MINNEAPOLIS -- The game was seemingly over, and the special teams issues that have haunted the Minnesota Vikings for weeks were going to be the culprit in another loss.
Minutes after Chad Beebe muffed a punt inside Minnesota's 14-yard line that put the Carolina Panthers in position to score a field goal after the two-minute warning, he redeemed himself and earned hero status with his first NFL touchdown, helping the Vikings to a 28-27 victory.
"At the end of the day, a lot of that was on me with those emotions," Beebe said. "I’d had a dropped punt. It’s funny though because things didn’t really get down. I came to the sideline and everybody was positive and it’s just having that never-give-up attitude. Our entire team kind of felt that way. We had plenty of time to drive down and score and that’s exactly what we did."
Somehow the Vikings got away with this late-game win after quarterback Kirk Cousins marched the offense 75 yards down the field in seven plays with 1:51 to play and no timeouts. Without receiver Adam Thielen, who remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Minnesota had to rely on other playmakers to get the job done, which brought the game down to the wire.
The defense got gashed by the Panthers' run game early on and Minnesota totaled eight penalties for 52 yards and turned the ball over three times. Play like that usually does not yield a win.
But when called upon to deliver, Cousins came through, leaving all the blunders of a troublesome third quarter behind. The Vikings' defense was responsible for 13 of Carolina’s 28 points, a bounce-back performance from a week ago, and didn’t fold after the dropped punt could have put the game out of reach.
“There wasn’t really panic on the sideline,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It was like, ‘Hey, let’s get back in this, we can still do this.’ That’s what it seemed like to me."
The win increases the Vikings' chances of making the playoffs to 26.5%, according to ESPN's FPI. Minnesota hosts the 1-10 Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday.
Third quarter disaster: The Vikings' offense opened the game with a 13-play, 68-yard drive capped off by Justin Jefferson's 12-yard touchdown. After that, the offense struggled. Minnesota had a chance to cap off a two-minute drive with a touchdown after the Panthers scored late in the second quarter, but a false start penalty, a pass interference that went uncalled and a delay of game forced the Vikings to settle for a field goal.
On back-to-back plays to open the third quarter, the game went from 10-7 Vikings to 21-10 Carolina after Cousins was strip sacked and the fumble was returned 17 yards for a TD by Jeremy Chinn. On the subsequent drive, Dalvin Cook coughed up the ball, which was again returned for a score by Chinn. Cook injured his ankle on that play and spent minutes in the blue medical tent only to be cleared to return.
The Vikings chipped away in the fourth quarter with a 25-yard field goal and another touchdown to Jefferson, his second game this season with multiple receiving touchdowns. That's the most by a Vikings rookie since Hall of Famer Randy Moss had four such games back in 1998. Cousins' 10-yard TD pass to Beebe capped off the quarterback's second game-winning drive in three weeks.
"It’s funny that you ask if I was seeing it in slow motion, because to be honest with you, that’s kind of how it seemed," Beebe said. "I just had a, we call it a clear route. The defensive back, he was a little bit outside shade, so I just tried to give him a stick like I was running out, then skinny threw and Kirk threw a great ball."
Impact of Thielen's absence: Jefferson saw a significant uptick in targets (13). But he received added attention from the Carolina defense after a bizarre decision to leave the star rookie one-on-one near the end zone on his first touchdown. Jefferson finished with seven catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns and was Cousins' replacement for Thielen in the red zone, an area where Thielen was expected to be sorely missed. Usage increased elsewhere for the likes of Kyle Rudolph (seven catches, 68 yards), Bisi Johnson (seven catches, 74 yards) and Beebe (seven catches, 63 yards and a TD).
Cause for concern: Alexander Mattison had two rushes for 6 yards, which included only one run after Cook got hurt. To his credit, Cook trotted back out after sustaining an ankle injury in the third quarter but struggled to generate much production, finishing with 61 yards on 18 carries. It's evident that the Vikings' don't have a reliable replacement when Cook isn't available, and that's been an issue all season.