CHARLOTTE — It was a day of comebacks for the Carolina Panthers.
After a tough loss to New Orleans gave the Panthers’ playoff hopes a blow last week, they beat the No. 1 team in the NFC, topping the Minnesota Vikings 31-24 at Bank of America Stadium.
“We didn’t play well at all last week, in any phase,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We wanted to really come back and re-establish ourselves right here at home.”
Carolina was able to bounce back from last week’s performance, in part due to another big comeback. Center Ryan Kalil, who has missed nine games this year with injuries, returned to the starting lineup.
The bolstered offensive line showed an immediate benefit from Kalil’s presence, opening a gaping hole for running back Jonathan Stewart on the third offensive snap of the game. Stewart ran 60 yards for a touchdown to put the Panthers on top early.
“The offensive line did a great job, from the beginning,” Stewart said, “setting the tone and blocking their butts off — just getting the job done.”
Stewart credited Kalil’s return for the performance.
“He’s a veteran, and he’s been doing this a long time,” he said. “He’s a smart player. He knows what he’s doing, and there’s a chemistry there, too. I’m sure the offensive line is more comfortable when he’s there.”
The Panthers built a 24-13 lead going into the final minutes of the game, but the Vikings made sure that at least one more comeback was needed.
A 52-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Adam Thielen cut the Panthers’ lead to three with 5:36 remaining. On the third snap of the next possession, Cam Newton threw an interception that was returned to the Carolina 6-yard line.
That put the Panthers’ defense in a tough spot with the game hanging in the balance. They were up for the challenge, however.
“I don’t care where they line up, just go out there and stop them,” cornerback James Bradberry said. “No matter what they run, no matter what they do, you’ve got to stop them.”
Bradberry had already shown that attitude earlier in the game, ending a Vikings drive at the Carolina 26 with his first interception of the year. Coupled with Darryl Worley’s interception earlier in the game, they were the first two picks by Panther cornerbacks this year.
With the Vikings on the verge of a score, the defense buckled in and sacked Keenum for a three-yard loss on third down, forcing a game-tying field goal.
That set the stage for the offense to finish off the win.
On the second play of the Panthers series, with the two-minute warning approaching, Cam Newton kept the ball on a run play up the middle. He got past the defensive line and took off, running 62 yards to the Vikings’ 8-yard line.
“I just had to put the car back into third gear,” Newton said.
Stewart punched it in for his third touchdown of the day.
“I’ve read this book a couple times,” Newton said of the unexpected fight at the end, “giving up leads, bending not breaking. We’d love to go up by multiple touchdowns and run the clock out at the end.”
Instead, the team had to fight until the end, coming back over and over again.
“This was as much of a playoff atmosphere as we’ve seen all year,” Newton said. “This whole game was just the result of persistence, persistence, persistence.”
The win put the Panthers back into a tie for first place in the NFC South. Carolina still needs to make up one more game on the Saints, since New Orleans has the tiebreaker advantage.
“This game was all about perseverance and who can do that best,” Stewart said. “Unfortunately, we made it hard on our defense at the end.”
“Those guys stepped up to the challenge,” Davis said.