The Bears have trumpeted Devin Hester as their No. 1 receiver since last season. He lived up to those claims Sunday, and he appears ready to settle into that role permanently.
Nothing Hester has done in his three years since converting from cornerback to wide receiver screamed "go-to guy" more than his game-winning 36-yard touchdown catch on the first play after the two-minute warning.
With the Bears trailing 19-17 at the Seahawks 36-yard line, Hester ran a quick slant toward the middle of the field, leaped to catch a high throw from Jay Cutler and was hit immediately. But he bounced off safety Deon Grant and cornerback Travis Fisher and sprinted into the end zone for a 25-19 victory for the Bears (2-1).
"They brought a little bit of pressure, which we anticipated, and it was press man-to-man coverage," Cutler said. "Whenever we get Devin one-on-one, we think the edge is on our side. He ran a great route, I put it a little bit out there, and he made a heck of a catch and run. He makes one guy miss, and it's a touchdown and that's the game."
Hester finished with five catches for 76 yards and was confident enough in his ability to beat the Seahawks' coverage that he told Cutler to get him the ball.
"Whenever you get in a rhythm, and you feel it, and you're kind of dominating, you want the ball in your hands," Hester said. "I stepped up to him and I said, ‘Hey, I think we can get a shot on this if we throw a slant.' He came to me when it counted, and I stepped up and made a play. That's how it went down."
Sunday's game may go down as the one where Hester became what Bears coach Lovie Smith believed he could be since last season: a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
Hester leads the Bears with 187 receiving yards and is tied with Earl Bennett (four catches for 80 yards Sunday) for the team lead with 13 receptions. If he maintains the same pace for a full season, Hester will finish with 70 catches for 997 yards.
His 51 catches for 665 yards last season weren't nearly enough to convince skeptics and even most Bears fans that he was a legitimate No. 1 receiver when the team started training camp. Cutler says he quickly realized that the critics were wrong about Hester.
"He's shown me something since I first got here," said Cutler, who arrived via trade on April 2. "They said he didn't know the playbook, he couldn't get out of cuts, (and) he had trouble catching the ball. All of that's been false since day one.
"He's worked as hard if not harder than everybody in that room to get ready for the season. He's really driven. He wanted the ball a lot today. He was always in my ear, saying, ‘I got it, give it to me.' Whenever we called his number, he came up big for us."
TRENDING: Jay Cutler has five TD passes and just one interception in his last two games after the four-interception fiasco in Green Bay. His passer rating in Week 3 was 126.4, a week after he had a 104.7 in the victory over the Steelers.
LINEUP WATCH: Middle linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who had taken over after Brian Urlacher suffered a season-ending dislocated right wrist, left in the third quarter with a rib injury and did not return.
Nick Roach, who was filling in at strong-side linebacker for injured Pisa Tinoisamoa, moved to the middle with Jamar Williams taking over on the strong side. Tinoisamoa may be able to return Sunday against the Lions.
Funny that the Lions are heading to Chicago on Sunday. The Bears' defensive line coach is Rod Marinelli, the Lions' head coach as they suffered the NFL's first 0-16 season last year.
For the first time since Marinelli's men beat Kansas City in December 2007, the Lions are coming off a victory. They snapped their 19-game losing streak, tied for the second-worst in NFL history, by beating the Redskins 19-14.
Now the Lions actually have some confidence, and though they still have a long way to go, they're eager to take the next step.
"Hopefully we won't have the mentality like, ‘Oh, whew. We just got the monkey off our back. Now we're good for the rest of the year,'" linebacker Julian Peterson said. "Go ahead and celebrate for today. Take what we did right, stuff that we did wrong, improve on that and continue to get some more wins."
Oh, the Lions celebrated Sunday. In the locker room after the game, linebacker Larry Foote doused rookie coach Jim Schwartz with a bottle of water.
"He said, ‘Didn't you expect to win?' " Foote said. "I said, ‘Yeah, baby. But it's your first W.'"
