CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of the longest winning streaks in the NFL ended Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, with Minnesota’s normally-strong defense faltering at the hands of Cam Newton and normally-sharp Case Keenum coming back down to earth.
The Panthers topped the Vikings 31–24 in a game that, following Thursday’s Falcons win against the Saints, continues to keep the NFC playoff race tight as ever as the end of the regular season nears. Carolina has Newton to thank for its ninth win of the season, keeping the team jockeying for position in the hyper-competitive NFC South. And Minnesota has Newton, who now boasts a 19–9 career record in the month of December, to blame for snapping its eight-game win streak.
Newton completed 13-of-25 for 137 yards, one touchdown and one pick—not spectacular, and no one expected it to be against the second-best defense in the league. But four of his plays helped swing this NFC tilt in the home team’s direction.
The first: A 60-yard touchdown rush by Jonathan Stewart, Stewart’s longest rush in a difficult season for the ball carrier. Stewart went virtually untouched on the play thanks to great blocks by left guard Andrew Norwell and tight end Ed Dickson. But it was Newton who made sure that Stewart wouldn’t have any pursuit on his way to the end zone. Safety Andrew Sendejo appeared ready for a naked bootleg from Newton on third-and-1 from the Carolina 40. As Newton handed the ball off to Stewart, he carried out the fake by rolling to the left. Senjedo kept his eyes on Newton and drifted to the defensive right side as Stewart hit the hole on the defensive left.
The second: A 22-yard pass from Newton to Devin Funchess. The Panthers were given life on that drive when two facemask penalties gave Carolina 30 free yards. Newton hummed a back-shoulder pass to Funchess, who fought with Xavier Rhodes until the last moment and made an all-hands catch at the sideline to get to Minnesota’s five-yard line. Three plays later, the Panthers were leading 14–7.
The third: An 18-yard touchdown pass to Funchess. One of the biggest things that sold then-and-now general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera on Newton in the 2011 pre-draft process was what he did under pressure at Auburn. Hurney and Rivera noticed that Newton, when hurried, didn’t put his eyes down, tuck the ball and take off running despite his supreme running abilities. They found he was much more apt to improvise behind the line of scrimmage than he was to take off.
That’s what you saw in the third quarter Sunday. On third-and-7 in the red zone against one of the best defenses in the league, Newton stayed in the pocket and waited. Danielle Hunter finally beat right tackle Daryl Williams and had a clean shot at Newton, who, a former high school basketball player, stepped back, backpedaled some more and then lofted a ball to Funchess at the goal line for the score.
The final play, and the most impressive one: A 62-yard rush by Newton with two minutes left in the game. Keenum had rallied the Vikings to knot the game at 24 when the Panthers had the ball at their own 30 on second-and-5. Newton put the ball in Stewart’s gut but read Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen crashing down. Newton pulled the ball and ran forward, performed a jab step with his right foot (remember, he was a basketball player) and juked Sendejo. Then it was wide-open space for Newton, who was finally caught inside the 10-yard line. The Panthers scored three plays later.
To be sure, it wasn’t just Newton who beat the Vikings, even though this defense hadn’t given up more than 30 points in a game this season until Sunday. Carolina’s defense forced Minnesota and Keenum into bad decisions. He floated an interception in the first quarter, saw Adam Thielen drop a touchdown in the second quarter, had a forward fumble in the third quarter and took a fourth-quarter sack that forced a 54-yard field goal by Kai Forbath that never had a prayer.
At 9–4 this season, the Panthers are threatening to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and they are starting to get 2015 vibes where they made winning fun.
After Rivera’s post-game speech to the team, Newton and guard Trai Turner conferred about song selections for a victory locker room. They settled on “No Limit” by G-Eazy, Cardi B and A$AP Rocky. Newton danced as he undressed and eventually roamed around the locker room in a gray robe and neon orange Under Armour flip flops. Swag is returning to Carolina.