Bears maul Vikings for second straight NFC North title

CHICAGO (AP) -- Now that they've clinched their second straight

division title, the Chicago Bears can focus on bigger goals: a No.

1 seed and, maybe, the conference championship.

Devin Hester ran into the record book again. Ricky Manning Jr.

returned an interception for a touchdown, and the Bears claimed

their second straight NFC North title with a 23-13 victory over the

Minnesota Vikings on a frigid Sunday afternoon.

Scouts Inc.'s take ...

The Minnesota game plan -- a strong run game and pressuring Rex Grossman (right) into mistakes -- worked exactly as Brad Childress envisioned except for one problem: the Vikings' complete inability to maximize on Bears turnovers and the continuing self-destruction on offense. Once again, Minnesota drives were stalled by penalties, dropped passes and Brad Johnson picks. The Vikings defense and special teams created early opportunities, starting with causing a fumble on the opening kick off and forcing Grossman to play horribly, making terrible decisions and awful throws (he had three interceptions).

The Bears defense was susceptible to the run game, getting gashed for 192 yards on the ground, but countered that with excellent pressure and aggressive coverage, forcing four interceptions. With both quarterbacks playing terrible football the difference was Chicago's scoring on both defense and special teams.

Championship teams find ways to overcome problems and win while non-playoff caliber teams are unable to seize opportunities or overcome mistakes often find ways to lose important games.

"The defense had to carry the offense today," Manning said.

"That's the way it is going to be sometimes. We understand that,

and we are up for that challenge if that has to be done."

Hester tied an NFL record with his fourth touchdown return, and

Manning ran an interception back 54 yards for the Bears (10-2), who

lead the NFC by two games.

Chicago overcame another shaky performance by quarterback Rex

Grossman. The Vikings couldn't overcome Brad Johnson's, however.

With the temperature around 20 and wind chill in single digits,

Grossman did little to stop the debate whether he should remain the

starter. And Johnson was replaced.

With some fans calling for backup Brian Griese after a loss at

New England, Grossman was 6-of-19 for 34 yards and threw three

interceptions for the second straight week. But he stayed in the


He has 14 interceptions in the last seven games after throwing

three in the first five. He was picked off twice in the first half,

and his first attempt of the third quarter was intercepted.

"I never really got anything going, and that is something I

need to fix," said Grossman, whose rating was 1.3 -- 0.0 after

three periods. "It's a simple formula to fix. It's just hard to

get done."

And he'll get another opportunity.

Coach Lovie Smith was adamant that a change is not in the works

and became agitated by questions about the quarterback situation.

"There's a difference between perception and reality," Smith

said. "The reality is we're 10-2 right now. We just won the

division with Rex at quarterback, so that's what I go on."

Johnson wasn't any better than Grossman.

The veteran was 11-of-26 with 73 yards and four interceptions

before being lifted for Brooks Bollinger late in the third quarter,

and his last two passes ended in the Bears' hands.

Back from a one-game suspension for his role in a Los Angeles

restaurant altercation, Manning picked off his team-leading fifth

pass at the Chicago 46. He returned it for his first touchdown this

year to make it 14-6 in the third quarter. On the next play from

scrimmage, Brian Urlacher intercepted Johnson.

That led to a 24-yard touchdown run by Cedric Benson and a

quarterback change for the Vikings. Minnesota coach Brad Childress

wouldn't say if that will carry over to next week.

"I would really be remiss about making a decision about a

starting quarterback a half-hour after a Sunday game," he said.

"We usually make those decisions during the week."

Benson had 60 yards on nine carries against a defense that was

averaging a league-low 56.6 yards. And Thomas Jones added 32 on 12

attempts for the Bears.

Chester Taylor ran for 99 yards before bruising his ribs in the

third quarter and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for Minnesota (5-7).

He returned to the game, but did not carry the ball again.

Bollinger was 7-of-9 for 70 yards, but hurt his left shoulder on

a sack by Adewale Ogunleye late in the game. Rookie Tarvaris

Jackson replaced him and was 3-for-4 for 35 yards.

"It all happened pretty fast for me today," Bollinger said.

"(Childress said) I was going in, I went in."

After both teams blew several prime opportunities in the first

quarter, Hester broke through early in the second and gave the

Bears a 7-0 lead.

The rookie caught a punt at the 45 and ran straight to the

highlight reel. He took a step back with four Vikings closing in,

reversed to the left side and ran all the way to the end zone,

breaking four tackles on the way.

It was his team-record third punt return for a touchdown. Hester

also ran back a missed field goal 108 yards against the New York

Giants last month, tying an NFL mark for longest return set by

teammate Nathan Vasher last season.

"The wind was picking up and it was a bad situation, and he

pooched the ball and (it) kind of hit on the field and kind of

rolled," Hester said. "I had enough time to pick it up and run,

and (I) kind of gave a right jab and brought it back around to the

left, and my teammates picked up their guys and I got into the end


Taylor broke off a 42-yard run to set up a 23-yard field goal by

Ryan Longwell that made it 7-3. And Longwell added a 30-yarder

early in the third quarter that made it a one-point game.

"It's hard for us to get into the playoffs and for us to do

that in the first week of December, then we're going to cherish

that right now," Smith said.

Game notes
Bears DT Tommie Harris left in the third quarter Sunday

with a sprained knee. Harris, who made the Pro Bowl last season,

was hurt on the second scrimmage play of the second half, a 6-yard

run by Taylor. After staying on the ground for several minutes,

Harris was helped off the field. ... Vasher suffered a hamstring

injury. ... Vikings NT Pat Williams, questionable with a knee

injury, played. ... Taylor has 1,098 yards this season.