No bucket of Gatorade?
"I seen his white shirt, and I figured he might want to save that one," Foote said. "So I grabbed the water instead of the Gatorade."
After the team prayer, Schwartz sent the players back onto the field to celebrate with the fans who remained in the stands. Some players had never experienced an NFL victory before.
"Oh, my God," said right tackle Gosder Cherilus, a first-round pick in 2008. "It feels great. It's beautiful. ... I've never cracked a smile after a game. My teeth are hurting right now. I'm smiling way too much."
But the Lions know they need to take the next step, and their next game is against the Bears.
"When players were celebrating, I said, ‘Hey, love you're celebrating; we've got to expect to win,' " Schwartz said. "That's where we need to get to as a franchise, where we need to get to as a team, a coaching staff, everything. We need to go out expecting to win, not hoping to win."
LINEUP WATCH: Will James replaced Phillip Buchanon as a starting cornerback against the Redskins. Schwartz said James had a good week of practice. What he didn't say is that Buchanon is in the doghouse. Buchanon surprised the coaches by not being able to play in the opener at New Orleans, then struggled in Week 2 against Minnesota. Manny Ramirez also started at left guard for the second straight week, with Daniel Loper, the opening day starter, inactive.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 — Interceptions for rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford against the Redskins, after he threw five in his first two NFL games. Stafford didn't avoid a pick because he was timid, either. He kept slinging the ball downfield and went 21-for-36 for 241 yards and a touchdown. He said he and Schwartz ended up in an elevator together at the team hotel Saturday night, and Schwartz told him to stay aggressive.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers now have their sights set on the first highly anticipated showdown against Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings.
Green Bay gained a much-needed 36-17 road win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, a week after the Packers stubbed their collective toe in a home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
"That is what good teams do when they are challenged — they respond, and we were able to do that," said linebacker Aaron Kampman, who forced a fumble on an early sack of Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.
The bounce-back victory kept the Packers (2-1) on the heels of Minnesota (3-0) in the NFC North, adding to the hype surrounding their Monday night visit to the Metrodome in Minneapolis to face former teammate Favre for the first time.
As the players braced themselves for a longer week of preparations than usual and a long line of questions about Favre, veteran cornerback Charles Woodson wasn't enamored with Green Bay's tune-up performance. The Packers allowed the winless Rams to hang around for three quarters — undermanned St. Louis erased a pair of 16-point deficits to get within 23-17 — before pulling away with two late touchdowns.
"You've got to be realistic about it," Woodson said. "St. Louis, in my opinion, is not a very good team, and we didn't seem to be much better than they were. You've got to look at this thing closely. Some guys have just got to play better. As a team, we've got to play better — way too many mistakes."
Green Bay's defense came to the rescue with three takeaways, including Woodson's third interception in two games.
The Packers have forced nine turnovers (seven interceptions) in the first three games and will need to be opportunistic in enemy territory next Monday against Favre. Although the famed gunslinger has thrown only one interception with the Vikings, many of Green Bay's defensive players know too well that he is susceptible to miscues with the football.
"The ability to play with more vision on defense is definitely helping us take the football away," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
LINEUP WATCH: The Packers tabbed Derrick Martin to be the third starter at strong safety in as many games this season, but Martin wasn't in the starting lineup at the outset Sunday. Green Bay opened with an extra linebacker (Brandon Chillar) and only one safety (Nick Collins) in its 3-4 scheme. The new wrinkle, coined "Big Okie" by defensive coordinator Dom Capers, was added as a situational ploy to counter a Rams offense featuring running back Steven Jackson but not a formidable passing attack. Look for the Packers to employ the five-linebackers, one-safety look in future games against opponents that don't pose a threat in the vertical passing game.
BY THE NUMBERS: 148 — Consecutive passes by Aaron Rodgers without an interception, the longest active streak among all starting quarterbacks. Rodgers' career-high streak without a pick is 157 passes, which ended in Week 4 last season.