CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a game that saw both teams fail miserably when it came to throwing the football Sunday, the Bears found other ways to dominate the Panthers in an ugly, sloppy 23-6 victory.
Using great defense and a strong running game, the Bears pulverized a weak opponent and lifted themselves into first place in the NFC North at 4-1, a game ahead of the Green Bay Packers.
The Panthers fell to 0-5 and look like they have the inside track to the No. 1 pick in next year's draft.
The Bears were able to bounce back from their only defeat even without quarterback Jay Cutler, who suffered a concussion in the 17-3 loss to the New York Giants.
Cutler's value has never been demonstrated better than it was in his absence.
Backup Todd Collins was intercepted four times before being mercifully removed before the last series of the third quarter. He was replaced by Caleb Hanie, who was third on the depth chart but could move up this week.
The 38-year-old Collins, who hadn't started a game in nearly three years, completed just 6 of 16 passes for 32 yards and finished with a passer rating of 6.2, and he wasn't surprised to get the hook.
"I can understand it, he said. "It was probably my worst game ever, since I've been playing any sport. It's not like it was a surprise getting pulled. It's disappointing, but I was most disappointed in how I played.
Fortunately for them, the Bears had rocketed to a 17-3 lead in the first 10 minutes and 23 seconds as Matt Forte scored on an 18-yard run on the game's first possession and then busted a career-long 68-yard TD scamper on the Bears' next play from scrimmage.
Forte finished with a career-best 166 yards on 22 carries, a 7.5-yard average. As a team, the Bears rolled up 218 yards on the ground, their highest total since Oct. 28, 1990, when they had 223 against the Arizona Cardinals.
In the three previous games combined, the Bears had rushed for a total of 175 yards, and their previous season best was 101 in the opener against the Detroit Lions.
The first-quarter field goal, a 28-yarder by Robbie Gould, was set up by an amazing individual effort by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, whose return home to North Carolina was a smashing success.
After the Panthers used 10 straight running plays to start the game, rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen attempted his first pass, and Peppers demonstrated why the Bears spent $91 million to sign him to a six-year contract as an unrestricted free agent.
Peppers drove Panthers right tackle Geoff Schwartz back off the line of scrimmage and then got his left hand up to deflect Clausen's pass straight up in the air.
From a prone position, Peppers dove and caught the deflected ball in a crowd at the Panthers' 27 just before it hit the ground.
The way the Bears' defense was playing and considering the dysfunctional nature of the Panthers' offense, the game was all but over at that point.
The Panthers played three rookie wide receivers along with Clausen, and offensively they are clearly a work in progress.
On their first drive, the Panthers used nine running plays to move 55 yards to a 24-yard John Kasay field goal that trimmed the Bears' lead to 7-3. But over the next 52 minutes and 52 seconds, Carolina produced just 92 yards of total offense.
The Panthers' only other points came on Kasay's 53-yard field goal after Collins' fourth interception that gave the home team the ball at the Bears' 43.
But even then they managed just 1 first down. Carolina's ineptitude on offense? Clausen and Matt Moore combined for a passer rating of 12.0, 3 interceptions and a net 62 yards.
That's why Bears coach Lovie Smith was able to stick with Collins so long before calling for Hanie.
"We were in control of the game for the most part, and we knew that we were committed to the run, and (we) wanted Todd to finish up on a high note, Smith said.
"But we got to a point where we just felt like we couldn't let them back in the game. We said last week Todd was next up (after Cutler), but we felt good about Caleb playing, and Caleb came in and did a good job.
With the defense sacking Clausen five times, including a career-best 3 by Israel Idonije, and picking off Moore twice, Hanie was asked to hand the ball to Forte and Chester Taylor. But he did complete 2 of his 3 passes for 19 yards, which made him the star quarterback in the game.
Cutler is supposed to be back for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks at Soldier Field. But if not, Hanie could leapfrog past Collins and get his first NFL start, although he downplayed that possibility.
"I don't think there's much to talk about, Hanie said. "The running game was on and the defense was playing phenomenal. I'm not going to speculate on any of that stuff. If they want me to play, that's fine. I'm going to take it as it comes.
Smith attempted to throw water on any budding quarterback controversy.
"It's a little early for us to get into that, Smith said. "Hopefully Jay will be able to go and we won't have to go down that road.
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