EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (Nov. 12, 2006) -- Just call the Chicago Bears the best team in the NFC -- and the New York Giants red-faced for falling asleep on a record-tying 108-yard missed field goal return by Devin Hester.
Hester fooled the Giants by standing in the back of the end zone for several seconds, then ran down the right sideline on his knockout-blow return as the Bears rallied for a 38-20 victory over the injury-ravaged Giants in their NFC showdown.
"I probably would have downed it if I saw defenders coming at me," said Hester, who returned punts of 84 and 83 yards for TDs earlier this season. "It seemed like all of them were walking off the field like it was over. So I decided to take it out. It surprised me."
On Nov. 13, 2005 -- almost exactly a year ago -- the Bears' Nathan Vasher caught Joe Nedney's missed 52-yard field-goal attempt in the back of the end zone on the final play of the first half and ran it back for a 108-yard TD return. The play helped Chicago beat San Francisco 17-9, and now Hester shares the record for longest NFL play with his teammate.
Rex Grossman threw for three touchdowns and Thomas Jones scored on a short run as the Bears (8-1) rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit with 28 second-half points in ending a five-game winning streak by the Giants (6-3).
Not only did the Bears win, they answered the critics who surfaced last week after Miami handed Chicago its first loss in a turnover-marred game.
"We like our position right now, one game after the first half," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "There is so much football left to go, but we still like being undefeated in the NFC right now. We like being undefeated on the road. We like the position. All we have done is put ourselves in position for the playoff run."
Grossman had touchdown passes of 29 yards to Mark Bradley, 10 yards to Muhsin Muhammad and 2 yards to Desmond Clark in leading the Bears to a 24-13 lead in the third quarter.
The Giants cut the gap on Brandon Jacobs ' second touchdown run of the game late in the period. But the game was blown open on Hester's third return for a touchdown this season -- a most unexpected one.
Jay Feely, who had kicked two field goals, attempted a 52-yarder with 11:20 to play. The kick was short and Hester caught the ball 8 yards deep in the end zone. The rookie stood there for several seconds and then came out, circling the right side and speeding down the sideline almost untouched for a clinching score.
"I was just waiting for him to do something, like everyone was," Smith said. "I saw the blocks being set up and I guess he saw the same thing. Whenever Hester has his hands on the ball with a little bit of space in between, I feel pretty good about our chances."
Giants coach Tom Coughlin took responsibility for the decision to kick the field goal, which would have cut the Bears' lead to a point.
"It's very difficult to cover a field goal," Coughlin said. "The people who do it are not the kind of people who normally do it for you."
Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce added that it's tough for a field-goal block team to stop a great returner like Hester.
"It's hard when you have a speed guy alone and you have offensive linemen, they don't have a chance to catch him," Pierce said.
The teams brought two of the top defenses into the nationally television matchup that was moved to prime time by the NFL as part of NBC's flexible scheduling package for Sunday night games.
New York's 13-10 halftime lead was courtesy of its defense and special teams, with three scoring drives covering a total of 13 yards in winds gusting to 25 mph and intermittent showers.
Mathias Kiwanuka set up the Giants' touchdown with an interception on Chicago's first possession, returning it 32 yards to the Bears 1. Jacobs scored almost untouched.
The Bears' defense answered the next time New York had the ball. Charles Tillman, one of the cornerbacks called "average" by Giants receiver Plaxico Burress earlier in the week, intercepted a pass intended for Burress and returned it 11 yards to New York's 45.
A questionable roughing-the-passer penalty against Fred Robbins moved the ball to the 30 and Robbie Gould kicked a 49-yard field goal.
Giants safety Gibril Wilson forced a fumble by Jones at the Bears 31 on the penultimate play of the hour-long first quarter. Feely extended New York's lead to 10-3 with a 46-yard field goal.
The Bears changed the momentum with one drive -- and really one play, a draw to Jones on third-and-22 with 1:30 left in the half. He went 26 yards for a first down and woke up the offense; after a 22-yard pass to Muhammad, Grossman capped the drive by finding Bradley on a touchdown pass when cornerback Sam Madison aggravated a hamstring injury on a stop-and-go pattern.
The score got the Bears within 13-10 at the half, and they played like a different team offensively the rest of the way.
Grossman, who struggled for almost the entire first half, finished 18-of-30 for 246 yards. Muhammad had seven catches for 123.
Eli Manning struggled against Brian Urlacher and the Bears' vaunted defense. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, finishing 14-of-32 for 121 yards.
Tiki Barber, who sprained a thumb, led New York with 141 yards on 19 carries. The Giants came into the game missing five starters and they lost two more: Madison and offensive tackle Luke Petitgout, who broke his left leg.
NOTES: William Joseph made the move from tackle in replacing Strahan in the Giants starting lineup. ...Barber had three catches and now has 563 in his career, replacing the injured Amani Toomer (561) as the Giants all-time leading receiver. ...Gould is 23-for-23 on field goals this season and has made his last 25 in a row.