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Chad's in the strike zone
Midway through the first quarter of Sunday's 24-14 Bears victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Chad Hutchinson's instincts succumbed to his intensity.
Scrambling out of the pocket and toward the sideline, the Bears' quarterback lowered his shoulder into 259-pound linebacker Chris Claiborne. The Viking responded by reminding Hutchinson how hard NFL linebackers hit and throwing him to the Soldier Field turf with a thud.
But the Bears picked up more than three yards on the play. They gained their missing edge.
On the way back to the huddle, Hutchinson acknowledged the collision by waving a finger at Claiborne.
"It definitely didn't hurt," Hutchinson said. "I just got up and said, 'Keep bringing it because I can take it."'
Hutchinson made his point. Then the Bears backed him up.
An offense relying on three new startersHutchinson, right tackle Aaron Gibson and left guard Terrence Metcalfenjoyed its most productive game since Rex Grossman injured his knee in Minneapolis the first time these teams met on Sept. 26.
A defense buoyed by the return of linebacker Brian Urlacher created four turnovers, including three interceptions inside the 20-yard line, and held the NFL's fifth-ranked scoring offense 12 points below its average.
A football team left for dead in Dallas 10 days earlier revived its wild-card playoff hopes.
The Bears became one of five 5-7 teams in the NFC and are only one game behind 6-6 St. Louis, currently the second wild-card qualifier.
"It's infectious," said Urlacher, playing his first game since calf surgery three weeks ago. "Chad's a happy-go-lucky guy who gets excited. He's confident when he's out there, and he's got a gun [for an arm]."
In baseball parlance, the former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher put together a quality start in his first NFL game in nearly two years. He left little doubt who will be the ace of the Bears' staff for the final month.
Hutchinson completed 18 of 30 passes for 213 yards and three touchdownsthe first three-TD outing by a Bear since Jim Miller on Oct. 7, 2002. Hutchinson's quarterback rating of 115.0 exceeded even Grossman's best this season.
"He had a look about him all week," coach Lovie Smith said. "It would have been hard to convince him that he was not going to play well."
Hutchinson spread the ball around against a Vikings defense that suffered when cornerback Antoine Winfield left in the first quarter with an injured shoulder. He hit seven receivers, and three positionswide receiver David Terrell, tight end Desmond Clark and fullback Jason McKiecaught TD passes.
Hutchinson's 15-yarder to Terrell with 22 seconds left in the first half gave the Bears the lead for good and showed a soft touch that complemented his rocket arm. The reception was Terrell's first inside the 20 all season.
Hutchinson lost one fumble on a third-quarter sack by Lance Johnstone, but otherwise he was as efficient as he was accurate in reminding Chicago what an NFL quarterback looks like.
"You can talk about his personality as much as you want, but it's the way he throws the ball," said center Olin Kreutz, who foretold Hutchinson's big game to friends Friday night. "He puts the ball in tight spots and makes plays, and that affects the team."
How Hutchinson might have affected the Bears' victory total had he played earlier this season, when Jonathan Quinn and Craig Krenzel failed, tortured some Bears fans Sunday night. But in the locker room, relief trumped regret.
"There is no second-guessing," Hutchinson said. "To win this game was sweet."
Vindication often is.
As if Hutchinson's charisma did not provide enough of a spark, Smith used the Vikings' perceived disrespect of the Bears to energize his team.
Several Bears players and coaches claimed Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, his hamstring ailing but his mouth apparently in Pro Bowl form, challenged individual members of the secondary during pregame calisthenics.
"We were called out by them and showed up and fought until the last whistle," Smith said.
Called out by Moss?
"Yeah, that's who I'm talking about," Smith said.
A Minneapolis reporter said last week that he felt sorry for cornerback Charles Tillman, and Moss replied, "Me too." After Moss was rendered all but irrelevant with four catches for 31 yards, Tillman enjoyed the last word on a day on which he also forced Moss to fumble.
"I feel sorry for him today, then," Tillman said.
Their confrontation, which included a sideline wrestling match after the whistle in the second half, spilled over after the game. While Moss was signing autographs, Tillman and safety Mike Green glared in his direction as they walked off the field.
"Sometimes if you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "And that's what our guys did."
They did it early, and it set the tone Rivera wanted against one of the league's most dangerous quarterbacks, Daunte Culpepper.
On the Vikings' opening drive, Culpepper tried to hit wide receiver Nate Burleson, but the high throw went through Burleson's hands. Cornerback Jerry Azumah alertly grabbed the deflection and zigzagged into daylight for a 52-yard interception return that set up Hutchinson's first TD pass.
It was one of Azumah's two interceptions. A blitz-happy Bears pass rush sacked Culpepper five times, including two by defensive tackle Alfonso Boone, and pressured the Vikings quarterback into some bad throws.
One of the worst came with 5:49 left in the second quarter when Culpepper threw a dart toward Marcus Robinson into the arms of Urlacher at the Bears' 3, and the Pro Bowl linebacker held on for his first interception in 36 games. "He just kind of faded back and made a great play," Culpepper said.
The presence of Urlacher also helped fix a leaky run defense that had given up an average of 215 yards per game in the last two games without him. Minnesota managed a relatively harmless 146.
The Vikings did not intimidate their hosts, hard as they tried.
"I don't know if they expected us to lay down or what," Kreutz said. "But they got the wrong team if that's what they expected."