CHARLOTTE - It took quarterback Cam Newton's late-game heroics for the Carolina Panthers to pull out a pivotal 31-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Bank of America Stadium.
Although the Panthers led for the majority of the game, Minnesota's Kai Forbath kicked a game-tying 27-yard field goal to level the score at 24 with 3:07 remaining. However, with all eyes on Newton, he orchestrated his first game-winning fourth quarter drive since 2015. On the second play of the drive, the quarterback broke free for a 62-yard run up the middle and barreled into the red zone.
"Simple zone read," Newton said. "Like I said, it's a feeling-out process throughout the whole game. I don't think that play would have been there in the first quarter because they did have a plan to try to eliminate me from the run game."
"I got hyped," wide reciever Devin Funchess said. "He's still slow, he's got to work on his speed in practice. We're going to get to it this week."
Newton, dragged down at the 8-yard line, became the first quarterback in NFL history is tally two 60-plus yard runs in a single season.
Three plays later, running back Jonathan Stewart capped off the game-winning drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, his third rushing touchdown of the day.
All season long, head coach Ron Rivera has stressed the importance of starting strong. Until now, that hasn't included a first-quarter interception, let alone an interception from a cornerback. Daryl Worley set the tone early when he picked off Vikings quarterback Case Keenum on a deep pass intended for wide receiver Adam Thielen.
"The (cornerbacks) have been working hard. They really have," Rivera said. "They had opportunities today, and they made the plays. That's the big thing. The last few weeks we have dropped some that we should have caught so it was good to see those guys come through and make plays for us."
The Panthers' offense took over at their own 31 and within three plays, Carolina was leading by a touchdown. On his first handoff of the game, Stewart broke off a 60-yard touchdown run, his longest of the season.
"Whenever you play a team that's always in the box lined up like that, you hope to just see a hole open because you just know that there's no one else in the secondary," Stewart said. "Our offensive line did a great job and having [Ryan] Kalil back, I'm definitely sure that helps. That first play, I just followed [Andrew] Norwell, and he led me to the promised land."
Keenum and the Vikings responded on the ensuing possession, putting together a 10-play, 75-yard drive ending in an 18-yard touchdown reception for tight end Kyle Rudolph. However, Carolina's offense continued to roll behind the legs of Stewart. After the Panthers strung together 13 plays totaling 88 yards, Stewart bulldozed into the end for his second touchdown of the day.
"We responded all day," Rivera said. "I thought they did some really good things in response to whenever Minnesota scored, we were able to do something."
Despite conceding two field goals before halftime, the Panthers offense begain clicking again out of the break. Leading 14-13, Newton connected with Funchess for an 18-yard touchdown completion. On third-and-7, Newton dropped 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage to evade pressure before finding Funchess all alone at the goal line.
The third quarter score paired with a 41-yard Graham Gano field goal gave Carolina a 24-13 lead, its largest of the game.
The Vikings didn't go away in the fourth quarter. Even after throwing a second interception, Keenum linked up with Thielen once more for a 52-yard pitch and catch turned touchdown. The score preceded a third Kai Forbath field goal, this time from 27 yards, that leveled the game, 24-24.
"Probably the biggest thing is 'Keep Pounding,'" Rivera said. "That is our mantra around here, and that's pretty much all we talked about."
AP photos from Carolina's victory over Minnesota.