ST. LOUIS (Dec. 11, 2006) -- Devin Hester expects teams to keep on kicking deep to him. And he expects to keep right on returning those kicks to the end zone.
The high-stepping rookie got the Rams' home dome rocking with chants of "Let's Go Bears!" as he set an NFL record with his fifth and sixth returns for touchdowns this season, a 94-yard kickoff runback in the second quarter and a 96-yarder in the final period. That sparked a 42-27 victory that gave the NFC North champions (11-2) a bye for the first week of the playoffs.
"It's the NFL, and a team is not going to bow down to one player," Hester said. "They'll continue to kick to me."
They're fools if they do.
"It's like the gates of Heaven opening up for me," he added.
A second-round draft pick, Hester 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 had returned only six kickoffs all season before his historic romps that made the thousands of fans who trekked from Chicago rise from their seats.
"I almost thought we were back at Soldier Field," coach Lovie Smith said.
Hester struggled to find a position in college at Miami, but he has been a sensation with the ball in his hands on kick returns for the Bears.
"The story of the game is Devin Hester," Smith said. "It's time we start looking at him as an offensive player. There are a lot of good offensive rookies in the league making big plays, but who has had as much impact as Devin Hester has in the league as a rookie right now?"
He came through the middle on the first runback, then swiftly cut to his left untouched and sped down the sideline, high-stepping like a drum major 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.
He admitted it was a tribute to his friend Deion Sanders.
"That played a major role in us losing the game," Rams cornerback Ron Bartell said. "We lost by 15. You take away those two returns, we've got a pretty good game."
Beleaguered quarterback Rex Grossman had a pretty good game and the Chicago running attack dominated the last two quarters.
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' 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.
"They were all over the place tonight," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "I could hear the crowd chanting 'Bears, Bears, Bears.' Man, that's a warm feeling being away from home."
Grossman was 6-for-19 for 34 yards in a victory against Minnesota last week and had registered six interceptions and no touchdowns in the past two games, but was 13-for-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.
"The best way of describing it is efficient and decisive and getting the ball to guys I needed to," Grossman said.
Chicago rushed for only 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.
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.
"To beat a team like that you almost have to play perfect, and we didn't," QB Marc Bulger said. Now the Rams have lost seven of eight and are all but eliminated from playoff consideration.
Chicago kicker Robbie Gould missed twice on field-goal attempts -- from 37 and 49 yards. They were only his second and third misses of the season.
When Chicago's special teams came through early -- on Brad Maynard's punt downed at the St. Louis 1 -- the defense couldn't. Holt caught back-to-back passes of 13 and 16 yards, then Marc Bulger's perfect throw on third-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 fourth-and-1 on Stephen Davis' 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.
Bulger finished 34-for-55 for 356 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Jackson, the NFC leader in yards from scrimmage, gained 139 against Chicago, giving him 1,789 for the season.
Jones left after tweaking his ankle late in the game, Smith said.
Rams LB Pisa Tinoisamoa broke his right hand in the second quarter. He has been playing with a broken left hand and a dislocated left elbow that had forced him into a harness.
Rams DE Leonard Little injured his throat.
The Associated Press News Service
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