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Bear Monday: Hester Heaven

After Devin Hester's first attempted punt return Sunday - when No. 23 not only erred egregiously by swatting at the ball and knocking it down but then didn't even dive in to try to get it back - somewhere an insightful fan cried out "Devin, that was such a bad play, you're going to have to run back two just to make up for it." As it was foreseen, so was the Ridiculous One redeemed.

Then this year's Bears reasserted themselves. Shortly after Hester had made it 11 special teams touchdowns in just over a season and a half (the career record is 13), they still found a way to trail by two more touchdowns. But then they trailed by only one. And then Bernard Berrian's (wait, we need a new word here - how about) ludicrous last-minute fourth-down catch tied it up. Soon Desmond Clark was running free through the secondary and Adrian Peterson was again pounding away like a battering ram and Patrick Mannelly's snap was perfect as was Brad Maynard's hold and Robbie Gould's overtime kick. Wow.

On to the highlights . . . and a lowlight or two, or eight.

* Early on longtime analyst Dan Dierdorf notes the Bears offensive line has "a combined 44 years of experience." It apparently hasn't occurred to the old offensive lineman that maybe that number is a bit too high (and it doesn't even include 13-year veteran Ruben Brown, who started the first half of the season before a season-ending injury).

Out comes the defense and Dierdorf can quickly be heard praising the linebackers. He is so enamored of their abilities that I have a hard time believing he could have possibly watched their game with Seattle the week before, let alone a season's worth of ugly performances against offenses great and small.

* Later on Mr. Dierdorf (he was, after all, a member of many memorably vicious St. Louis Cardinal offensive lines) referred to an on-field occurrence as a "happenchance." The more I think about it as the game goes on, the more I think "happenchance" should be a word.

* Before the half ends, Peanut Tillman reminds us why the Bears found a way to sign him to a big contract extension in the off-season when he breaks up two passes in the same series in the end zone. Perhaps he should have intercepted the second one but, hey, the guy is making plays. And something tells us he's going to make more.

* The second half begins and Hester explodes. How classic was it that Todd Sauerbrun - Todd Sauerbrun! - was the one who blithely commented early last week that his Broncos and he in particular would not hesitate to kick the ball right to the greatest returner in the history of football. His comments really weren't a big deal - going into the game. Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said the same thing before his team played the Bears two weeks ago. But the Raiders shut Hester down.

Now Sauerbrun's comments will be grist for all sorts of "that jerk got his" commentary. Sauerbrun has had quite a career. He might very well have been the greatest-ever punting prospect when he left West Virginia, leading the Bears to spend an unheard-of second-round pick on him in the mid-90s. And he wasn't exactly shy about his achievements, meaning he has never been exactly popular with his teammates.

Sauerbrun had the misfortune of breaking into the NFL with Dave Wannstedt as his head coach and Keith Armstrong as his special teams assistant. Those guys were big on punting the ball high and not-so-far in order to avoid "out-kicking the coverage." Not surprisingly, Sauerbrun wasn't a big fan of that strategy, which was always such a stupid concept and now seems thoroughly discredited. After Sauerbrun got away from Wannstedt and Armstrong he led the league in punting three times in Carolina. He also was involved in all sorts of controversies, including ties to a steroid ring, a suspension for testing positive for ephedra, and an attempt to force management to refund money he had paid in fines for being overweight in exchange for his doing the placekicking in addition to punting after a fellow kicker got hurt.

On Sunday Sauerbrun didn't just serve up a couple of beautifully returnable kicks, of course, he also had his final punt blocked. (By Peanut! Who also had a huge pick!) That was after Rex Grossman's second fumble (the first was infuriating - the defender didn't touch the ball but Rex started to try to stretch it out away from his body in a futile attempt to gain an extra foot, lost control and then kicked it away from himself) seemed to drive a big nail in the coffin.

* The Broncos scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in the third and fourth quarters. They did so despite not converting a third down until less than 30 seconds remained in the third. Then again, you don't have to convert third downs if you keep converting second downs. It added up to another second-half defensive meltdown for the Bears in a season filled with them. A similar second-half meltdown wasn't as noticeable last week against Seattle just because the Bears defense had melted down in the first half as well.

* Other sights seen: Rashied Davis catching dropsy disease from Muhsin Muhammad (he now seems to be a permanent carrier); Denver safety Hamza Abdullah executing a high-flying, old-fashioned heel click after the replay official ruled he had indeed caused Grossman's first fumble and then recovered it; all three defensive ends (Mark Anderson, Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye) fooled by that counter-pitch play to Andre Hall before Anderson finally said enough is enough a recorded a big, late tackle-for-loss; Brandon Stokley jitterbugging on the sideline for the clutch first down that kicks off a drive featuring Adam Archuleta failing to even execute pass interference well on a 40-yard completion to tight end Tony Sheffler. Sheffler soon makes his circus catch in the end zone (making it 34-20) and anyone who thought the Bears still had a chance at that point is a better fan than I.

* Late in the game, in a review of big plays that had eventually added up to overtime, polished play-by-play guy and South Side native Greg Gumbel notes "Other than that, not much has happened."

* In the end, after Gould's kick does indeed split the uprights, Lovie is shown carefully removing his headset before beginning to walk toward the middle of the field. He is perfectly stoic until he allows himself the smallest of grins. I'm not sure if the corners off his mouth are actually turned even the slightest bit up but there is a twinkle in his eyes.

* In the aftermath it must be noted (and I began to note it last week) that the 5-6 Bears are now all of a game out of the final playoff spot in the NFC. They are actually further back than that because they've already lost twice to the Lions (6-5), who despite a three-game losing streak still - I love saying this - control their own destiny. If the boys from Detroit win out they will make the playoffs.

Then again, if the Bears beat the Giants on Sunday (don't get too excited of course - in order to do so they will have to win two in a row for the first time this season), they will trail the G-men (7-4) by all of game (for the first wildcard spot) and will have the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Clearly the only thing to do is to keep the faith. Through Devin, all things are possible.


Jim Coffman brings you Bear Monday every . . . Monday.

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