Not even beating the NFC’s best team could get Carolina Panthers a day off.
Panthers were busy at practice the day after winning 31-24 against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday. In a game that went down to the wire Panthers scored on a game winning drive to get the win. Cam Newton broke free for a 62-yard run and Jonathan Stewart finished the drive off with a jump over the top goal line touchdown after forcing Vikings to use two of their timeouts. So why the practice after a clutch performance that lifts Panthers to a 9-4 record?
“We have an opportunity to play into January and who knows what goes on from there. It starts with staying focused and getting ready for our next opponent [and] that’s Green Bay,” head coach Ron Rivera said during the postgame press conference.
Panthers are second in the NFC South losing the tie breaker to New Orleans Saints (9-4) and they have Atlanta Falcons (8-5) breathing down their neck. As a wild card they are slotted at fifth seed. The win against Minnesota brings them a step closer to their goal and shows just how focused they had to be to pull off the upset victory. Last season the Panthers lost to Vikings 22-10 but with the help of two former Vikings on that 2016 squad they were able to move past them in a tightly contested game.
As a reward to the two former Vikings, Captain Munnerlyn and Matt Kalil, Rivera let them break it down in the locker room after the win.
“They were really helpful this week as far as talking about the opponent and what to expect. They fed their teammates with a lot of good information,” Rivera said.
Panthers started strong early with an interception on the first drive by Daryl Worley, who picked up his first of the season. Panthers offense cashed in on the turnover with a Stewart 60-yard rushing touchdown to put them up 7-0.
Vikings responded with an 18-yard touchdown strike to Kyle Rudolph to tie the game at 7. Panthers offense would go on an 89-yard touchdown drive with two big catches by Brenton Berlin and Devin Funchess. Stewart was able to punch it in to put the Panthers up 14-7. Panthers eventually went into half up 14-13.
Prior to the game Panthers were 8-0 when leading after three quarters and 0-4 when trailing in that situation. In this game they wouldn’t take their foot off the accelerator in the third. Newton was able to create some magic on a red zone opportunity where he was able to evade a defender and throw off his back foot to find Funchess for an 18-yard touchdown.
“It was just everything that I was told not to do I did. Throwing across your body…sometimes you just got to overcome coaching,” Newton said of the play after the game. “I’m just happy Fun was alert to establish the opportunity and did the rest.”
Panthers were able to put up three more points off a turnover forced by Mario Addison who came up with a strip sack.
In the final quarter Vikings were able to sneak back in the game.
“When the levy broke at the end it was just a result of bad vibes and energy,” Newton said. “This was as much of a playoff atmosphere as we saw all year.”
Vikings scored on a 52-yard catch and run by Adam Thielan and a two point conversation pass, 24-21. One minute later Newton’s pass was picked off and Vikings took possession with 4:47 remaining. Panthers defense held them to a field goal as the game was tied at 24 with 3:11.
Confident in his offense Rivera knew they had an opportunity to win the game on their next possession.
“I thought the play calling was outstanding, especially down the stretch,” Rivera said. “We really liked the opportunity to score late in the game.”
The fact they lost the lead didn’t bother River and company one bit. After all, it comes down to the team’s attitude.
“Keep pounding,” Rivera said. “That’s our mantra around here.”‘
On the second play Newton’s 62-yard break away run brought the Panthers to the eight yard line. While Newton voiced his displeasure in the press conference for not getting in the end zone because of a call out from his friend, in hindsight it was for the better, Newton said.
“It was very strategic now when I think back because if I would have scored they (Vikings) would have had all of their timeouts,” Newton said.
Vikings burned two of their timeouts before Stewart was able to punch it in for his third touchdown of the game. He was the first running back since DeAngelo Williams to rush for 100 plus yards and three touchdowns for the Panthers. He was also the first running back this season to rush for over 100 yards against Vikings defense.
“He’s had some good games, some tough games, some average games…he took advantage of his opportunities [Sunday] and it was good to see,” Rivera said.
Getting running game going is key moving forward to develop play action for the team, stretching the field and taking pressure of Newton in the pocket, Rivera said. As the season has picked up the entire running game has improved.
Blowing the lead and having to win it late in the game didn’t bother Newton one bit knowing who they were up against.
“That was a great team we just played, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see those guys again,” Newton said.
The 9-4 Panthers will need some help if they want to win the NFC South, however, Rivera confirms he won’t be wrapping his head around any of the scenarios.
“We can’t count on anybody doing anything for us,” Rivera said. “The focus is that we take it one at a time.”
Next week they will host the Packers (7-6).
By Gino Terrell