CHARLOTTE – Sunday’s game against the NFC-leading Minnesota Vikings was a huge one for the Carolina Panthers, who were trying to keep pace in a tight race for a playoff spot.
For the Kalil brothers, it had added significance for other reasons.
Matt, Carolina’s high-priced free agent acquisition at left tackle, was playing his former team for the first time.
Ryan, the five-time Pro Bowl center who has battled a frustrating neck injury all year, was playing for the first time since Week 7.
It all made the 31-24 victory – one in which the Panthers rushed for 216 yards against a Minnesota team that came in allowing 77.7 per game – a little sweeter for the Kalil family.
Let’s start with Matt, who had the tough task of blocking Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen.
Griffen had one sack for a 2-yard loss in the first quarter to up his season total to 13, but he was penalized for grabbing Cam Newton’s facemask. Kalil was penalized for unnecessary roughness earlier on that drive, but the Vikings declined thanks to a sack by Linval Joseph.
Other than that, you didn’t hear Griffen or Kalil’s name much. And that’s a good thing for the left tackle.
“I’m very, very happy for Matt,” said head coach Ron Rivera, who called on Matt and fellow former Viking Captain Munnerlyn to break down the team in the postgame locker room. “A lot has been said, written and talked about this week, and as I said last week and before, I’ll say it again – the guy is getting better and better at what we do.”
Here’s how Matt assessed his individual performance: “There’s a couple plays here and there. Everson is one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. I had my hands full going against him. It was like a practice, but it was like a game. I went against those guys for the last five years. It was a cool experience.
“It’s good to get a win, especially in fashion we did, rushing the ball and opening those holes up.”
As for beating his former team, Kalil insisted it meant more to beat a team that was 10-2 and riding an eight-game winning streak than it did to beat the team that drafted him fourth overall in 2012.
“It’s not like a bitter experience or they treated me terribly. I just decided I needed to make a decision for my life and my career. No hard feelings like I have some vendetta against Minnesota or anything like that,” Matt said.
“Just a great feeling – not to beat them – but to beat a great team.”
Speaking of great feelings, everyone was happy to see Ryan Kalil start and finish the game.
The season opener at San Francisco was the only game Ryan had played in full prior to Sunday. When he tried to return in Week 7 at Chicago, his day lasted no more than three series.
“It was a long time coming,” Ryan said. “Just glad to be back out there and get back in the rhythm of things. Obviously, not my best game. I was a little rusty.
“A little tired,” he added. “It’s been a while.”
That’s all to be expected after a long absence. But Ryan more than held his own against Minnesota’s disruptive 329-pound man in the middle, Linval Joseph.
“That’s a heck of a first game to come back against that guy,” Ryan said. “He’s one of the better nose tackles in the league. I can’t say enough good things about Linval Joseph.”
When he wasn’t battling Joseph, Kalil was finishing plays by diving into piles and exhausting every ounce of energy. He played like a guy who missed being out there.
“He’s one of the best centers to ever play if you ask me,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “When you have him coming back for this game, it’s big.”
The Kalils and the entire offense took pride in finishing the game off with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive after the Vikings tied the game at 24 with 3:07 left.
After the Carolina defense forced Minnesota to settle for a game-tying field goal following an interception that set them up with first-and-goal from the 6, it was time for the offense to come through.
Matt executed a critical block on linebacker Anthony Barr to help spring Newton’s 62-yard gallop. Moments later, Ryan stifled Joseph at the point of attack and Stewart jumped over his center for the go-ahead score on third-and-goal.
“We had to do our part,” Ryan said.
Both Kalils can proudly say they did.