Bears Give St. Louis the Blues

The Bears moved to 11-2 on the season and closer to the top seed in the NFC playoffs with an impressive 42-27 win over the Rams in St. Louis. The Edward Jones Dome sounded like Soldier Field South on Monday night, especially when return magician Devin Hester took two kickoffs back for touchdowns. Rex Grossman protected the football and also protected his job as the starting quarterback.

The Chicago Bears were technically the road team in St. Louis on Monday Night Football, but a legion of Windy City supporters made their favorite team feel quite at home in the Edward Jones Dome.

Rookie return man Devin Hester provided the fireworks and made their trip worthwhile.

Hester set an NFL record with his fifth and sixth returns for touchdowns, a 94-yard kickoff runback in the second quarter and a 96-yarder in the final period Monday night. That sparked a 42-27 victory over the Rams.

The NFC North champions (11-2) clinched a bye for the first week of the playoffs as beleaguered quarterback Rex Grossman had a solid effort, and the running attack dominated the second half.

But it was Hester who made the thousands of Bears fans who trekked from Chicago rise from their seats ... twice.

A second-round draft pick out of Miami, he also has three punt return touchdowns and ran back a missed field goal 108 yards against the Giants to tie the longest play in NFL history. But he'd returned only six kickoffs all year before his two historic romps.

He headed up the middle on the first, then swiftly cut to his left untouched and sped down the sideline, high-stepping like a drum major in homage to his idol, Deion Sanders, the last few yards while holding up the football for the raucous Bears fans.

Hester outdid himself in the fourth quarter when it appeared the Rams might try an onside kick. The only Bear standing deep, he went straight up the center of the field, again untouched, and turned around at the Rams 20 looking for pursuers. No one was there.

Hester struggled to find a position in college at Miami, but he's been a sensation with the ball in his hands on kick returns for the Bears.

Carrying a 14-13 lead into the second half, the Bears outgained the Rams (5-8) 191 yards to 31 in the third quarter. They scored on Thomas Jones's 30-yard run and Muhsin Muhammad's superb fingertip catch of a 14-yard pass from Grossman, who probably quieted calls for his benching, particularly from the thousands of fans who outshouted Rams rooters much of the evening.

Grossman was 6-for-19 for 34 yards in an ugly win over Minnesota last week and had thrown six interceptions and no touchdowns in the last two games, but he was 13-of-23 for 200 yards and two scores against St. Louis. Aside from the fade pass to Muhammad, he hit Bernard Berrian on a perfect slant pattern for a 34-yard score late in the second period.

"I just played poised and just tried to take what they give me," Grossman said.

Chicago rushed for just 65 yards against the Rams' porous run defense in the first half, then Jones gained 58 yards on the Bears' first series of the second half. That included a 24-yarder featuring a flashy spin move, and the 30-yard sweep down the left side to score.

The Rams did get a 6-yard TD pass to Torry Holt midway through the fourth quarter and a 6-yarder to Steven Jackson with 4:41 left. But they barely stung thanks to Hester's heroics.

Chicago had the first chance to score, but kicker Robbie Gould was wide right from 37 yards. It was Gould's first miss inside 40 yards and only his second miss in 28 tries this season. A high snap might have thrown him off.

Gould also missed a 49-yarder later in the game.

When Chicago's special teams came through - a Brad Maynard punt was downed at the St. Louis 1 - the defense couldn't. Holt caught consecutive passes of 13 and 16 yards, then Marc Bulger's perfect throw on 3rd-and-13 found Kevin Curtis for 39 yards. Looking like the vintage Rams of the early decade on the 99-yard drive, they also converted a 4th-and-1 on Stephen Davis's 16-yard run to the 1 before Holt's double move beat Hester for the score.

A bad snap botched the extra point.

To their credit, the Rams responded immediately to Hester's first TD return with a 72-yard drive featuring Jackson, who gained 35 yards and ran in from the 2.

It was then the Bears' turn for an impressive drive that covered 74 yards, capped by Berrian's 34-yard TD catch and run for a 14-13 halftime edge.


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