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.
“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.
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 game.
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.
“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 zone.”
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.
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.