The Carolina Panthers proved three things on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Against the Minnesota Vikings, who came into the game with the NFC’s best record, an eight-game winning streak and the league’s second-rated defense, the best defense on the field belonged to Carolina.
A 62-yard Newton run on a zone-read option, which set up Jonathan Stewart’s leaping, go-ahead score in a 31-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, showed again that Newton needs to be prominent in the Carolina run game.
And at 9-4, the Panthers are still very much alive in the NFC South race.
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The best evidence of the Panthers’ defensive prowess came with the game very much in doubt.
After the Panthers took a 24-13 lead on a Graham Gano field goal, the Vikings drove into field goal range three times.
On the first foray, Kyle Love’s sack of Case Keenum pushed Minnesota out of field goal range and forced a punt.
That punt pinned Carolina at its 2, and the Panthers went three-and-out. After Palardy’s 59-yard punt was returned 29 yards to the 30, Thomas Davis tackled Latavius Murray for a 3-yard loss and Kuechly sacked Keenum for a loss of 3 before Kai Forbath pulled a 54-yard field goal attempt hard left.
Then, midway through the fourth quarter, the Vikings again drove into field goal range before Carolina cornerback James Bradberry intercepted a Keenum pass that was knocked into the air by Stefon Diggs.
It turned out the Panthers needed all of those.
A 52-yard touchdown pass from Keenum to Adam Thielen and a two-point conversion cut Carolina’s lead to 24-21.
And after Newton’s pass intended for Christian McCaffrey was tipped and intercepted by safety Andrew Sendejo and returned to the Carolina 5, the defense stiffened again.
Bradberry knocked away a pass intended for Diggs on second down and a third-down sack by Kawann Short brought on Forbath. His field goal made it 24-24.
After Newton and Stewart gave Carolina the lead, the defense got a sack from Short, a pressure that forced an incompletion, coverage from Kurt Coleman that resulted in a drop and a Coleman breakup on fourth down that sealed the game.
“We almost gave it away at the end,” Panthers corneback Captain Munnerlyn, a Viking a year ago, said. “But the offense came through for us and we made a big stop at the end.”
The victory, combined with a New Orleans loss to Atlanta on Thursday night, leaves Carolina tied with the Saints atop the NFC South at 9-4.
Because New Orleans swept the season series against Carolina, the Panthers would have to finish a game ahead of the Saints to win the division.
Atlanta is a game behind at 8-5 in the only NFL division with three teams with at least eight victories. The Panthers visit the Falcons on New Year’s Eve.
The Panthers are home again in Week 15, facing the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at 1 p.m.
“We’ve got to take care of our business,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s in front of us and we’ll see what happens.”
The Vikings are 10-3.
Three who mattered
Cam Newton: A magical escape from the Vikings’ pass rush led to Newton’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Funchess, giving the Panthers a 21-13 lead after the opening drive of the second half. Newton finished 13-of-25 passing for 137 yards and a touchdown. But between the magic with Funchess and his 62-yard run to set up the go-ahead score, well ...
Jonathan Stewart: Stewart’s 60-yard touchdown run, his longest carry of the season, gave Carolina a 7-0 lead. His longest previous run was 18 yards. And three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 1:47 to play, gets you onto this list every time.
James Bradberry: His interception in the fourth quarter was big, but his play against Diggs in the end zone later was huge, keeping the Vikings from taking the lead.
▪ Munnerlyn had a great breakup on a pass to Diggs on third down, and didn’t even trash-talk his former Vikings teammates after their free-agency breakup.
▪ Panthers tight end Greg Olsen limped off with 9:57 to play in the second quarter and had his formerly broken foot retaped. He was back on the next series.
▪ Keenum avoided both Luke Kuechly and Munnerlyn on potential sacks in the first half, showing himself to be significantly slippery. “He ducked under me, and I’m a 5-9 guy,” Munnerlyn said. “I don’t know how he got out of it, but he did a great job of escaping.”
▪ At kickoff it was 41 degrees and sunny. And very, very purple in the grandstands.
▪ Daryl Worley’s opening-drive interception was the first by a Panthers cornerback this season.
▪ Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers retook the team lead in sacks at 9.5 after getting Keenum in the first half. Mario Addison tied it up again with a second-half strip sack.
▪ Devin Funchess had a nice, 22-yard back-shoulder catch from Newton against Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes that gave the Panthers first and goal at the Minnesota 5 near the end of the first quarter.
▪ Forbath’s 30-yard field goal cut Carolina’s lead to 14-10 with 5:02 to play in the first half.
▪ The Panthers limited the Vikings to another Forbath field goal, this time from 22 yards, after a pass interference penalty on Kevon Seymour gave them a first down at the Carolina 4. Carolina led 14-13 at the half.
▪ Gano’s 41-yard field goal made him 24-for-24 inside 50 yards this season.
They said it
“It feels good because our guys are playing well, playing hard. We had some opportunities last week (at New Orleans) and we didn’t capitalize. This week, we capitalized.” – Rivera, on how it feels to trail in the NFC South only by the tiebreaker.
“It was just a game. That’s all it was, it was not a playoff game. We are not going home – no one is going home right now.” – Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
“I’m very happy for Matt. A lot has been said this week, a lot has been written. He’s improved every week.” – Rivera, on Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil’s performance against his old team.