It was ugly. It was uncharacteristic.
In the end, though, one could almost say that the Minnesota Vikings (10-3) played like fans have come to expect in the 2017 season in their 31-24 loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers (9-4) Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. Down 24-13 with 5:36 left in the game, star receiver Adam Thielen caught a 52-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Case Keenum to cut the deficit to three following a two-point conversion. Safety Andrew Sendejo intercepted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the ensuing drive, setting up a 27-yard field goal from kicker Kai Forbath to tie the game at 24 with 3:07 left.
But on the next drive, Newton kept the ball on a read-option and galloped 62 yards to the Vikings eight-yard line. Three plays later, Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart capped a spectacular game with a one-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers a lead that the Vikings couldn’t answer. It was a mistake-filled game that Minnesota fans haven’t seen very often in 2017, but the late rally on the road showed that this team will fight for 60 minutes win, lose, or draw. With that said, let’s take a look back at three takeaways from the loss.
Week 14 Minnesota Vikings Takeaways
Carolina Feasts on an Injured Vikings Offensive Line
For the fifth consecutive game right tackle Mike Remmers sat out as Rashod Hill stepped in. But that wasn’t the only injury along the offensive line Sunday. Standout center Pat Elflein was a late scratch with a shoulder injury that appeared on the Vikings injury report but was assumed to be a late-season bump and bruise. The injury slid starting left guard Nick Easton to his old spot as center and backup lineman Jeremiah Sirles started at left guard.
The patchwork line struggled against a strong Panthers defensive line. Keenum was sacked six times and while a normally strong run game finished with 100 yards, 40 of those came from Keenum scrambling out of the pocket and improvising. Hill in particular struggled, faced with the tough task of blocking future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers used his speed to beat Hill out of his stance consistently.
As if the line hadn’t struggled enough, starting left tackle Riley Reiff went down late in the game with an apparent ankle injury. Reporters said that Reiff left the locker room after the game in a walking boot, declining comment on the injury. The Vikings will hope that these injuries are short-term and that a normally strong offensive line can be full strength going into the season’s final three games.
Even with the offensive line woes, the Vikings still had numerous chances to take control of the game. Late in the first half, the normally reliable Thielen dropped two passes in the endzone. His first pass was in the front-right corner of the endzone and bounced off of his chance. The next drop was first ruled a touchdown, but following review was overturned when it was determined that he didn’t fully control the ball going to the ground. A touchdown on either play would have given Minnesota a 17-14 lead going into halftime. Instead, they trailed 14-13.
Another potential touchdown drive occurred following Sendejo’s interception late in the fourth quarter. With the ball at the Panthers six-yard line, Keenum threw a pass to receiver Stefon Diggs that was too far inside even though Diggs had beat his man on a hitch route. The pass was broken up and two plays later, and a potential 28-24 lead was instead tied 24-24.
A Tough Run Defense Struggles
Minnesota entered Sunday’s game ranked second in the NFL in run defense and hadn’t allowed a single 100-yard rusher all season. The Panthers had other ideas, though, leaning on 10-year veteran Stewart, who torched the Vikings on a 60-yard touchdown in the first quarter and finished with 16 carries for 103 yards and three touchdowns.
Cam Newton’s 62-yard run made his stat line look better than he was throughout the game (11 carries for 70 yards). But between those two and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, Carolina finished with 216 yards rushing off of 36 carries, a 6.0 per carry average. It was enough to keep the Vikings from pinning their ears back like in their past two meetings with the Panthers, and even though they got to Newton for two sacks, Minnesota was kept off balance with quick passes and screens.
It was far from a catastrophic loss for the Vikings, though, as they still hold the second seed in the NFC and finish with a favorable three-game schedule. The loss was frustrating in many ways, but with so many miscues on the road, a seven-point loss in a game where seemingly nothing went right will give fans hope going forward and maybe give the team a renewed focus going forward.