CHICAGO (AP) – Devin Hester ran into the record book again. Ricky Manning Jr. returned an interception for a touchdown, and the Chicago Bears claimed their second straight NFC North title.

Hester tied an NFL record with his fourth touchdown return, and Manning ran an interception back 54 yards to lead Chicago to a 23-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on a frigid Sunday afternoon.

Chicago has a five-game lead on the Vikings with four games remaining, and also has the NFC’s best record by two games.

And the Bears (10-2) overcame another shaky performance by quarterback Rex Grossman, who finished with a 1.3 rating after carrying a 0.0 into the final period. The Vikings couldn’t overcome Brad Johnson’s, however.

With the temperature around 20 and wind chill in single digits, Grossman did little to stop the debate about whether he should start. And Johnson was replaced.

With some fans calling for backup Brian Griese after a loss at New England, Grossman was 6-of-19 for 34 yards and threw three interceptions for the second straight week but stayed in the game. He has 14 interceptions in the last seven games after throwing three in the first five.

He had two in the first half, and his first attempt of the third quarter was intercepted.

As bad as Grossman was, Johnson wasn’t any better.

The veteran was 11-of-26 with 73 yards and four interceptions before being lifted for Brooks Bollinger late in the third quarter, and his last two passes ended in the Bears’ hands.

Back from a one-game suspension for his role in a Los Angeles restaurant altercation, Manning picked off his team-leading fifth pass at the Chicago 46. He returned it for his first touchdown this year to make it 14-6 in the third quarter. On the next play from scrimmage, Brian Urlacher intercepted Johnson.

That led to a 23-yard touchdown run by Cedric Benson and a quarterback change for the Vikings.

Benson had 60 yards on nine carries against a defense that was averaging a league-low 56.6 yards. And Thomas Jones added 32 on 12 attempts for the Bears.

Chester Taylor ran for 99 yards and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for Minnesota (5-7).

Bollinger was 7-of-9 for 70 yards, but appeared to be shaken up after being sacked by Adewale Ogunleye late in the game. Rookie Tarvaris Jackson replaced him and was 3-for-4 for 35 yards.

After both teams blew several prime opportunities in the first quarter, Hester broke through early in the second and gave the Bears a 7-0 lead.

The rookie caught a punt at the 45 and ran straight to the highlight reel. He took a step back with four Vikings closing in, reversed to the left side and ran all the way to the end zone, breaking four tackles on the way.

It was his team-record third punt return for a touchdown. Hester also ran back a missed field goal 108 yards against the New York Giants last month, tying an NFL mark for longest return set by teammate Nathan Vasher last season.

Taylor broke off a 42-yard run to set up a 23-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell that made it 7-3. And Longwell added a 30-yarder early in the third that made it a one-point game.

Notes: Bears DT Tommie Harris left in the third quarter Sunday with a leg injury. Harris, who made the Pro Bowl last season, was hurt on the second scrimmage play of the second half, a 6-yard run by Taylor. After staying on the ground for several minutes, Harris was helped off the field. … Vasher suffered a hamstring injury. … Vikings NT Pat Williams, questionable with a knee injury, played. … Taylor has 1,098 yards this season.

AP-ES-12-03-06 1716EST


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