The Chicago Bears clinched their first playoff berth since 2006 with a 40-14 win against the Vikings in the first outdoor National Football League game in Minnesota in 29 years.
Jay Cutler threw three touchdown passes for the Bears last night at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, and Chicago’s Devin Hester set an NFL record with his 14th career kick return for a score.
The Bears rebounded from last week’s 36-7 home loss against New England to improve to 10-4 and lock up the National Football Conference North title. It’s Chicago’s first division crown since the 2006 season, when they advanced to the Super Bowl before losing to Indianapolis.
“It’s special,” Cutler said in a televised interview. “We’re not done yet. This is the first step and we just have to keep playing well.”
The Bears’ defense knocked Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the game with a head injury and forced five turnovers in snowy, icy conditions. The game was played at the University of Minnesota because the roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis collapsed last week after a snowstorm. The Vikings’ home game last week was held at Detroit’s Ford Field.
“It’s one of the few times I kind of went blank there for a while,” Favre said during a news conference. “Just the way I was slung around on the turf. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily the hit, it was when I hit the turf.”
Last night’s game marked 29 years to the day of the last outdoor NFL game in Minnesota, a 10-6 Vikings loss to Kansas City on Dec. 20, 1981, at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
While Vikings running back Adrian Peterson sat out because of thigh and ankle injuries, Favre started at quarterback a week after having his NFL-record streak of 297 consecutive starts snapped because of a shoulder injury.
Favre, 41, threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Percy Harvin on Minnesota’s opening drive before being forced out of the game early in the second quarter. Favre, who threw his 19th interception of the season on the Vikings’ second possession, was hurt when he was sacked and thrown to the turf by Bears rookie defensive end Corey Wootton.
Joe Webb replaced Favre for the Vikings, who gave up 27 straight points after their opening touchdown.
Hester caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Cutler in the second quarter to give the Bears a 17-7 lead and returned a punt 64 yards for another score in the third quarter.
Hester raced to the end zone untouched to break the NFL record of 13 career kick return touchdowns he shared with Brian Mitchell. It was 10th punt score by Hester, who returned the second-half kickoff 79 yards to Minnesota’s 6-yard line to set up a field goal.
The Bears are the fourth NFL team to clinch a playoff berth this season and the second in the NFC after the Atlanta Falcons. The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have earned postseason spots in the American Football Conference.
“Big win for us and we’re going to celebrate,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said during a news conference after his team improved to 6-1 on the road this season. “But we realize it’s just one step.”
The Vikings fell to 5-9 and might be without Favre for the final two games of the season. Webb completed 15 of 26 passes for 129 yards and was intercepted twice.
The field at TCF Bank Stadium doesn’t have an underground heating system, so portable heaters were used below a tarp before the game in an effort to keep the artificial turf from freezing. The tarp was removed from the field about three hours before kickoff, when the temperature in Minneapolis was 19 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-7 Celsius).
Snowballs from Stands
Snow and freezing rain fell throughout the game and some fans threw snowballs from the stands. When the game ended, Favre was bundled in a coat on the sidelines watching the Bears celebrate a division title the Vikings won a year ago.
“It was a great opening drive,” Favre said. “I probably should have gone straight up the tunnel after that. But you’ve got to try sometimes. It was important to play in front of our crowd, I just wish it would have turned out differently.”