CHICAGO — No matter how high the risk, Devin Hester still expects opponents to kick to him. The Chicago Bears sure don’t mind if they do.
“This is the reason guys are playing in the NFL — they’re the best players in the world and teams are not going to just shy away from one player on a team,” Hester said.
The Panthers didn’t, and Hester made them pay.
He had earlier set up a touchdown run by Forte with a 73-yard kickoff return before he ran back a line-drive punt 69 yards in the second quarter to move ahead of Eric Metcalf on the all-time list. His three somersaults in the end zone after the touchdown that made it 24-10 got him flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, but more important was he once again made a team pay for kicking to him.
“He is a weapon. You have to play eventually; you can’t just continue to kick the ball away,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Devin hadn’t really been that involved, hadn’t really had a lot of big returns so far, so of course I can see why teams have chose to kick the ball to him. They may think twice now.”
The Panthers (1-3) cut the lead to four points at halftime and had their chances to go ahead in the second half but came up short, spoiling coach Ron Rivera’s return to Soldier Field while wasting another big performance by Newton.
The NFL’s third-leading passer coming in, he threw for 374 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more. Carolina wound up with 543 total yards, but the rookie was clearly frustrated afterward.
“I play the game and I want to win every single game I play,” said Newton, who sat by his locker for an extended period with a towel on his head. “Obviously, it hurts when I lose, but it’s not just me. We have guys on our team that you know they have given it all they got. For me, to some degree, I felt like I let some teammates down. But just to look into those guys’ eyes each and every play and to know those guys are battling, it just works wonders for our whole team and its chemistry.”
Steve Smith passed Muhsin Muhammad as Carolina’s all-time leading receiver, finishing with 181 yards on eight catches. He needed 23 to set the record and now has 9,414 in his career, but a few key plays helped preserve a wild win for the Bears.
Tight end Jeremy Shockey was called for offensive pass interference in the third quarter — one of eight penalties against Carolina. It wiped out his 22-yard TD catch from Newton that would have given the Panthers the lead and the momentum.
“I’d like to get an explanation from the league and understand why they would call something like that,” said Shockey, who said the official making the call didn’t give him one.
“We pay their salary and I can’t even get an explanation,” he added. “They should be accountable, as well. They get paid a lot of money.”
Former Panther Julius Peppers then blocked a 34-yard field-goal attempt by Olindo Mare.
He also missed a 52-yard try after Charles Godfrey intercepted Jay Cutler at the Chicago 38. Robbie Gould made it 27-23 when he nailed a 24-yarder with 6:41 remaining.
The Bears (2-2) added to their lead in the closing minutes, when Forte broke off a 40-yard run and Marion Barber took it in from the 3, sealing the win after back-to-back losses to New Orleans and Green Bay.
Forte broke his previous career high of 166 yards last year against Carolina and shook off a brutal performance last week, when he managed 2 yards on nine attempts. He joined Walter Payton (275 and 205) and Gale Sayers (205) as the only Bears to run for 200 in a game, and Chicago wound up with 224 yards on 31 attempts.
“The holes were huge out there even toward the end of the game,” Forte said. “We just kept on pounding and pounding them. The offensive line wore the defense out.”