It was a victory for a division championship that was anything but cause for celebration. The Bears lost their best defensive lineman, Tommie Harris, with an apparent knee injury. Their Pro Bowl cornerback, Nathan Vasher, left the game with a strained hamstring of unknown severity. And their quarterback had a 1.3 rating against a team ranked 31st in the NFL against the pass.
Still, said linebacker Brian Urlacher: "We won. That's all I care about. Call it what you want to, but you've got to call us division champs."
They were proudly wearing their black division-championship hats in the tunnel coming off the field and in the locker room afterward. They'd earned the right to, intercepting four passes and defeating the Minnesota Vikings 23-13 to improve to 10-2, tied for the best record in the NFL with Indianapolis and San Diego.
But the offense was outscored 9-7 by the defense and managed only 117 net yards. Devin Hester's 45-yard punt return outgained Rex Grossman's 34 passing yards and the offense scored just one touchdown off three takeaways when the game mattered.
And as far as being playoff-caliber now, coach Lovie Smith said, "We know we have to play better on the offensive side of the football, and we will."
A succession of sloppy turnovers that never stopped plagued the first quarter.
Rashied Davis fumbled the opening kickoff to give Minnesota field position at the Bears' 31. The Bears gave it to the Vikings again, this time with more dire consequences: Grossman squandered a scoring opportunity with a third-down throw directly to linebacker Napoleon Harris with the Bears at the Minnesota 22.
The Bears shared ball-control issues with the Vikings. They wasted a scoring chance when Adewale Ogunleye came in on quarterback Brad Johnson from the left. Ogunleye missed the sack but caused Johnson to scramble enough for Tank Johnson to hit him and force a throw that Danieal Manning easily grabbed for the second interception of his rookie season. But Grossman tossed that chance away with his first interception three plays later.
What went right: The Bears' pass rush was in the Minnesota backfield on most dropbacks. The Vikings managed just 3 yards on 16 plays for the quarter.
What went wrong: Grossman. His reads and decisions were suspect and he appeared to be more tentative as the quarter went on. It set the pattern for his worst day in the NFL.
Audible: "I don't know what to say. I know [Grossman] is not going to lose his confidence. I still believe in him, and I know the team does too."
linebacker Brian Urlacher
Enter Devin Hester. The rookie can start thinking about whether he wants a window or an aisle seat on his flight to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii after he took a Minnesota punt at the Vikings' 45, got around the edge of a cluster of four tacklers and picked his way through blocks and stumbling Vikings for his fourth return touchdown of 2006.
The marvel is that he was able to outrun his pursuers while carrying Grossman and a lot of the offense with him. Grossman's struggles continued on the first play of the quarter. He lofted a prayer toward Bernard Berrian, who was unable to either catch it or break it up, giving the ball to Minnesota at its 7-yard line on Antoine Winfield's interception. If that appeared to be just as good as a punt, it was actually better because of the defense, which forced a three-and-out before Hester's romp.
The defense had few breakdowns in the first half, but one led to Minnesota's only points of the half. Chester Taylor broke through the Bears' right side, breezed past a poor tackling effort by Vasher and picked up 42 yards, the third-longest run against the Bears this season. That gave Minnesota a first down at the 20, which was followed by a phantom roughing-the-passer call against Urlacher. Even with that the Vikings had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell in a 7-3 half.
What went right: The defense helped decide the game with its stops. It forced a punt after the Bears fumbled the opening kickoff, caused an interception deep in the Minnesota end and forced the punt to Hester.
What went wrong: Grossman's passer rating stayed amazingly puny at 2.8 after his second interception, and he completed just 1 of 3 passes for the quarter.
Audible: "At some point we've got to stop turning the ball over. If we do that, the game is never in question." center Olin Kreutz
First disaster, then redemption. Two plays into the second half, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris had to be helped off the field and carted into the locker room with a potentially serious knee injury. The Vikings noted his departure by driving for a 30-yard field goal by Longwell on their first possession, helped by a 15-yard personal foul against Chris Harris after a 24-yard pass from Brad Johnson to Mewelde Moore.
Grossman, who completed just three passes to his own team in the first half, matched that total with his third to a Viking on the Bears' first snap. Nose tackle Pat Williams deflected a pass that was intercepted by linebacker Ben Leber, though the turnover didn't hurt because Johnson immediately threw a pass that went off fullback Jeff Dugan and into the hands of Lance Briggs. But with Grossman lacking any semblance of rhythm, the offense continued to do nothing with the opportunities.
Fortunately, the defense was generating offense of its own. Ricky Manning Jr. formally announced his return from a one-game suspension by grabbing not only a Brad Johnson pass but also the momentum of the game. Manning read Johnson's short drop on a third-and-4 at the Bears' 46 and drifted out from his nickel spot to jump in front of ex-Bear Marcus Robinson for his fifth interception of the season. Manning's 54-yard return gave the Bears room at 14-6.
Urlacher continued the run of interceptions with another on the Vikings' first play of the next possession, setting up the offense at the Minnesota 33. Three plays later, on fourth-and-1, Cedric Benson bounced a run outside to the right and outran the Vikings to the pylon for 24 yards and a score for a 21-6 lead.
What went right: The defense ended three of four Minnesota possessions with interceptions.
What went wrong: Amazingly, Grossman's passing continued to get worse instead of better. He completed no passes to a wide receiver in the quarter, only one to a Bear and one, his third, to a Viking as his rating dipped to the Chad Hutchinson zone at 0.0.
Audible: "It was really good to see the kind of pressure we were able to get. It seemed like everybody got a big lift in the second half. Devin Hester was a big part of that and special teams. That's why it's a two-half game. Everybody's excited right now." Vasher
The defense and special teams were able to do something the offense was pretty much unable to do all afternoon: score. Sacks by Tank Johnson and Brown and a 25-yard punt return by Hester late in the third quarter were followed by Brad Maynard's punt out of bounds at the Minnesota 2 at the start of the fourth. When Ciatrick Fason tried to circle the Bears' right side, Johnson and Chris Harris stuffed the play, and Johnson took him down in the end zone for a safety and a 23-6 lead. But the offensive misery continued, and Hester's 21-yard return of the free kick to the Minnesota 49 was wasted with a three-and-out.
The Vikings managed a scoring drive of 89 yards, with Fason bursting through the middle for 4 yards with 5:45 remaining and the 23-13 final.
What went right: The defense did allow an 11-play drive of 6 minutes 34 seconds, but it gave up only one first down on two Minnesota possessions after that.
What went wrong: The offense totaled minus-9 rushing yards and 4 passing yards for the quarter.
Audible: "It does feel good. Obviously, you go through some adversity, but we'll find out how much adversity when we find out what's going on with Tommie. But either way we have to continue to move forward and get closer and closer to that goal." Lance Briggs on the ugly win