By David Coulson. December 10, 2017. CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton gave, but then the mercurial Carolina Panther quarterback took away in leading his team to an important, 31-24 NFC victory over the Minnesota Vikings before 73,728 fans Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
All photographic images by Brad Batchelor for Blowing Rock News. Editing of text and photography by David Rogers.
Newton set up the Vikings for a game-tying score in the fourth quarter by hurling a costly interception. A few minutes later, on the Panthers’ very next possession, Newton scampered 62 yards to the Minnesota eight-yard line. Jonathan Stewart did the rest, leaping into the end zone on third and goal from the one for his career-high, third touchdown of the game. Only 1:47 remained and with Minnesota unable to respond, Stewart’s acrobatics gave Carolina the win that ended the Vikings’ eight-game victory streak.
This triumph pushed Carolina (9-4) into a first-place tie with the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South Division with three games remaining in the regular season, though the Panther trail the Saints by one game in the NFL playoff tiebreaker. The Saints, who lost 20-17 to the third-place Atlanta Falcons (8-5) on Thursday night, are 3-1 within the division, while Carolina is 2-2.
“This whole game was a result of persistence, persistence, persistence,” said Newton. “Being in these types of games, giving leads up, bending but not breaking. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”
It was a less-than-stellar performance for the Panther star, who made good on just 13-of-25 passing for 137 yards, one TD and one interception. Before his game-changing play at the end, he managed just 10 carries for eights yards rushing.
But that is the talent of this former Auburn Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick.
“I think there are a few guys in the league that can do that and he’s one of them,” said Carolina center Ryan Kalil. “I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”
Kalil’s brother Matt — who, ironically, moved to the Panthers this season after five years in Minnesota — had the key, outside seal block on Newton’s run to spring the quarterback into the secondary.
Before Newton’s decisive play, the Panther offense had stalled for 29 yards, one first down and three punts and one interception on its previous four drives while trying to maintain leads of 24-13 and 24-21.
Minnesota took advantage of Carolina’s doldrums to tie the contest with Case Keenm’s 52-yard scoring strike to receiver Adam Thielen and Kai Forbath’s 27-yard field goal in the final 5:36 of the fourth period. Forbath was called upon to knot the score when the Panther defense stifled Minnesota at the Carolina nine after strong safety Andrew Sendejo had intercepted a Newton pass and returned it to the Panther 25.
It was one of several key stops for the Carolina defense during the game.
“I think, once again, one of the mantras that (defensive coordinator) Steve Wilks and the rest of defense talks about is, when you get into the red zone, it’s got to be either turnovers or field goals,” Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said. “It is a challenge, because the offense just got a little bit of momentum from their defense. I think our guys were able to hold on and do what they needed to do to give us a chance.”
While Newton and defensive standouts like middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (14 tackles, eight solo stops, one sack), tackle Kawann Short (three tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hurries), end Mario Addison (three tackles, one sack, one forced fumble), strong safety Mike Adams (two tackles, one passed defended, one fumble recovery) and cornerbacks James Bradberry (six tackles, one interception, two passes defended), Daryl Worley (nine tackles, one interception, one pass defended) were among the heroes, Stewart stepped up big after one of the worst stretches of his Panther career.
Stewart opened the scoring with a brilliant, 60-yard TD dash on a third and one play from the Carolina 40, just four minutes into the game. He ran untouched and completed his run and celebrated with a backward dive into the end zone. It was the first of a career-high three touchdowns for the 10-year Panther veteran.
“I’ve probably had a couple of other times where I could have done that,” Stewart said of his celebration, “but I didn’t.”
He added another touchdown blast from the one-yard line, mere seconds into the second period to complete the Panthers’ 14-play, 89-yard, seven-plus-minute drive for a 14-7 edge. He finished with 16 carries for 103 yards — only his second 100-yard rushing performance of the season.
“This week, we’ve been practicing short-yardage (and) goal line (situations) and I’ve been hitting them just pretty much how I hit them today,” Stewart added. “The offensive line has been opening up holes. They did a great job. They set the tone for the game, especially against that front.”
Overall, Carolina piled up 216 of their 345 total yards of offense, on the ground. It was the second-highest rushing performance of the season for the Panthers, who had 294 yards against the Miami Dolphins, three games earlier.
“We didn’t doubt him, that’s why we kept putting Jonathan out there,” Rivera said. “We believe in who he is for us and he has been solid.”
Combined with the defense and Newton’s late gallantry, the Panthers had just enough to pull off the win — but Carolina still sees a need for improvement.
“Once you have an 11-point lead as a defense, you have to do a much better job of closing teams out and not letting them get back into the game,” Panther linebacker Thomas Davis said. “Fortunately, this week we were able to execute down the stretch and Cam came up with a huge run to put us in scoring position.”
Minnesota fell to 10-3 with the loss, but still leads Detroit and Green Bay (both 7-6) by three games in the NFC North standings. The Vikings are also in position to battle the Philadelphia Eagles (11-2) for home field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
“We didn’t play (well) enough to win today,” said Viking coach Mike Zimmer. “It’s to win games when you don’t play well. We turned the ball over and gave up big runs on defense. I give (Carolina) credit.”
Keenum, who is having the best year of his six-year NFL career, was running for his life for much of the afternoon. He was 27-of-44 for 280 yards and two TDs passing and scrambled around for 40 yards on five carries, but he suffered a season-high six sacks, seven hurries and two interceptions.
The Carolina Panthers “are a defense, a good front,” Keenum said. “I think every sack, every play has a story to tell.”