The Vikings came into the game with a golden opportunity that was tarnished with a bad performance. They might need to win their last two games to maintain possession of the second seed in the playoffs. We lay out those scenarios and detail more than three dozen notes that help tell the tale of the trouble in Carolina.
What a difference three hours can make. That was about all the time that was needed to turn the Vikings 2009 season on its head.
The night before the Vikings' 26-7 humbling at the hands of the Carolina Panthers
, the New Orleans Saints
had their undefeated season snapped at home by the Dallas Cowboys
. Thirty minutes before game time, the Vikings were informed that Green Bay had lost 37-36 on the final play of their game at Pittsburgh, giving the Vikings their second straight NFC North crown. The planets were in alignment – until the Vikings fell flat against the Panthers.
In the span of that game, the Vikings' playoff scenarios took a serious downward turn. They went from controlling their own destiny to needing to control their own destiny. With the loss, the Vikings fell to 11-3 – one game ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles
. The Eagles, at 10-4, are a game behind the Vikings, but currently hold the tie-breaker advantage over Minnesota.
So how does that translate moving forward? It's actually quite simple. If the Eagles can win their remaining two games – at home against Denver next week and at Dallas in Week 17 – the Vikings will have to win their remaining two games (at Chicago next Monday night and at home against the Giants in Week 17) in order to hold on to the No. 2 seed. If the Eagles win both their games and the Vikings lose one of their two games, Philadelphia vaults to the No. 2 seed, the Vikings would drop to the No. 3 seed and would have to play in the divisional round of the playoffs.
While not necessarily a reason for panic – the Eagles have to keep playing at a playoff level and the Vikings have to stumble at least once – what looked like a golden opportunity at about 8 p.m. in Charlotte Sunday night looked a lot more grim when the clock struck midnight.
Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart was supposed to be a complementary back Sunday night. But when DeAngelo Williams re-injured his left ankle on a big hit from the side by Antoine Winfield, Stewart was forced to carry the load. Not only did he answer the call, he rushed 25 times for 109 yards and scored two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving). In the process, he became the first runner in 37 games to top 100 yards against the Vikings defense.
How long ago was it that the Vikings defense allowed a 100-yard rusher? The last guy to do it was Ryan Grant of the Packers Nov. 11, 2007. Who was handing Grant the ball that day? Brett Favre. That may help put the length of the streak into more perspective.
The Panthers dominated just about every statistical category there was. The Carolina offense ran 75 plays – 30 more than the Vikings – and out-gained the Vikings 397-237. The Panthers ran the ball 40 times for 124 yards, while not an impressive average, the number of carries is troubling. They also passed for 273 yards, while the Vikings had just 196 yards passing and 41 yards rushing on 14 carries.
The Vikings have been at the top of the league all season in the third-down conversions on offense and third-down defense. Both betrayed them Sunday night. The Vikings converted just one of 10 third downs on offense, while letting the Panthers convert eight of 17 third downs – a disappointing 47 percent.
The Vikings defense has been one of the most efficient in the red zone all season, but allowed Carolina to score touchdowns on all three of their red zone possessions.
The enormous disparity in the number of plays run by each team was reflected in the time of possession. Carolina had the ball for 37:59, while the Vikings were in possession for just 22:01 of the game.
Favre completed 17 of 27 passes for 224 yards and one interception – with 63 of those yards coming late in the game on a screen to Adrian Peterson. He had a passer rating of just 73.7 in the game.
Sunday night was only the second time all year that Favre hasn't had at least one touchdown in a game.
After throwing just three interceptions in his first 11 games, Favre has at least one pick in each of the last three.
Panthers quarterback Matt Moore was just one yard shy of 300 yards for the night, completing 21 of 33 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. He had a quarterback rating of 123.2.
With one more passing yard, Moore would have been the 11th quarterback in Week 15 games to throw for more than 300 yards during the 15 games that have been played.
Adrian Peterson's recent struggles continued Sunday. He rushed just 12 times for 35 yards – less than three yards a carry. Over the last five games, A.D. has had 100 carries for 320 yards.
In the second half of the game, the Vikings ran the ball just three times for seven yards. By contrast, the Panthers ran the ball 23 times, led by Stewart – who had 16 carries for 88 yards.
With his lackluster performance Sunday, for the first time in more than two years, Peterson isn't averaging 100 yards rushing a game for his career.
Thanks to a screen pass that covered 63 yards late in the game, Peterson was the Vikings' leading receiver with three catches for 73 yards. He and Sidney Rice (four catches, 69 yards) were the only Vikings with more than 25 yards receiving.
Steve Smith has struggled much of the season, but he exploded against the Vikings Sunday night with nine catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. He had just one catch in the first quarter, but had five catches for 39 yards in the second quarter. In the second half, he caught three passes for 103 yards.
Teams never want your secondary to be your leading tacklers because it rarely bodes well to team success. The Vikings' top two tacklers Sunday were Antoine Winfield and Madieu Williams with eight tackles each.
