He gave the Giants a few extra seconds to vacate.
And with that, Hester was off to the races, giving the Chicago Bears the inside track on NFC title with a record-tying 108-yard romp that was the knockout blow in a 38-20 victory over the injury-ravaged Giants in their NFC showdown Sunday night.
“I probably would have downed it if I saw defenders coming at me,” said Hester, who returned punts of 84 and 83 yards for TDs earlier this season. “It seemed like all of them were walking off the field like it was over. So I decided to take it out. It surprised me.”
The record-tying return gave Chicago (8-1) a 31-20 lead.
On Nov. 13, 2005—almost exactly a year ago—the Bears’ Nathan Vasher caught Joe Nedney’s missed 52-yard field-goal attempt in the back of the end zone on the final play of the first half and ran it back for a 108-yard TD return. The play helped Chicago beat San Francisco 17-9, and now Hester shares the record for longest NFL play with his teammate.
Not only did the Bears win, they answered the critics who surfaced last week after Miami handed Chicago its first loss in a turnover-marred game.
“There is so much football left to go, but we still like being undefeated in the NFC right now,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We like being undefeated on the road. We like the position.”
The Giants cut the gap on Brandon Jacobs’ second touchdown run of the game late in the period. But the game was blown open on Hester’s third return for a touchdown this season—a most unexpected one.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin took responsibility for the decision to kick the field goal, which would have cut the Bears’ lead to a point.
“It’s very difficult to cover a field goal,” Coughlin said. “The people who do it are not the kind of people who normally do it for you.”
Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce agreed that it’s tough for a field-goal block team to stop a great returner like Hester.
“It’s hard when you have a speed guy alone and you have offensive linemen, they don’t have a chance to catch him,” Pierce said.
The teams brought two of the top defenses into the nationally television matchup that was moved to prime time by the NFL as part of NBC’s flexible scheduling package for Sunday night games.
New York’s 13-10 halftime lead was courtesy of its defense and special teams, with three scoring drives covering a total of 13 yards in winds gusting to 25 mph and intermittent showers.
Mathias Kiwanuka set up the Giants’ touchdown with an interception on Chicago’s first possession, returning it 32 yards to the Bears 1. Jacobs scored almost untouched.
The Bears’ defense answered the next time New York had the ball. Charles Tillman, one of the cornerbacks called “average” by Giants receiver Plaxico Burress earlier in the week, intercepted a pass intended for Burress and returned it 11 yards to New York’s 45.
Giants safety Gibril Wilson forced a fumble by Jones at the Bears 31 on the penultimate play of the hour-long first quarter. Feely extended New York’s lead to 10-3 with a 46-yard field goal.
The Bears changed the momentum with one drive—and really one play, a draw to Jones on third-and-22 with 1:30 left in the half. He went 26 yards for a first down and woke up the offense; after a 22-yard pass to Muhammad, Grossman capped the drive by finding Bradley on a touchdown pass when cornerback Sam Madison aggravated a hamstring injury on a stop-and-go pattern.
The score got the Bears within 13-10 at the half, and they played like a different team offensively the rest of the way.
Grossman, who struggled for almost the entire first half, finished 18-of-30 for 246 yards. Muhammad had seven catches for 123.
Tiki Barber, who sprained a thumb, led New York with 141 yards on 19 carries. The Giants came into the game missing five starters and they lost two more: Madison and offensive tackle Luke Petitgout, who broke his left leg.
William Joseph made the move from tackle in replacing Strahan in the Giants starting lineup. …Barber had three catches and now has 563 in his career, replacing the injured Amani Toomer (561) as the Giants all-time leading receiver. …Gould is 23-for-23 on field goals this season and has made his last 25 in a row.