Carolina Panthers remain in mix after big home win over Minnesota Vikings

By The Sports Xchange  |  Dec. 11, 2017 at 6:52 PM
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The right kind of mindset worked for the Carolina Panthers, both leading into the game against the Minnesota Vikings and during the game when adversity struck.

That was one of the takeaways for the Panthers after they pulled out Sunday's 31-24 home victory.

"We responded all day," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We felt good about our offense. We felt we really liked the opportunities we had to score late in the game and we were able to do it."

The Panthers had enough facets of the rushing attack working to keep the Vikings off balance, particularly on a day with a few snags in the passing attack could have put the Panthers out of whack.

This makes the next game potentially even bigger for the Panthers.

"It's a week-by-week league and we've got to prepare well every week because it's tough to win," rookie running back Christian McCaffrey said. "We have that win and we'll enjoy it and then start getting ready for next week."

A week after losing their showdown at New Orleans, the Panthers (9-4) are right back tied for first place in the NFC South, albeit the Saints own the tiebreaker.

"It's one of those things when you look at the season going into the year and you hope that in December you're playing games that really matter, and this game mattered for a lot of reasons," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "For playoff implications and stuff like that."

There will be more of that this week with the Panthers getting a visit from the Green Bay Packers, who could be one of the contenders for a wild-card berth into the playoffs.

The Panthers benefited from a strong goal-line defense against the Vikings. They forced Minnesota into field goals near the end of each half after the Vikings had first-and-goal at the 4 and first-and-goal at the 6. Each time, those defensive efforts prevented Minnesota from taking the lead.

"Our guys (on defense) were able to hold and do what they needed to do to give us a chance," Rivera said.

After the final Minnesota field goal when the Panthers regained possession in a tie game, Rivera might have been most proud that Carolina produced the winning points on a drive without throwing the ball.

"We felt we could run the ball in certain situations," Rivera said.

With 216 rushing yards for the game, the Panthers became one of two NFL teams with three or more games with 200 yards on the ground this season. Carolina hadn't had three games with that level of rushing attack since 2009.

In that mix this time was running back Jonathan Stewart, a 10-year veteran, rushing for three touchdowns in a game for the first time in his career. With 103 rushing yards in the game, Stewart reached the 100-yard mark for the 16th time in his career.

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Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn played 50 snaps in a heightened role against his former team. He rejoined the Panthers during the offseason after playing the last three seasons for the Vikings.

"It's special, it's definitely special," Munnerlyn said. "When I first signed back here and I saw we were playing them on December 10 -- it's my wife's birthday, by the way -- I circled the game and I tried to just get through the season and wait on this game."

Munnerlyn, who had his first extended role of the season, was credited with three tackles and one pass defended.

"I had to get this win and now I have bragging rights," he said.

Head coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers used Munnerlyn and left tackle Matt Kalil, who also joined the team this season after playing for the Vikings, to help provide information in the week leading to the game about some of Minnesota's tendencies.

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The Panthers have played back-to-back games against NFC divisional leaders so they could be getting some traction with a possible spot in the postseason if they finish December strong.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we see those guys again," Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said of the Vikings after the Panthers defeated Minnesota 31-24.

The Panthers' next game comes Sunday at home against the Green Bay Packers, who are trying to move into playoff position.

Linebacker Thomas Davis said the way the Panthers responded after the loss to New Orleans was a good sign.

"For us to come back and really establish ourselves here at home ... we knew we had a tough challenge ahead of us," Davis said.

NOTES: LB Shaq Thompson missed the Minnesota game because of a foot injury. On Monday, head coach Ron Rivera said Thompson had responded well to treatment and it's possible that he could play against Green Bay. ... LB Spencer Paysinger was signed last week and he was activated for the Minnesota game. In fact, he was on the field for the opening kickoff as part of Carolina's coverage unit. ... C Ryan Kalil made it through his first full game since September as he came back from a neck injury. Head coach Ron Rivera said the game footage showed that Kalil became stronger throughout the afternoon.

REPORT CARD VS. VIKINGS

--PASSING OFFENSE: C - The Panthers didn't make a lot of big plays in this area, but QB Cam Newton improvised enough to find WR Devin Funchess for a touchdown pass. Often, 137 passing yards for the game isn't going to cut it.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus - RB Jonathan Stewart scored on three touchdown runs, including a 60-yarder on the game's opening possession. The Panthers piled up 216 yards on the ground, eclipsing the 200-yard rushing mark for the third time this season. QB Cam Newton had a 62-yard run to set up the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Perhaps of concern for the Panthers is other than the two big runs, they picked up 94 rushing yards on the remaining 34 carries.

--PASS DEFENSE: B - The Panthers had a lot of good moments in this area, with two interceptions halting a couple of Minnesota possessions. The pass rush might have been the best part of this category because Carolina registered six sacks and forced Minnesota QB Case Keenum into several other uncomfortable situations. The Vikings had 10 players with at least one catch, so it wasn't like the Panthers locked them down altogether in this area.

--RUSH DEFENSE: B - The Panthers were good, though not great, in this area. The Vikings picked up 100 rushing yards on 21 carries, so there were some concerns. Three different Vikings had runs of at least 11 yards. But take away QB Case Keenum's scrambles that accounted for 40 yards and the Panthers were pretty solid here.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus - The Panthers gave up a big punt return (29 yards) and didn't have any game-changing plays of their own with the special teams. There also weren't any major glitches, so that was encouraging. P Michael Palardy didn't have one of his better days, but there wasn't anything disastrous as he averaged 43.3 yards on six attempts and he was bailed out by a 56-yard blast.

--COACHING: A - The Panthers defeated a Minnesota team that was riding an eight-game winning streak and could end up as the top team in the NFC. The Panthers expected a solid game plan and also worked in a couple of players coming off injuries, so that could have been disruptive. An 11-point lead disappeared in the fourth quarter in a matter of about three minutes of the fourth quarter, but the Panthers seemed to know what to do to get back on track.

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