Carolina Panthers’ run game, pass rush key in snapping Vikings’ NFL-best win streak
The Panthers hung on for a 31-24 victory over the Vikings, snapping Minnesota’s NFL-best eight-game win streak, while improving to 9-4 to remain one game ahead of Atlanta in the wild-card hunt.
Carolina led, 24-13, midway through the third quarter on the strength of a nasty pass rush and vintage performance from Jonathan Stewart, whose 16-103-3 rushing day began with a 60-yard touchdown on the Panthers’ third offensive play.
Playing against a Vikings offensive line missing three starters by game’s end (more on this momentarily), Carolina took advantage with six sacks of Case Keenum. He’d been sacked just nine total times entering Sunday, and narrowly avoided several more with slippery movement and impressive instincts in the pocket.
As is often the case, Cam Newton’s highs were spectacular and his lows sunk to the points of almost costing the Panthers a win.
Newton’s touchdown to Devin Funchess, extending Caroina’s lead to 21-13, was classic Newton improvisation to avoid pressure up the middle and buy extra time before getting off a 18-yard floater to Funchess. Newton, who finished just 13-of-25 for 137 yards, one TD, one INT and a 64.9 rating, also set up Carolina’s game-winning touchdown with a 62-yard keeper from zone read that included a devastating open-field cut to create another 40-plus yards of space and get him down to the Minnesota 8 at the two-minute warning of a tie game.
But Newton’s running heroics were necessitated by his bad interception when Carolina, attempting to preserve a 24-21 lead more than midway through the fourth, needed to kill clock.
He misfired high to Christian McCaffrey — after turfing a first-down attempt — and the ball bounced off the back’s hands into the waiting arms of Andrew Sendejo, who returned it to the Carolina 6.
The Panthers, with coordinator Steve Wilks sending the dogs on three consecutive plays against a Vikings front wall lacking cohesion, were able to force Minnesota into a game-tying field goal after Kawann Short’s second sack, this one on third down to complete the goal-line stand.
Newton’s long dash on the subsequent series set up Stewart’s third touchdown and clinching of a perseverant Panthers victory.
As for Minnesota, there’s no shame in losing for the first time since mid-September, especially against a team that plays with a similar formula and physicality. But there were errors (Adam Thielen dropped two would-be touchdowns before intermission, when the Vikings settled for 3 and a one-point deficit instead of a 17-14 lead) and, worse, injuries up front where Minnesota has enjoyed perhaps its greatest turnaround this season.
Riley Reiff was carted off with an ankle injury in the second half. Minnesota started the game without C Pat Elflein and RT Mike Remmers, and Remmers’ backup, Rashod Hill, had to move across the line after struggling on the right vs. Julius Peppers. The whole reshuffled unit had a tough game, after enjoying enviable continuity for the most part during a 10-2 start.
However, the offensive line shifting was reminiscent of last season, and it’s fair to wonder whether the levee would be on the verge of breaking if Reiff’s injury costs him additional time. And after entering Sunday in control of the NFC’s top playoff spot, Minnesota not only appeared unlikely to retain it — the Eagles were up big on the road to the NFC West-leading Rams as of this writing — but the NFC North door remains slightly ajar with the Lions and Packers both engineering come-from-behind wins.
The Vikings didn’t play up to their standards defensively, letting Stewart secure the longest run and first 100-yard game vs. them this season as part of Carolina’s 216-rushing yard afternoon. Kai Forbath badly missed a third-quarter field goal, another unneeded reminder of the issues that have sunk Minnesota in recent seasons. But the biggest concern for Mike Zimmer’s club has to be the status of Reiff and a banged-up offensive line, a critical cog in the offense’s rebirth under Keenum.