The Bears had hoped to find out what kind of team they were a week ago in Detroit.
The discovery wasn't one they enjoyed. Given another chance — there aren't many remaining with the hole the team has dug itself in the NFC North — the Bears found a way to rally against a different division foe.
The offensive line clicked with its fifth starting combination in six games, the safeties didn't surrender long touchdowns that have plagued the defense and Matt Forte was steady. It added up to a snappy 39-10 victory over the Vikings on Sunday night at Soldier Field, highlighted by a proficient game from Jay Cutler and a return touchdown by Devin Hester.
It's premature to suggest serious problems hanging over the Bears have been resolved. They had lost three of their previous four games and appear destined for a crowded wild-card hunt if all goes well. They've pulled to 3-3 and have a chance to move a game above .500 on Sunday in London, where they face the Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium before the schedule brings an open date. As coach Lovie Smith has pointed out, that's the same record the team had a year ago at the off week, using it as a springboard to a dominant second half.
But how much stock can you put in a victory over a downtrodden 1-5 Vikings team that can't be far off from the beginning of the Christian Ponder era? The best sign was that the offensive line steadied itself a week after struggling at Ford Field. Cutler had time to throw, and it opened everything up. The Vikings were intent on stopping Forte, and Cutler benefited, completing 21 of 31 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Forte carried 17 times for 87 yards.
Lance Louis made his first career start at right tackle. He did well, and J'Marcus Webb was stout against Jared Allen, who entered the weekend with an NFL-high 8½ sacks. Allen had one sack and strip, but the turnover early in the third quarter came after Cutler should have gotten rid of the ball.
"We managed them," Cutler said of the line. "A lot of five-step (drops) and play action, left some extra guys in, shift a little bit. Whenever we help them out like that and get the ball out of my hands, it's going to be easy on me. It's not that difficult. Our game plan was really solid, and we need to be very judicious going forward with what we can and can't do."
The Vikings capitalized with a 4-yard Adrian Peterson touchdown run after the turnover to pull within 26-10, but Hester raced through a small hole on the right side to go 98 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff, the 16th return touchdown of his career. The rout was on. Hester left the game at the start of the fourth quarter with a chest injury. Early indications are it isn't serious.
Cutler struck early with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Hester — his first of the season to a wide receiver other than Dane Sanzenbacher. The pass rush that produced five sacks picked up a safety, and Marion Barber had a 3-yard touchdown to put the Bears ahead 16-0 just over 12 minutes in. Later, Sanzenbacher had a 13-yard touchdown catch, his third of the season, and Robbie Gould connected on three field goals.
The defense, which has struggled more than the offense at times, had its finest effort with Julius Peppers going from doubtful to dominating with two sacks. Veteran safeties Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather were benched and replacements Major Wright and Chris Conte didn't have any glaring errors, but this was against a McNabb who has had far better days at Soldier Field. He was replaced in the fourth quarter.
The key for the Bears going forward is getting time for Cutler to throw. He was more at ease in the pocket and had time to hit Johnny Knox, Roy Williams and Hester downfield on deeper routes. All of it was available because the Vikings were dialed in on Forte.
"They whupped us on every facet of the game," Allen said.
Whether it's a starting point for the Bears remains to be seen. For a night, at least, they looked good in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and that's where so many of their issues have been rooted.
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