By The Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Only Brett Favre could get hurt in a game he was supposedly too beat up to play in.
After Minnesota’s battered quarterback walked off the snow-coated field with what he later called a concussion, Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears took back the division title Favre is so used to winning.
Cutler’s three touchdown passes and record-setting Devin Hester’s dashing kick returns helped the Bears fly past the Vikings 40-14 on a frosty, hard-hitting Monday night to clinch the NFC North.
“Hopefully this is just a stepping stone,” Cutler said.
With the Metrodome unusable because of a roof collapse, the game got moved to the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. Snowballs flew from the seats — sometimes hitting players — and fans recalled the Vikings’ roots as an outdoor team.
After a sudden improvement in his sprained throwing shoulder, Favre was upgraded on the injury report less than eight hours before the game from “out” to “questionable.” He passed his pregame test and came out as the starter, capping the opening drive with a touchdown pass to Percy Harvin.
The lead didn’t last, though, and the Bears (10-4) took control. Corey Wootton’s second-quarter sack sent Favre to the frozen turf players had openly worried about in the days leading up to the game, and his helmet bounced off the ground.
Favre lay motionless for a few seconds before climbing to his feet and walking slowly off with his head hung down. With a black cap pulled past his eyebrows, Favre grimaced as he put on an oversized coat and got ready to watch the rest of the game.
Rookie Joe Webb took over, finding the end zone with a 13-yard scramble to cut the lead to 27-14 in the third quarter, but the Bears had their way after putting perhaps the final seal on Favre’s storied 20-year career.
“Was it cold? I’ve played in colder. It was icy,” Favre said, adding: “It didn’t seem to bother Chicago that much. I tip my hat to the University of Minnesota. I thought they did a great job on short notice.”
Cutler finished the game with a big bandage on his chin to cover a gash caused by a helmet-first hit by Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield during his only interception, by Asher Allen. Cutler said he needed three stitches.
He resembled a younger Favre after the game as he reveled in an unexpected playoff berth — at least among analysts and those outside Halas Hall — for a Bears team that began the season overshadowed by Favre’s current and former teams.
“Just had guys going to work every day,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Don’t listen to a lot of the stuff going on around them. They do everything we ask them to do as coaches, and we haven’t peaked yet.”
Hester caught one of Cutler’s touchdown passes and also took back the second-half kickoff 79 yards to set up a field goal a few minutes before his game-breaking punt return made it 27-7.
That was Hester’s 14th career return touchdown, kickoff or punt, breaking Brian Mitchell’s previous mark.
“Don’t dwell on this,” Hester said. “It’s the record-breaker, but there’s going to be a lot more. I guarantee you that.”
Favre doesn’t have many, if any, left. He finished 5 for 7 for 63 yards before the big hit by Wootton, but the Vikings (5-9) fell apart in front of their proud alumni attending the franchise’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Favre managed one more joyful jump on a teammate’s back to celebrate a touchdown, piggybacking right guard Ryan Cook before embracing Harvin and raising his left arm in triumph as he jogged off.
“It was a great opening drive,” Favre said. “I probably should’ve went straight up the tunnel after that. But again — you’ve got to try sometimes.”
Vikings interim coach Leslie Frazier sounded in awe afterward.
“I don’t know if there are any words to describe Brett Favre and what he has meant to his teammates, to me,” Frazier said.
Smith was a little less enthused by Favre’s quick healing.
“I assume ‘out’ means ‘out,'” he said. “You learn something every day.”
Former Vikings coach Bud Grant jogged around the field at halftime in a short-sleeve purple shirt, getting carried off by some of his former players after an inspired ceremony. With general-admission seating, customers braved the cold in parkas, snowmobile suits and ski caps, cheering their favorite players from the past as they were introduced at halftime.
Dozens of workers massaged the field before the game to make it as playable as possible, with machines pushing snow across the yard lines and into the corners of the brick-lined walls. Crews gently rolled off the tarp before warmups while the flakes kept flying.