CHARLOTTE -- The remaining hope of a winning season and a playoff bid sailed away from the Panthers in the last week. But their reserves of spirit, spunk and spark did not.
"Just because we're not going to the playoffs doesn't mean we're going to lay down our sword," defensive tackle
Against the Vikings, the Panthers showed they might have saved their best for last, breaking open a close game with three fourth-quarter touchdowns for a resounding 26-7 win in front of 73,515 onlookers at Bank of America Stadium.
After 13 inconsistent and sometimes skittish weeks, the Panthers treated the Sunday Night Football audience to a clinic in how they wanted to win all along: with a commitment to the ground game (40 carries), selective and efficient passing (an average of 7.8 yards per pass play and a quarterback rating of 132.4 on third downs), stubborn third-down defense (the Vikings converted just one of 10 third-down attempts) and a penchant for takeaways (a fumble and an interception, increasing their total in the last eight games to 23).
"We were who we knew we could be," linebacker
Sunday night, that was a team that strengthened as the game progressed, softened up the Vikings' stout defense and eventually left them in a pick-your-poison mode -- the same conundrum Minnesota's offense foisted upon opponents for most of the previous 13 games. The Panthers gained 211 of their 397 yards in the fourth quarter, averaging 10.6 yards per snap against a defense that came into the game permitting just 5.2 yards per play.
Carolina's defense was equally responsible for the fourth-quarter surge. As quarterback
"We didn't have much to fight for, except for our pride, so I'm really proud of how the guys stepped up," said
Anderson, who made his fourth consecutive start at weakside linebacker, made the play that best encapsulated the defense's effort Sunday night on a third-and-1 snap five minutes into the second quarter. Anderson burst through Minnesota's offensive line, caught up to running back Adrian Peterson and brought him down by the ankles, giving Carolina's defense its third consecutive three-and-out.
"He did a great job," Lewis said.
So did the entire defense, which sacked Brett Favre four times, pressured him into incompletions and made the game's all-time leading passer look ordinary for much of the evening -- particularly on third downs, where the Vikings were 1-for-10 after leading the league in third-down conversion percentage heading into the game.
Three of the Panthers' sacks came on third downs, forcing Favre into a dubious statistic: that he lost more yards on third-down sacks (22) than he gained on third-down passes (12, on two completions in six attempts).
The Vikings lost an average of 1.1 yards on their 10 third-down attempts.
"The best pass defense in the world is a pass rush," head coach John Fox said.
Added Lewis: "Guys were doing a good job on their first move on the edge, and I think we did a great job in the middle pushing the pocket and not giving them anywhere to step up. Don't get me wrong: he made some throws today, but for the most part we did a good job of collapsing the pocket."
It didn't always require stunts and twists to pick the lock of the Vikings' offensive line. The signature sack of the evening involved Julius Peppers simply bullrushing 334-pound left tackle Bryant McKinnie and pushing him out of the way, leaving Favre no choice but to accept the sack.
"Julius showed up big," Fox said.
WHILE A STAR HELPED MAKE THE DEFENSIVE LINE SIZZLE, it was the fill-ins on the offensive line who helped Carolina eventually run over the Vikings.
The jury-rigged offensive line, now featuring two replacement starters who hadn't played an offensive snap prior to this season, allowed
"It is impressive. It's a credit to the offensive line and the (running) back," Hoover said. "It's how we keep working. It's not always perfect, but we keep fighting, and eventually it pops."
Befitting that, the Panthers' rushing got stronger as the game progressed, even though they lost
Stewart finished the game with 109 yards on 25 carries, good for a workmanlike 4.4-yard average. Significantly, he scored the Panthers' final two touchdowns on a 3-yard run and a 2-yard pass from quarterback Matt Moore, breaking open a tight game that was tied or separated by one point for over 39 of the game's first 45 minutes.
With Stewart attacking the Vikings and the defense harassing Favre, Moore had plenty of opportunities to work into a groove, and he took advantage. After throwing for 139 yards on 16-of-26 passing in the first three quarters, he exploded in the fourth, finding
Moore's fourth-quarter passer rating -- 153.3 -- was just shy of perfection. But he and the Panthers came close, scoring on three consecutive possessions while forcing two Minnesota punts and an end-zone interception, capping a night that reversed the frustration of a season largely defined by what has gone wrong.
THE ONLY REGRET from the sparkling night was that it didn't come sooner. This result and the 34-21 win at Arizona in Week 8 demonstrated the Panthers' capabilities when their game clicked, results that were as illuminating in the affirmative as their 0-4 record against the AFC East was against them.
"It's not like we intentionally just brought it tonight," tight end
"When we look back on this year, we're going to look back on the games we could have won," wide receiver
Too late for a postseason run this year, yes. Too late to re-establish firmer footing for 2010, no. Too late to reaffirm the team's pride and self-respect, definitely not.
"I think it speaks to the character of the people in (the locker) room and the character of the coaches," ing said. "We're not going to sit back and pack up our stuff and wait 'til the season is over; we're going to come out and fight to the end.
"We're going to build on this won for the next two weeks. We've got two (winning) teams in the games ahead of us. We want to prove a point to those guys, as well."
But the Panthers already proved said point to the Vikings -- and to a national television audience, who clicked off their flat screens late Sunday night knowing that the Panthers' record says 6-8, but their performance Sunday bellowed something completely different.