MINNEAPOLIS — The likely end of a Hall of Fame career. The first outdoor game in Minnesota in 29 years. A record-setting kick return.
For the Bears, all of it paled in comparison with clinching the NFC North championship and their first playoff berth in four seasons. They roughed up Brett Favre, then mauled backup Joe Webb for a 40-14 victory over the Vikings before an announced crowd of 40,504.
NFC. They host the Jets on Sunday and close the regular season Jan. 2 in Green Bay.
"This means we're one step closer to our ultimate goal," center Olin Kreutz said. "We're going to enjoy this. Now, the work starts."
Considering his deep history with the Bears, it was appropriate that restorative powers reached Favre's right shoulder in time for him to make his 36th start against them. Weeks away from what is believed to be the end of the 41-year-old quarterback's career, the Bears might have ended it prematurely when rookie Corey Wootton sacked Favre in the second quarter, driving his helmet into the turf and forcing him out with a head injury.
Favre's final NFL start might have come at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, eight days after a snowstorm collapsed the Metrodome roof, and the Vikings might use the game as a springboard toward a new stadium.
Devin Hester added to the historic evening by returning a Chris Kluwe punt 64 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to become the NFL's all-time leader in combined kickoff and punt returns for a score with 14.
It looked like Hester might set the record on the second-half kickoff, but Heath Farwell tackled him at the 6-yard line after a 79-yard runback.
Coach Lovie Smith has guided the Bears to the playoffs for the third time in seven years and the first time since 2006, when they reached Super Bowl XLI. They won the division after a controversial offseason when the public wanted Halas Hall offices cleaned out following a third straight year missing the postseason.
But Smith got one more chance, and he talked Rod Marinelli into becoming defensive coordinator and eased resistance to bringing offensive coordinator Mike Martz on board. Then the Bears spent as if they had their backs to the wall, and it paid off.
GM Jerry Angelo long maintained the Bears never would set the bar in free agency, yet they did with end Julius Peppers, who led a front that totaled four sacks. The offense has slowly come together under Martz.
"Can you guys smell that?" Martz said when he stopped in front of a reporter and offensive linemen. "It's a championship."
The Bears didn't expect to see Favre. The Vikings (5-9) ruled him out Saturday, only to upgrade him Monday to questionable. Favre, who presumably will close with a 23-13 record against the Bears, was dominated by Smith. Since he became coach in 2004, the Bears are 9-3 against Favre.
Favre quickly led the Vikings to a 7-0 lead, hitting Percy Harvin for a 23-yard touchdown pass. Henry Melton deflected a pass that Peppers picked off to set up a 29-yard field goal by Robbie Gould. Cutler's touchdown passes to Johnny Knox (67 yards) and Hester (15) put the Bears ahead 17-7 at half.
The rout was on in the second half. Hester's long kickoff return set up another chip-shot field goal for Gould. Hester scored on the punt return, and Rashied Davis scored on a 9-yard reception.
"It's been a rough couple of years," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Guys in this room knew what we were capable of, and this says a lot for the coaches and the people we have in the organization. This is a pretty good time for everyone in the city."
Now the focus is on getting a week off in January before a playoff game at Soldier Field — maybe one in similar weather.
Bears win NFC North with 40-14 victory over Vikings
KO Favre in what might end up as QB's last game
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