With a little help from some fans in the south end zone, Devin Hester made a Soldier Field leap early in the fourth quarter.
You can understand his excitement. It had been 30 games since his last punt return for a score, a drought that had led some to suggest a change the Bears will never make — removing him from his duties as a wide receiver. Now, the Bears have much more to celebrate.
Hester's 62-yard touchdown on a return of a Tom Masthay punt put the Bears ahead for the first time Monday night in their NFC North showdown with the Packers. Two field goals by Robbie Gould, the last from 19 yards with four seconds remaining, lifted them to a 20-17 victory that leaves them atop the division with their first 3-0 start since 2006. The Bears are the only unbeaten in the NFC and one of only three in the league.
It was a battle of young guns between Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, but ultimately the Bears prevailed because they made plays in all phases. Hester's return wasn't the only big play on special teams. Julius Peppers blocked a 37-yard field-goal try by the Packers' Mason Crosby in the third quarter. Gould's winning kick — which atoned for a 49-yard miss in the first quarter — came after Brian Urlacher stripped Packers wide receiver James Jones at midfield with 2:18 to play, a fumble that cornerback Tim Jennings recovered.
The punt return was a big turning point as once again coach Lovie Smith chose to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the opponent's 1-yard line and again the Bears were turned back. The defense held, as Smith figured it would, and when Masthay outkicked his coverage with a 57-yard punt, the big return was set up.
"I'm just trying to prove to all the doubters that our special teams unit is still capable of taking punts to the house," Hester said. "We're on top (the NFC) right now. Our main goal is to (stay there)."
The Bears wouldn't have been in the game without a gritty effort from Cutler, who threw for 221 yards and one touchdown and willed a unit that could not run the ball. He made a daring 21-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen on second-and-20 to help set up the winning kick and then the sloppy Packers were called for pass interference when rookie safety Morgan Burnett interfered with Earl Bennett at the 9-yard line, erasing an interception. The Bears benefitted from undisciplined play all game as the Packers were penalized 18 times for 152 yards.
If you were looking for fine offensive line play, well, this wasn't the game for you. Both passers were pressured, flustered and hit often. They used their athletic ability to keep plays alive and Rodgers, who was 34 of 45 for 316 yards, scrambled for a 3-yard touchdown with 6:52 left that put the Packers ahead 17-14. Two personal fouls from the Packers helped the Bears' ensuing drive as Gould tied the game at 17-17 with 3:59 to play on a 25-yard field goal.
That set up the dramatic finish with help from all phases.
"This serves notice to everybody that we're going to be a team that is going to be around and in the thick of it," tight end Desmond Clark said. "Some people will be surprised, some might have expected it. We're definitely not surprised in this locker room."
Now, they head east on a short week to face the reeling Giants (1-2) Sunday night on NBC. It will be a interesting week. Three straight wins will generate hype and there are looming questions about the status of defensive tackle Tommie Harris and wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, who were deactivated for the game.
This team was 3-1 last season and knows nothing has been accomplished yet, not even in a big win over the team picked by most to win the division.
"It's not huge if we don't keep winning," center Olin Kreutz said. "All we're trying to do is win. You don't care how you do it."