MINNEAPOLIS -- Here are five things we learned following the Bears’ 40-14 division-clinching victory over Minnesota.
1. This division title means everything to some veterans: After missing the playoffs the last three years, it felt like the window had closed on the Bears’ group that won back-to-back division titles and made the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. But for core veterans Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Olin Kreutz, Charles Tillman and Roberto Garza, the 2010 NFC North title proves the group still has something left in the tank. Lovie Smith is only 2-2 lifetime in the postseason, so clearly, there is more to be accomplished, but few thought the Bears -- under Smith -- would ever make it back to playoffs after that disastrous season-ending loss in Houston back in 2008. It's still premature to talk about a contract extension for the head coach, but three division crowns in seven years isn't too shabby. If Jay Cutler can continue to perform at a high level, the Bears have a serious chance to win a few games in the playoffs, especially since their first game is guaranteed to be at Soldier Field.
2. The defense responded in grand fashion: Humiliated by New England the previous week, the Bears defense dominated the Vikings, intercepting three passes and recovering a pair of fumbles. It was an especially big game by the defensive line, led as usual by Julius Peppers, who picked off his second pass of the season and almost had a third. The defense dished out several big hits, but none bigger than Chris Harris laying out a Vikings ball carrier near the line of scrimmage. Probably the only complaint is the defense started slow for the third consecutive week, but after allowing Minnesota to march down the field and score on the opening drive, the defense was stout for the remainder of the game.
3. Certain kickers never learn: Besides voicing concerns over the TCF Bank Stadium playing surface, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe spent the whole week saying he wouldn't be kicking to Devin Hester. Kluwe then spent the entire first half kicking away from Hester. But what does Kluwe do in the third quarter? He kicks to Hester, who promptly returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown to set the all-time return record. What was Kluwe thinking? In a week where Giants punter Matt Dodge made the mistake of kicking to DeSean Jackson, Kluwe's gaffe, though not as costly, was nearly as foolish. Hester almost had three touchdowns on the night, and came up with his best game of the season when it mattered most. The Bears should have a clear edge in field position during the playoffs because of Hester and Danieal Manning, and that could be a key advantage when facing talented teams in January.
4. Seldom used players found a way to emerge: Anybody have Corey Wootton in the pool of players most likely to knock Brett Favre out of the game, or possibly into retirement? Active for just the fourth time this season, Wootton effectively erased any chance of a Vikings’ upset by sacking Favre, slamming the veteran quarterback to the turf early in the second quarter. Favre didn’t return, and Minnesota failed to provide any legitimate resistance with rookie backup Joe Webb under center. On offense, Rashied Davis basically put the final nail in the Vikings’ coffin with a 9-yard touchdown reception near the end of the third quarter, only his second catch of the year. It's worth mentioning Davis also made a big play the last time the Bears won in Minneapolis, the 2006 thriller where Davis hauled in the game winner from former starter Rex Grossman. Kudos also go out to Henry Melton and Nick Roach for forcing turnovers as the Bears defense dominated after a shaky opening drive.
5. Bears still have plenty to play for: A division title is a huge accomplishment, but the Bears need to ensure a first-round bye in the playoffs by finishing strong in their final two contests versus New York and Green Bay. The Bears currently own the tie-breaker over Philadelphia for the second seed in the NFC, but the red hot Eagles wrap up their 2010 campaign with winnable games against Minnesota and Dallas. On the other hand, the Bears will probably get the best from the Jets and Packers, since both teams are fighting for wildcard berths in their respective conferences. Now is not the time to shut it down until the postseason.