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Bears aim for first-round bye

DevHester reacts after running back punt 64 yards for an NFL-record 14th return touchdown. | AP

Devin Hester reacts after running back a punt 64 yards for an NFL-record 14th return touchdown. | AP

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Not long ago the Chicago Bears were all but buried, a team going nowhere under a pile of mounting losses.

Well, it turns out they are going somewhere. They’re headed back to the playoffs for the first time since their run to the 2007 Super Bowl.

A 40-14 romp outdoors at Minnesota on a cold and snowy Monday night did the trick, giving the Bears (10-4) their third NFC North title in six years.

And what a performance it was.

They shook off a brutal beating by New England the previous weekend and snapped a three-year playoff drought with a dominant effort that included Devin Hester’s NFL record 14th career kick return for a touchdown and three TD passes by Jay Cutler.

“This is just one step, it’s one thing we can knock off,” Cutler said.

It’s a huge step, one that was hard to envision not too long ago.

The Bears were a mess heading into their bye in late October, with three losses in four games after a 3-0 start. They have since turned things around in a big way.

The win over Minnesota was the sixth in seven games for a team that had appeared to be coming apart at the seams, with Cutler getting battered, the running game being ignored and the blockers providing little protection. The Bears were a mess heading into their off week. Now, they’ll try to lock down a first-round playoff bye in a home game against the New York Jets, and then wrap up the regular season at Green Bay.

“This is our first goal of the season: win the division and get in the playoffs,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Now we’ve got to win out these last two games to give ourselves the best possibility of getting a first-round bye. We’ve got to do our part and get ready for a big-time playoff run.”

A win over the Jets on Sunday coupled with a loss by Philadelphia and a loss or tie by the New York Giants would give Chicago a first-round bye. That would be another huge step for a team that was aiming high after a busy offseason.

“We worked hard for this,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Anytime you can win a championship, whatever it is, division, world championship, it’s a cause for celebration.”

It comes nearly one year after Bears President Ted Phillips issued what many interpreted as a win-or-else mandate for coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo. Chicago had just gone 7-9, and he was adamant: The losing had to stop.

The Bears revamped their coaching staff, hiring Mike Martz as offensive coordinator and promoting Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator.

They also made a big splash in free agency, signing Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers from Carolina while bringing in running back Chester Taylor and blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

Peppers is a key reason why the defense has ranked among the league’s best all year. Having Brian Urlacher back at a Pro Bowl level after missing almost all of last year with a wrist injury has helped, too, but the Bears might have been looking at another long offseason had they not made some adjustments.

The week off clearly helped.

They cut back on the deep drops, started moving Cutler around, and he’s no longer getting brutalized the way he was earlier in the season. They went more to the running game, keeping defenses off balance while reducing wear and tear Cutler.

A relatively light schedule and some good fortune following the bye didn’t hurt, either.

They beat lowly Buffalo and Minnesota, when it was falling apart last month. They got third-string quarterbacks against Miami and Detroit, a short-handed secondary against Philadelphia and a beat-up Favre against the Vikings on Monday night.

He gave it a shot after initially being listed as out with a sprained throwing shoulder, then left the game with a concussion after being sacked by Corey Wootton in the second quarter — possibly ending his storied career. That forced the Vikings to go with rookie Joe Webb. With star running back Adrian Peterson sidelined by thigh and ankle injuries, Minnesota was no match for Chicago.

Cutler, who hadn’t led a team to winning record since high school, completed 14 of 24 passes for 194 yards. He finished the game with a bandage on his chin after a helmet-first hit by Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield resulted in an interception by Asher Allen and left him with a gash requiring three stitches.

Hester had a big day, too.

He had a touchdown catch and 79-yard kickoff return that led to a field goal a few minutes before his game-breaking and record-setting 64-yard punt return.

“Coaches told me all I could do was kickoff and punt returns, but I wanted to play a position,” he said. “But I’m here today to say that I am a kickoff and punt returner, but at the same time the best to ever do it.”



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