CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Julius Peppers batted the pass into the air, darted to his left and made a diving interception. It was the kind of acrobatic, freakishly athletic play Carolina fans routinely witnessed in his eight years with the Panthers.
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Only this time Peppers was wearing a Chicago uniform, and it was one of the few impressive plays made in a game that left Carolina fans booing both Peppers and the Panthers.
Matt Forte rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns, Peppers led a ferocious defense and the Bears overcame four interceptions by backup quarterback Todd Collins to beat the winless Panthers 23-6 on Sunday.
Forte scored both his TDs in the first quarter, during which Peppers silenced a booing crowd in his first game back to Carolina with his interception to set up a field goal.
The Bears (4-1) bounced back from an ugly loss a week earlier against the New York Giants to do just enough to beat the Panthers (0-5), who again couldn’t move the ball with Jimmy Clausen at quarterback.
With Jay Cutler sidelined with a concussion, the 38-year-old Collins was immobile, shaky and inaccurate behind a reworked line.
After allowing 10 sacks last week, the Bears gave rookie J’Marcus Webb and Edwin Williams starts. The line produced some early holes for the running game and allowed only three sacks, but Chicago did nothing offensively after the first quarter with the 38-year-old Collins making his first start since 2007 in Washington.
He completed just 6 of 16 passes before being benched for Caleb Hanie. Yet when Collins exited with a 6.3 passer rating, his team was ahead 17-6 because Clausen wasn’t much better before he, too, was benched. Former starter Matt Moore then threw two interceptions in relief.
The Panthers, the NFL’s lowest-scoring team, didn’t have top receiver Steve Smith (ankle) and became the first NFL team since 1999 to start rookies at QB and both receiver spots.
When the run game dried up after a good first drive, the Panthers were stymied. Israel Idonije had three of Chicago’s five sacks and the Bears overcame the loss of linebacker Lance Briggs to an ankle injury in the second half.
It allowed Peppers to leave Charlotte triumphant.
Peppers shook smiling Carolina coach John Fox’s hand almost immediately after coming onto the field about 35 minutes before kickoff. Peppers called and lost the opening coin toss, but the Panthers deferred to the second half and the Bears had a 7-0 lead before the game was 2 minutes old.
Danieal Manning returned a low kickoff 62 yards. Four plays later, Forte took a pitch 18 yards to the end zone.
Forte surpassed 100 yards before the first quarter was over, racing 68 yards down the left sideline for a score. Not bad for a team without a touchdown rushing in its first four games.
Then it was time for Peppers, booed loudly every time his name was announced, to make a key play.
Peppers quickly shed a block and knocked Clausen’s pass high in the air with his left hand. Peppers shifted to his right and made a diving catch near the line of scrimmage for his seventh career interception.
It set up Robbie Gould’s field goal to give Chicago a 17-3 lead.
The Bears should have had a bigger first-quarter lead after Devin Hester returned a punt 50 yards to the Carolina 9. But Ed Johnson picked off Collins at the goal line.
It was the beginning of a nightmarish stretch for Collins, who was also picked off by Jordan Pugh and Everette Brown before halftime.
Clausen struggled in nearly every aspect. He bobbled a snap, had the ball knocked free on a sack and had the ball slip out of his hands on a handoff by early in the second quarter. The Panthers recovered all three fumbles, but couldn’t move the ball, managing three first downs in the first half.
The Notre Dame product was 9 of 22 for 61 yards and an interception, and the Panthers managed 147 yards as they continued their worst start since beginning 0-7 in 1998.
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