CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Peppers batted the screen pass in the air, darted to the side and made a diving interception at the line of scrimmage
The five-time Pro Bowl defensive end rose to his feet with the ball in his right hand and put his left index finger to the edge of his facemask.
The crowd didn't hush, but booed even more. What else could they do? Peppers had used one of his freakishly athletic plays to send his old team into an even deeper tailspin.
Todd Collins' miserable four-interception day in place of Jay Cutler didn't matter for Chicago. Not with Peppers and the Bears shutting down Carolina's anemic offense and with Matt Forte leading a rejuvenated running game in a 23-6 win over the winless Panthers on Sunday.
"I think it speaks for itself," Peppers said of his acrobatic first-quarter interception that set up a field goal for a 17-3 lead. "I was able to get a hand on the ball and slapped it into the air and I came down with it. The celebration was self-explanatory."
With Forte rushing for 166 yards and Chicago's first two touchdowns rushing of the season behind a revamped offensive line, the Bears (4-1) bounced back from an ugly loss against the New York Giants. They did just enough to beat the Panthers (0-5), who again couldn't move the ball with quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
The rookie was 9-of-22 for 61 yards and a pick before being lifted late in the game for Matt Moore, who then threw two interceptions. Carolina, the NFL's lowest-scoring team, managed two field goals and 147 yards.
"You're not going to go from a rookie quarterback to an All-Pro quarterback in one week or a few games or a season," Clausen said. "It's just a progression that you've got to go through."
Carolina's offseason cost-cutting and youth movement began with the decision to let Peppers leave in free agency. The North Carolina native signed a six-year, $91.5 million deal with the Bears.
With Cutler sidelined with a concussion and the 38-year-old Collins immobile, shaky and inaccurate before he was yanked, Chicago needed its defense to silence a surly crowd that booed Peppers at every chance after nearly three years of failed contract negotiations.
"I loved it. I'm [in Chicago] now," Peppers said. "You see the shirt. I'm not for the home team, so that's what I expected."
Collins, making his first NFL start since 2007 in Washington, completed just 6 of 16 passes for 32 yards before Caleb Hanie took over in the fourth quarter. Yet when Collins exited with a 6.2 passer rating, his team was ahead 17-6.
The Panthers, who didn't have top receiver Steve Smith (ankle), became the first NFL team since 1999 to start rookies at QB and both receiver spots.
When the running game dried up after a good first drive, the Panthers were stymied even with the help of Collins' poor passes. 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.
"Julius was trying to be low-key as much as possible, but when you come home, it's always exciting," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He has a lot of fans here and a lot of people saw him grow up from a young kid to the guy he is today. To come back with another team and win the football game and let everyone see how well you are doing is big."
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 two 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.
"It made it an easier offensive game for us to run the ball like that first," Forte said.
Peppers soon made his interception, part of what Fox called "an avalanche" in the first quarter Carolina couldn't recover from no matter how many times Collins kept throwing him the ball.
The Bears hope Cutler returns next week, while Carolina heads into its bye week in disarray and glad Peppers is leaving town.
"Quick screens to his side are not recommended," Fox said.
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