CHICAGO -- As Devin Hester celebrated a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Bears a lead Monday night against the Packers, it immediately suggested two things.
Hester is back.
So too are the Bears.
Somehow the team that couldn't win in preseason refused to lose against the Packers. An exhilarating 20-17 victory made the Bears 3-0 -- the only unbeaten team left in the NFC -- and established them as legitimate conference title contenders.
Welcome back, Monsters of the Midway.
The last time the Bears were this good, they won with a formula of special teams, an opportunistic defense and a clutch offense. When Tim Jennings recovered James Jones' fumble with 2:18 left to set up Robbie Gould's game-winning 19-yard field goal, they had used the same method to create civic madness.
You didn't have to be a Bears fan to start to wonder about Hester. From GM Jerry Angelo to the Bears broadcast booth, the idea of taking punt-return duties away from Hester has been broached in the past couple weeks. Hester had looked lost, slow and tentative -- everything he wasn't when he caught Tim Masthay's punt at his own 38-yard line with the Bears trailing 10-7 in a game as good as advertised.
Then Hester accelerated with a gear we have seldom seen since his last return for a touchdown in the last game of the 2007 season and sprinted down the home sideline. He was indeed, in the words of play-by-play man Jeff Joniak, ridiculous.
The matchup of the NFC's last two unbeaten teams was much harder to describe in one word.
Just like that, Hester's return ignited the stadium and a Bears team that refused to go away.
It also saved Lovie Smith from more embarrassment over a questionable call.
Smith will point to his decision to go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1 as the impetus for Hester's touchdown. But even though the result ended in a way that favored the Bears, I still have a hard time with Smith passing up a sure chance at points in a game this close.
Blame tight end Desmond Clark all you want for dropping a pass from Jay Cutler in the end zone on the play. But the ball never should have been thrown or snapped and the margin of error never should have been made so thin.
It appeared as if Smith didn't learn his lesson in the season opener against the Lions when his fourth-and-goal call didn't work either. Hester's punt return for a touchdown after the Packers were pinned deep in their territory only will embolden Smith to make the same decision next time.
We will agree to disagree.
The Bears could have tied the game at 10 by kicking what amounted to an extra point and kept the momentum they had just regained. Soldier Field already had come alive midway through the third quarter thanks to the way Julius Peppers gave the Bears offense a chance and the stadium hope.
By now everybody knows Julius Peppers as the Bears' $91 million man. That's a small fortune.
But it is much harder to quantify the value of what Peppers did when he single-handedly changed the game. Literally and figuratively.
Peppers raised his giant right paw to block a 37-yard field-goal attempt by Mason Crosby to prevent the Packers from padding the lead.
One play earlier, the Packers had just scored on an apparent 21-yard TD pass to Jermichael Finley that would have given the visitors a commanding 17-7 lead. But the touchdown was negated when Packers right offensive tackle Mark Tauscher was flagged for holding Peppers when he grabbed him by the neck.
The Bears kept waiting for Aaron Rodgers to make a bad decision but he never did. On Sunday night, Rodgers picked up the tab for a group of Bears dining at the same downtown restaurant. A day later, Rodgers nearly made them pay dearly.
His 3-yard touchdown run with 6 minutes 52 seconds left sucked the energy out of the place almost as quickly as Hester restored it. From the opening drive, Rodgers showed constant awareness in the pocket and accuracy downfield that probably established him as the best quarterback in the division.
His counterpart, Cutler, had more of a mixed night. I know it was throwback night at Soldier Field, but Bears fans could have done without seeing the 2009 version of Cutler in the first half. Bad Jay cost the Bears a scoring opportunity early and played with fire late in the fourth quarter by lofting a few ill-advised balls.
There's no way Cutler should have thrown the first-quarter interception into the end zone intended for tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen may have stopped the route prematurely but he clearly was covered and it made for an easy pick by Derrick Martin that killed a drive.
For most of the first half, when Cutler zigged, his receivers zagged. A passing scheme reliant on timing and communication lacked both. But Cutler redeemed himself in the fourth quarter when Johnny Knox came up with key plays for the second straight week and his completion to Olsen on the decisive drive.
Rodgers won the battle of star quarterbacks statistically and aesthetically. Cutler won the war. Nobody is complaining.
Remember how Bears Nation felt April 2, 2009, after the Cutler trade -- a seminal moment for the franchise?
Tuesday will feel every bit as sweet around Chicago.