EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As the self-styled novelist Snoopy wrote incessantly, in penning every one of his several would-be best sellers: It was a dark and stormy night.
And, truth be told, it was.
But mostly it was a bizarre Sunday evening, too, one in which the alleged two best teams in the NFC performed in a sloppy manner befitting the conditions. And in which the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants both seemingly established that whoever represents the talent-laden AFC in Super Bowl XLI probably will do so as about a two-touchdown favorite. Oh, yeah, it was also a comedic contest in which the Bears cemented themselves as the NFL's premier team in the most esoteric art form -- returning missed field goals for touchdowns.
The Bears prevailed here 38-20, raising their conference-best record to 8-1, and rebounding from their first defeat of the season in last Sunday's meltdown against the Miami Dolphins. But it took them nearly one-third of the game to snap out of the maddening malaise with which they sleepwalked through last week's dubious effort, and it took the cornerstone on which this Chicago team is erected.
Suffocating and resourceful defense.
It wasn't until late in the first half that the Chicago offense broke out of its lingering stupor, with the Bears scoring in the final minute of the second quarter, on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Rex Grossman to wide receiver Mark Bradley, to narrow the New York lead to 13-10. The last-gasp drive, ignited by a 26-yard run from tailback Thomas Jones on a third-and-22 draw play, stoked the flames. And in the second half, a red-hot Grossman turned them into an inferno as Chicago scored four touchdowns.
But to get to that point, the Bears needed great defense, and after being knocked on its heels early in the game, the league's top-rated unit responded.
"We were in a lot of tough spots, really, and (the defense) kept making plays to give us a short field, or to put us in scoring position," said Grossman, who threw for 139 of his 246 yards in the second half. "You hate to lean on those guys too often, you know, but they keep coming up big. You never want to take them for granted, but that's one great defense. They held us in until we could get going. In the second half, a lot more stuff opened up for us. We started making some big plays."
It was a dubious decision at best by New York coach Tom Coughlin, attempting a long field goal into the wind and trailing by only 24-20 at the time. But the guts of Hester, a fearless return man who has run back two punts for touchdowns in his debut season, transformed dubious into disastrous. Fielding the short field goal try eight yards deep in the end zone, Hester hesitated, took a few slow steps forward, and the Giants' slowed to a near halt.
Sensing that he might have room on the right sideline, Hester burst out of the end zone, cut right, and hit open field, then got blocks from Charles Tillman and Mark Anderson that wiped out two New York players. The return tied for the longest play in NFL history. And who did it tie? Chicago corner Nathan Vasher, who returned a short field goal 108 yards for a touchdown against San Francisco last year.
"I saw them start, like, walking off the field almost," Hester said. "I knew then that I could get it out at least past the 20(-yard line), so I figured, 'Hey, why not?' I mean, I guess records were made to be tied, huh?"
Said Bears general manager Jerry Angelo: "I've been a lot of places where we've struggled to score points. When you've got a guy like (Hester), someone who can make a play with the ball in his hands, you draft him. I mean, there are times, when he's running around, where you're thinking, 'What the heck is he doing?' But he's got that swagger that all great return men have. He isn't afraid to take a chance. Right now, most of his chances are paying off."
Nothing is paying off quite so handsomely for the Bears, though, than a defense that seems to sense when it has its opponents on the ropes and closes in for the kill.
Chicago surrendered some plays early on -- even though the lone touchdown the Bears permitted in the first half came on a one-yard New York drive, following a Giants' interception -- and then girded considerably. After an opening possession in which the Giants drove 61 yards, but failed to cash in when Feely was wide right on a 33-yard field goal attempt, the Bears allowed just one more offensive series in which New York netted more than 30 yards.
Of the Bears' 38 points, 24 came either after takeaways or on Hester's record-tying return.
Notable was the performance of defensive right end Alex Brown, who abused Giants' backup left tackle Bob Whitfield, after the 15-year veteran replaced starter Luke Petitgout, who suffered a broken left fibula that likely will end his season. Brown whipped Whitfield for two sacks, and stripped the ball from Giants' quarterback Eli Manning both times, with Chicago recovering one of the fumbles and converting it into a touchdown. The second sack-and-strip preceded Feely's missed 52-yarder that Hester returned.
Brown has made a living, it seems, playing at Giants Stadium. In 2004, he beat Petitgout for four sacks in one game, and shortly thereafter signed a fat contract extension. In the 32 games since then, Brown had only 10 sacks. But he acknowledged after the game Sunday night that his favorite player growing up was former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, and that he gains inspiration playing on the same field where the Hall of Fame member worked.
"We needed some plays, and it just so happens that I was the guy to make them," Brown said. "Someone had to step up and do something to kind of (ignite) us. So I struck the match, I guess, but it could have been anyone on this defense. (There's) a lot of pride in that group."
Whether the defense has enough to carry the Bears to a Super Bowl date remains to be seen. Chicago on Sunday did what it has done so often in 2006, displaying some flashes that hint its offense can make big plays when it needs them. But the running game remains suspect -- Jones' key run on the draw play was the Bears' first rush for more than 20 yards since Oct. 1 -- and Grossman sometimes takes a while get into a rhythm. Minus injured wide receiver Bernard Berrian, the team's best deep threat, Grossman is forced to rely on Muhsin Muhammad (seven catches, 123 yards) on third-and-long.
But for the most part, defense is a constant for Chicago, which has now gone 66 games without allowing consecutive 30-point outings by its opponents.
"We have so much confidence in those guys, that they're going to show up every week," said Jones, who ran for 113 yards on 30 carries. "They make plays, they set up scores, and then we get a little icing on the cake, like with Devin's return, and we're tough to beat."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.