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Hester's record return pushes Bears past sleeping Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Standing eight yards deep in the
end zone with the ball, Devin Hester couldn't believe his eyes --
the New York Giants were actually walking off the field.

He had just gathered in Jay Feely's field-goal attempt in the
fourth quarter, a kick that fell short. But the Chicago Bears'
return specialist wasn't going to go sprinting off just yet.

He gave the Giants a few extra seconds to vacate.

And with that, Hester was off to the races, giving the Chicago
Bears the inside track on NFC title with a record-tying 108-yard
romp that was the knockout blow in a 38-20 victory over the
injury-ravaged Giants in their NFC showdown Sunday night.

"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."

The record-tying return gave Chicago (8-1) a 31-20 lead.

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 rallied from a 10-point first-half
deficit 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.

"There is so much football left to go, but we still like being
undefeated in the NFC right now," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
"We like being undefeated on the road. We like the position."

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.

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 agreed 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.

Game 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.