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Hester opens game with kickoff-return TD

MIAMI (Feb. 4, 2007) -- Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown and the Chicago Bears jumped out to an early 7-0 lead against the Indianapolis Colts in rainy conditions in the Super Bowl.

With light rain falling on the turf at Dolphin Stadium, the Bears won the coin toss and elected to receive before Hester ran untouched into the end zone.

Peyton Manning struggled on the Colts' first possession, nearly being picked off twice before throwing an interception to Bears' defensive back Chris Harris.

The pre-game festivities included Billy Joel's rendition of the national anthem, and a moment of silence was observed for the 20 people killed in severe storms Feb. 2.

Temperatures were to remain in the mid- to upper-60s, but winds of 10 mph to 15 mph were expected to make it feel a bit cooler. But it will be downright balmy compared to Indianapolis or Chicago, where hometown fans of the Colts and Bears are facing subzero wind chills.

"The last game, we played in snow, sleet, rain," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "That's Chicago Bears weather."

Added Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy: "Whatever the weather is, I don't think it will really be a major factor."

The field at Dolphin Stadium can easily withstand a shower; a drainage system under the turf can process up to three inches of rain per hour.

Manning and Bears quarterback Rex Grossman both hope to rise to the occasion in a title game featuring two black head coaches -- something else that's never happened before.

The Bears, with much hinging on their fierce defense, were going for their first NFL title since the 1985 season, while the Colts sought their first championship since beating Dallas in 1971.

Maybe the Bears aren't quite the Monsters of the Midway — under today's rules, Brian Urlacher might get flagged just for breathing on Manning. But their defense can still be pretty scary.

"The Bears have a way of turning first and 10 into second and 15 into third and 20," Dungy said this week.

The Colts were seven-point favorites despite the Bears' 13-3 regular-season record, second best in the NFL to San Diego's 14-2. There's a simple reason: It's not the Bears who are the underdogs, it's the NFC, which was as bad this season as the AFC was good.

The Bears were looking to control the clock with Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson running the ball to keep Manning off the field and allow Grossman more opportunities. In other words, he gets more time to throw and Dwight Freeney and the rest of Indy's quick defenders get less time to pressure him into making mistakes.

"I had 12 games where I played well, six where I played not so well," Grossman said.

"Not so well" is an understatement -- in one of those games he had a zero passer rating, in another a 1.3.

The Colts can't allow their run defense to revert to its regular-season form, an NFL-worst 173 yards allowed per game. That figure has been reduced by a full 100 yards in the playoffs to 73.3.

Manning isn't immune to turnovers. He's thrown six interceptions in three playoff games, including one returned for a touchdown by New England's Asante Samuel in the AFC championship game. That's five more than Grossman, Mr. Turnover, who has one in the playoffs.

But Manning is too savvy to force anything; savvy enough to know that punting is a better alternative to throwing into coverage, especially with the way Urlacher can drop into the deep middle like the safety he was in college.

Most important, Manning finally demonstrated he can produce under pressure with his 80-yard drive in the final minutes against the playoff-tested Patriots defense.

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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