CHICAGO — Devin Hester turned up the right sideline, hurdled a lunging defender and jumped into the first row of fans after his 62-yard punt return for a touchdown.
With each stride, it sure felt more and more like 2006 again.
Hester was up to his old tricks with his first touchdown return in three years, and the Chicago Bears were back to looking like contenders with a 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Monday night.
“We know it’s a long season,” Hester said. “We know what can happen. We can go out and lose four or five games straight. We can’t really dwell on this win.”
The Bears had insisted all along they were good enough to contend after three straight playoff misses. If they were looking for confirmation, the last two weeks should help.
Never mind that narrow season-opening win over Detroit, when the Lions’ go-ahead touchdown was erased by a rule call in the end zone.
A week later, the Bears beat Dallas on the road.
They stopped the high-powered Packers, a popular pick to win the NFC. Now, the Bears are 3-0 for the first time since the 2006 Super Bowl team won its first seven, and they are the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFC thanks to a defense led by Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher and an offense that’s adjusting to Mike Martz’s system even if it was a bit out of sync Monday.
“We didn’t play our best game and we won,” said Cutler, who threw for 221 yards and a touchdown. “That’s got to be a good sign. Offensively, we’ve got to get a lot better. I need to get a lot better. Our defense did a good job keeping us in it.”
There were times when Cutler threw to one spot and the receivers went to another. On the ground, Chicago managed just 77 yards, although the Bears averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
That the Packers wound up with a team-record 18 penalties for 152 yards certainly helped the Bears, but they also helped themselves with enough big plays to come away with what could be a defining win.
Urlacher forced a fumble by James Jones in the closing minutes and Robbie Gould booted the winning 19-yard field goal with 4 seconds left after Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett was called for pass interference on Earl Bennett.
Late in the third quarter, with the Packers leading by three, Peppers blocked Mason Crosby’s 37-yard field-goal attempt.
And in the fourth, Hester’s TD return arguably bailed out coach Lovie Smith after he again decided to go for the touchdown rather than an easy field goal on fourth down at the goal line.
That happened after the Bears drove from their 28 to the 1 following Peppers’ block. Desmond Clark dropped a pass in the end zone, and Chicago came away empty-handed again, just as it did in a similar spot against Detroit two weeks earlier.
In both cases, the Bears won and Smith held his ground.
His rationale is that the Bears created a short field and put pressure on the opponent by going for the touchdown rather than a chip-shot field goal, never mind that they were trailing in both cases.
This time, the Packers were forced to punt on the next possession, and in a flash, Hester gave the Bears a short-lived 14-10 lead early in the fourth.
“Basically what they were doing is they really stayed on their man and when the guys are on their man it gives me an opportunity to feel where the rest of the guys are,” Hester said. “I saw a couple holes. Those guys opened up a lot of holes on that play. There was like two or three holes I could have hit. I just chose one and was free into the end zone.”
It was the 12th time he had returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown, tying him for second on the NFL’s career list, but he hadn’t broken one since the final game of the 2007 season. For more than two years, the once dominant return specialist had looked nothing more than ordinary after the Bears expanded his role on offense.
He lost his kickoff return duties. On punts, he wasn’t breaking free, either.
“We like Devin Hester as our punt return all along,” Smith said. “We haven’t been pleased with the production we’ve gotten from there, but you have to stay patient with him sometimes. If you talk to most opponents, they’ll still tell you they are scared when Devin goes back there. You just have to stay with him. The guys did a good job blocking for him, but again, he’s back and we like seeing him back there.”