Turning point: Early but fatal flaws

The Vikings had several chances to score with ideal position early in the game, but they failed to seize control and the Panthers eventually gained clear momentum late in the game. We recount several early flaws that eventually proved fatal to the Vikings' hopes.

Sometimes a game can change complexion without a huge play or obvious difference-maker. Armed with the knowledge that the Vikings had clinched the NFC North Division title for the second straight year and, with a loss by New Orleans to put the Vikings back in play for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, it was the Vikings' inability to take advantage of early chances that created the turning point of the game in their 26-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

When playing on the road against a team that has consistently struggled like the Panthers have this year, one of the keys is to come out strong and dictate the pace of the game. The Vikings defense did its part early, but, as a team, the Vikings failed to take advantage of several key moments early on that could have silenced the crowd and taken the 12th man out of the equation.

The Vikings defense came out strong, forcing a three-and-out to start the game and giving the Vikings offense a chance to start the game from its own 42-yard line. With just a couple of first downs, they would be in scoring position with a chance to draw first blood. After crossing midfield, a third-down sack by Everette Brown killed that chance and the Vikings had to punt.

After another three-and-out by the Carolina offense, the Vikings had the ball on their own 37-yard line with a very similar situation. Move the chains a couple of times and they would be in business. But, another Panthers sack – this time by James Anderson in which Brett Favre slipped twice in the pocket – and a false start call on Bryant McKinnie and the Vikings had to punt again.

On Carolina's third drive of the game, Jared Allen sacked QB Matt Moore and he fumbled the ball. Linebacker Ben Leber had a chance at a recovery inside the Panthers' 20-yard line, but tried to pick up the ball and run. Instead, he pushed the ball toward the Carolina goal line, but tight end Dante Rosario recovered. Instead of the Vikings having the ball in the red zone, Carolina retained possession on their own 12.

The special teams did its part to provide a spark, as Darius Reynaud returned the ensuing punt 34 yards all the way to the Carolina 25-yard line. With a golden opportunity to put points on the board, the Vikings would again lay an egg on offense. Two Adrian Peterson runs gained just four yards and defensive end Julius Peppers hit Favre's arm on a third-down pass. That brought on kicker Ryan Longwell, who is deadly inside of 40 yards, but his 39-yard attempt hit the right upright and bounced out – keeping the score 0-0.

The Panthers would get the ball after the missed field goal and drive 71 yards on 15 plays over eight minutes to score the game's first points. While the Vikings would hold a 7-6 lead at halftime, they had a chance to put the Panthers down early, but missed out on a handful of opportunities in the first quarter, which kept the fans in the game, helped Moore gain some confidence and allowed the Panthers to carry momentum throughout the rest of the game. While the outcome would be decided in the second half, it was the Vikings being denied of spoon-fed scoring opportunities early that kept the Panthers in the game.

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