In a game billed as a battle of two rookie quarterbacks, it was actually the two oldest players on the field at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday afternoon that determined the outcome of the clash between the Minnesota Vikings and the Carolina Panthers.
37-year old Ryan Longwell converted a 31-yard field goal with 2:47 left on the clock to give the Vikings a 24-21 lead over the Panthers. On the other side, 38-year old Olindo Mare was unable to convert from an identical distance with 29 seconds left, pushing his attempt wide to the left and allowing the Vikings to assume the victory formation for just the second time this season.
Things got off to a bit of an ominous start for the Vikings, as they got a 78-yard kickoff return from Marcus Sherels to get things started. But after doing nothing with their first three offensive plays, Longwell pushed a 45-yard attempt to the left, and the Vikings came away with nothing.
On the very next play, however, Vikings' linebacker E.J. Henderson came in on a blitz and hit Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Jared Allen at the Carolina 16. The Vikings handed. . .yes, handed. . .the ball to Percy Harvin twice, and the second carry was a 10-yard touchdown run to put the Vikings on top 7-0.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Panthers put together a drive starting from their own 10-yard line. Steve Smith, who has made a living of beating up the Vikings in his career, caught two passes on the drive for 46 yards, and had a 12-yard run on an end around as well. The drive concluded with Newton finding Jeremy Shockey from a yard out, and the game was tied at seven.
The Vikings proceeded to go three-and-out, and Newton went to work again. On a 2nd-and-10 play from the Minnesota 39, Newton found former Chicago Bear Greg Olsen running wide open down the field, and found him for a 39-yard touchdown strike to give Carolina their first lead at 14-7. The Vikings appeared to have an answer on their next drive, but as Percy Harvin moved the ball inside the 10 for the Vikings, he was stripped by Panthers' quarterback Captain Munnerlyn, and the Vikings gave the ball back to Carolina.
Carolina started to move back the other direction as the clock went under two minutes remaining, but on a 1st-and-10 from his own 42, Newton got sacked and stripped again, this time by Allen, and Chad Greenway recovered the fumble to give the Vikings a chance. Since the role reversal worked so well earlier on with handing the ball to Percy Harvin, Minnesota thought they would go the other way by throwing the ball to Adrian Peterson. A 19-yard completion from Christian Ponder to Peterson on a check down put the ball at the Carolina 20, and the next play was a screen to Peterson that saw the NFL's best running back simply outrun everybody to the end zone to tie the game at 14 going into the locker room.
The Panthers got the ball coming out of the break, and they wasted little time going 80 yards for a touchdown. The key play on the drive was a 22-yard completion from Newton to Legadu Naanee that was challenged by the Vikings, but ultimately upheld. Newton then followed that up with a 24-yard run off left tackle, and the Panthers got to the Minnesota 22-yard line when Smith struck again, catching a short pass from Newton and blowing past Asher Allen to turn it into a 22-yard touchdown reception and a 21-14 Carolina lead. It was Newton's third touchdown pass of the afternoon, the first time in his NFL career he has achieved that.
After the teams exchanged punts again, the Vikings put together one of their best drives of the season. The first five plays of the drive were all runs, with Peterson and Toby Gerhart combining for 48 rushing yards on those five plays. Ponder then came up big on a 3rd-and-10, finding Visanthe Shiancoe for 12 yards to keep the drive going. He then found Peterson again for nine more yards, and a defensive holding penalty on Munnerlyn put the ball at the Carolina 9. Peterson took it from there, finding the end zone for his ninth rushing touchdown this season, and the Vikings had tied it at 21.
The Vikings dominated the fourth quarter in terms of time of possession, holding the ball for 11 of the 15 minutes of the quarter, and it began to take its toll on the Carolina defense. Ponder continued moving the team down the field, and the Vikings kept converting on third downs. Ponder found Harvin for 11 yards on 3rd-and-7, hit Devin Aromashodu for 15 yards on 2nd-and-5, and Harvin for 22 more on 2nd-and-15 after a penalty. Peterson got a few more carries to get the Vikings down to the Carolina 13-yard line, and Longwell hit the field goal to make the score 24-21.
Newton and company still had a chance at the end of the game, however, and they made the most of it. They advanced to their own 40 when the two-minute warning came up, and after a sack by Husain Abdullah, a short completion to Jonathan Stewart, and an incompletion, the Panthers found themselves looking at 4th-and-15 from their own 35. Newton calmly dropped back and whipped a dart to Brandon LaFell, who turned the catch into a 44-yard gain and put the Panthers down at the Minnesota 21-yard line. A few plays later, a run by Newton on 3rd-and-3 appeared to have the Panthers down to their own 2-yard line, but a holding penalty of Steve Smith pushed the ball back. The Panthers picked up 5 yards on the subsequent 3rd-and-7, and that set them up for Mare's field goal attempt. The snap on the field goal try was a little high, but holder Jason Baker appeared to get it down on time. . .the veteran Mare just pushed it to the left, and Minnesota knelt out the clock for their second victory of the year.
Newton finished the day having completed 22 of 35 attempts for 290 yards and three touchdowns, while Ponder completed 18 of 28 passes for 236 yards and one touchdown pass. Peterson wound up with 162 total yards, carrying the ball 21 times for 86 yards and catching five passes for 76 yards, with a score both on the ground and through the air. Jared Allen's sack was the tenth game in a row that he had registered a sack going back to last season, extending his own Vikings' team record.
The Vikings have next week off, as it is their bye week, and won't play again until November 14, when they travel to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football.