CHICAGO -- Several times in the past few weeks, Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith talked about the importance of picking things up in the return game.
It finally happened.
With the score tied 10-10, Hester gave the Bears great field position on a 73-yard kickoff return, handin the offense the ball on the Panthers 36-yard line. After Jay Cutler hit Roy Williams on a 15-yard completion, Matt Forte scored on a 17-yard rushing touchdown.
The next time Hester touched the ball, he ran back a punt 69 yards for a touchdown. For Hester, it marked his 11th career punt-return touchdown, a new NFL record.
Carolina tied the game at 10-10 when quarterback Cam Newton ran the ball around the right end for a 1-yard touchdown. The score was set up thanks to another breakdown by the Bears in deep coverage. This time the culprit was safety Brandon Meriweather, who allowed Carolina veteran receiver Steve Smith to get behind the defense and haul in a 53-yard pass from Newton.
Smith, who became the all-time leading receiver in Panthers history in the first half, later connected with Newton on a 26-yard strike that led to the rookie quarterback's second touchdown run of the half. This time, Newton ran a quarterback draw up the middle and took it in from the 2-yard line.
Smith finished the first half with six receptions for 132 yards, while Newton completed 13 of 20 passes for 199 yards.
Panthers kicker Olindo Mare kicked a 39-yard field goal with six seconds left in the half to cut their deficit to four points.