Between the long touchdown catch and an even bigger kickoff return, this was shaping up as a special night for Devin Hester.
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Then, a chest injury cast a big cloud over it.
Hester set the tone with a 48-yard touchdown catch and scored on a career-best 98-yard kickoff return before leaving with a chest injury, and the Chicago Bears routed the Minnesota Vikings 39-10 on Sunday night.
Jay Cutler threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Julius Peppers had two sacks, and the Bears (3-3) held Vikings star Adrian Peterson to 39 yards rushing.
But Hester’s injury dampened the mood on a night when they got a much-needed win.
Coach Lovie Smith didn’t think the injuries to Hester and tight end Kellen Davis (elbow) were serious, but he’s made similar statements in the past about players who wound up missing big chunks of time. Hester did not make himself available for comment.
His 48-yard TD pass from Cutler on Chicago’s first possession got the Bears started quickly as they grabbed a 26-3 halftime lead. Hester’s kickoff return early in the third quarter erased any chance the Vikings (1-5) had at a comeback.
”You feel you’re getting ready to come back, and that kickoff return really changed the momentum,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
It’s no secret that teams are inviting danger by kicking to Hester, and Minnesota paid a big price right after Peterson scored on a 4-yard run.
Hester took the kickoff, turned to his right and was touched maybe once on the way to the end zone, making it 33-10. It was his first kickoff return for a touchdown since Nov. 25, 2007, against Denver.
”The shocking part to us is that people still kick to him because he is such a threat,” Cutler said.
Or, as Smith put it: ”We’re all kind of witnessing history every time he touches it.”
Hester set a record with his 11th punt return for a touchdown against Carolina on Oct. 2, but the good feelings gave way to concern when the announcement came early in the fourth quarter that he was finished for the game.
Along with the big return, Hester had five catches for 91 yards.
Cutler, meanwhile, had all the time he needed and – for one game, anyway – avoided a big beating. Never mind that league sacks leader Jared Allen was lining up for the Vikings, the Bears’ maligned blockers held their ground.
That allowed Cutler to complete 21 of 31 passes while being sacked just once.
The defense did its job, too.
A surprise starter sitting out practice this week with a sprained left knee, Peppers got his two sacks and the Bears made things miserable in general for the Vikings.
Donovan McNabb threw for 177 yards and completed 19 of 24 passes before being lifted for Christian Ponder, but it was a brutal night for Peterson aside from that scoring run.
He simply couldn’t get anything against a defense that had been giving up plays at an alarming rate, but the Bears can breathe a little easier after dropping three of four.
They still trail unbeaten Green Bay by three games and Detroit by two with losses to both teams, but they have to feel a little better about themselves as they get ready to play Tampa Bay in London next week.
They looked particularly good in the early going, piling on 151 yards to the Vikings’ 43 while building a 16-3 lead in the first quarter.
Hester’s TD catch over the middle on Chicago’s first possession set the tone, and the Bears simply piled on from there.
Two plays after Adam Podlesh pinned the Vikings on their 5 with a punt, rookie Stephen Paea broke through the line for his first sack and the Bears’ first safety since Danieal Manning got one on Aaron Rodgers at Green Bay in September 2009.
Chicago immediately drove 56 yards with Marion Barber running it in from the 3 to make it 16-0 with 3:39 left in the opening quarter. For the record, he didn’t attempt a flip after a failed attempt against Carolina two weeks earlier when he landed on his face.
Then again, there were no missteps by the Bears early on.
A defense that came in ranked 29th overall and 28th against the run was all over the Vikings. The offensive line was doing its job, too. And the Bears were playing like a team that wasn’t ready to fall into a last-place tie with Minnesota.