The Bears trailed 19-7 in the fourth when the game turned in a big way.
Chicago (6-1) took over on the Carolina 38 after Brad Nortman shanked a 6-yard punt, and Cutler connected with Kellen Davis on a 12-yard scoring pass with just under seven minutes left.
Then on Carolina’s next play from scrimmage, Steve Smith slipped on a pass pattern and Tim Jennings returned his second interception of the game 25 yards to make it 20-19.
Cam Newton then drove the Panthers to the Chicago 27, and Justin Medlock’s 45-yard field goal hit the right upright and went through to put Carolina ahead 22-20 with 2:27 remaining. Medlock finished with five field goals.
Cutler completed 19 of 28 passes for 186 yards after having his ribs bruised by Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh on Monday night.
Brandon Marshall had 98 yards receiving and Matt Forte ran for 70 yards and a touchdown for Chicago.
With the worst record in the NFC, they fired longtime general manager Marty Hurney on Monday while making it clear no one except maybe Newton is safe.
Even he’s come under criticism in recent weeks for his demeanor, and adding to the Panthers‘ woes was a mounting list of injuries, with three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil (foot), cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) and three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason (knee and shoulder) going down for the rest of the season in recent weeks.
None of that seemed to matter for much of the day.
The way this game started, it was hard to tell which team was in first place and which one was in disarray.
Hardy only had two sacks this season and never more than one in a game in his career, but he created all kinds of havoc in the first half.
Forte’s 13-yard scoring run through a big hole in the line on the Bears‘ next possession made it 7-0.
They had another golden opportunity late in the quarter after Cutler got sacked on consecutive plays, with Charles Johnson stripping him and Frank Alexander recovering at the Chicago 16.
Newton fumbled the ball into the end zone after an 8-yard scramble, but Louis Murphy made the recovery to give Carolina a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Medlock made it a six-point game with a 31-yard field goal with 4:36 left in the half, and the Panthers were threatening to score in the final minute of the half when Peppers wrapped up Newton as he dropped back with the ball on the 40.