.