One thing the Chicago Bears weren't doing was breathing easy.
Hester had earlier set up a touchdown run by Forte with a 73-yard kickoff return before he ran back a line-drive punt 69 yards in the second quarter to move ahead of Eric Metcalf on the all-time list.
"It was a bad hit on the punt, it let a lot of space on the field for me to try to create things," said Hester, the NFL's career leader with 15 combined kick-return TDs.
His three somersaults in the end zone after the touchdown that made it 24-10 got him flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, but the celebration was a little early.
The Panthers (1-3) cut the lead to four points at halftime and had their chances to go ahead in the second half but came up short, spoiling coach Ron Rivera's return to Soldier Field while wasting another big performance by Newton.
The NFL's third-leading passer coming in, he threw for 374 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more. Carolina wound up with 543 total yards, but the rookie was clearly frustrated afterward.
"I play the game and I want to win every single game I play," said Newton, who sat by his locker for an extended period with a towel on his head. "Obviously, it hurts when I lose, but it's not just me. We have guys on your team that you know they have given it all they got. For me, to some degree, I felt like I let some teammates down. But just to look into those guys eyes each and every play and to know those guys are battling, it just works wonders for our whole team and its chemistry."
Steve Smith passed Muhsin Muhammad as Carolina's all-time leading receiver, finishing with 181 yards on eight catches. He needed 23 to set the record and now has 9,414 in his career, but a few key plays helped preserve a wild win for the Bears.
Tight end Jeremy Shockey was called for offensive pass interference in the third quarter -- one of eight penalties against Carolina. It wiped out his 22-yard TD catch from Newton that would have given the Panthers the lead and the momentum.
"I'd like to get an explanation from the league and understand why they would call something like that," said Shockey, who said the official making the call didn't give him one. "We pay their salary and I can't even get an explanation," he added. "They should be accountable, as well. They get paid a lot of money."
The Bears (2-2) added to their lead in the closing minutes, when Forte broke off a 40-yard run and Marion Barber took it in from the 3, sealing the win after back-to-back losses to New Orleans and Green Bay.
Forte broke his previous career high of 166 yards last year against Carolina and shook off a brutal performance last week, when he managed 2 yards on nine attempts. He joined Walter Payton (275 and 205) and Gale Sayers (205) as the only Bears to run for 200 in a game, and Chicago wound up with 224 yards on 31 attempts.
"The holes were huge out there even toward the end of the game," Forte said. "We just kept on pounding and pounding them. The offensive line wore the defense out."
Never mind that Cutler was 9 of 17 for 102 yards or that the defense did anything but contain the Panthers after struggling against Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. With Forte and Hester providing the lift, the Bears came out on top.
For Rivera, this wasn't the homecoming he had in mind.
A linebacker on the 1985 championship team who became defensive coordinator, he was let go following the 2006 Super Bowl season. He wound up on the staff at San Diego and is now in his first year as a head coach.
"I really would have loved to win this football game, but we didn't," Rivera said. "Again, hat's off to them."
The Bears' 224 yards rushing were the most for them since they had 242 at Green Bay in September 1988. ... Barber might want to think twice about trying another back flip in the end zone after his awkward attempt following the touchdown. He wound up landing on his face. That mishap aside, getting to the end zone had to feel good considering he missed the first three games with a calf injury. ... Panthers TE and former Bear Greg Olsen had five catches for 50 yards, including a TD in the closing seconds.