In the fourth quarter, Bryant McKinnie was apparently benched in favor of Artis Hicks. McKinnie has been battling injuries during the season, but there was no report from the Vikings sideline that McKinnie's absence from the game was injury-related.
The Panthers made a concerted effort to keep Percy Harvin from getting his hands on the ball. The Panthers only kicked off once in the first half and hit a pooch kick that was taken by Darius Reynaud – who again had a strong game in punt returns. Carolina didn't kick off again until the start of the second half and hit an even shorter pooch kick fielded by defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, who essentially fell forward six yards to the Vikings 41-yard line. When Harvin did finally touch the ball officially for the first time in the game, there was 14:49 to play and the Panthers hit a driving squib kick that rolled from the 30-yard line to the 5-yard line, where Harvin was smothered after a 10-yard return. He would finish the game with two returns for 30 yards and one reception for 10 yards, effectively being negated as a playmaking threat.
Steve Smith's touchdown catch came on a 42-yard strike from Moore, just three plays after he caught a 26-yard touchdown that was negated on a Carolina holding penalty. The play on which he caught the second touchdown was a third-and-26 play from the 42-yard line.
Late in the third quarter, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley left the game after cramping up. Ben Leber moved to middle linebacker and special teams ace Heath Farwell took over Leber's spot at outside linebacker. Brinkley would receive treatment on the sidelines and return in the fourth quarter.
As difficult as Peterson's rushing night was Sunday, he also had a pair of drops in the passing game.
Both teams were sloppy on offense much of the game, but nowhere was that more evident than in the third quarter, when each team had to senselessly burn a timeout and didn't use the additional time to dial up a creative play call that worked. On their first drive of the second half, after picking up a first down, the Panthers were late getting the play call in and had to burn a timeout. On the next play, Smith took a reverse that fooled nobody and he was buried by Ray Edwards for a 6-yard loss. On the next possession, the Vikings had to burn a timeout when the play clock ran down on them and, on the next play, were penalized for lining up in an illegal formation.
Of the Vikings' 12 offensive drives in the game, five of them ended in three-and-out situations and five others ended after the team had picked up just one first down.
In the first half, the Vikings had a season-low 66 total yards at halftime (34 rushing, 32 passing). Favre completed six of seven passes for 49 yards and Peterson led the rushing attack with nine carries for just 28 yards and a score. Rice and tight end Jim Kleinsasser each had two catches and Rice had the only receptions among the Vikings wide receivers.
In the first half, Moore completed 12 of 18 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. In the second half, he completed nine of 15 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
Stewart had just nine carries for 21 yards in the first half, to go along with the six carries for 13 yards that DeAngelo Williams had before he got hurt. In the second half, Stewart would carry 16 times for 88 yards and a touchdown.
The Panthers wore down the Vikings defense in the second half. At halftime, the Vikings had allowed just 116 total yards (78 passing, 38 rushing). In the second half when forced to stay on the field for more than 20 of the 30 minutes, the defense allowed 281 yards (195 passing, 86 rushing).
In one of the stranger moves of the game, which could have had big repercussions, the Panthers attempted a 47-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. The kick was good by several yards, but was negated by a false start penalty. Instead of attempting a 52-yard field goal – within the range of kicker John Kasay – the Panthers brought the offense back on the field and threw a Hail Mary that fell incomplete and had almost no chance of being a touchdown.
Peterson's first-half touchdown tied him with Maurice Jones-Drew for the league lead with 14 rushing TDs.
The Vikings picked up a first down on their second play of the game. They wouldn't get their second first down until 6:35 remained in the second quarter.
Ray Edwards made a play that could have come back to haunt the Panthers when he blocked an extra point after the Panthers scored the game's first points in the second quarter. It kept the score at 6-0 and the Panthers would later be forced to try for a two-point conversion after their second touchdown. When that failed it left the score at the time at 12-7.
The Panthers were able to change the flow of the game with a long drive that began in the final minutes of the first quarter and continued well into the second. The game had been thoroughly dominated by the defenses to that point, but the Panthers marched on a 15-play, 71-yard drive that ate up more than eight minutes of the game clock and began a domination of time of possession that would continue to grow throughout the game.
Ryan Longwell hit the right upright on a 39-yard field goal, which was pretty epic for him. Since joining the Vikings, he had made 56 of 58 field goals from inside 40 yards. He was 22 of 23 in field goals coming into the game with his only miss being a blocked field goal against San Francisco. The last field goal Longwell missed that wasn't blocked was Nov. 9, 2008 against the Packers.
Stewart's big day was made possible in large part to Antoine Winfield. Coming on a corner blitz, Winfield caught starter DeAngelo Williams from the side with a low hit that rolled his injured left ankle. He limped off the field and never returned to the game.
Jared Allen recorded his 13½ sack of the season in which he stripped Moore of the ball inside his own 20-yard line. Ben Leber tried to pick up the ball and run, but skidded the ball on the turf and the Panthers recovered to retain possession and dodge a bullet that could have changed the complexion of the game, since it was tied 0-0 at that point and the Panthers offense had done nothing.
Tyrell Johnson was back in the starting lineup at safety after missing time with post-concussion symptoms.