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NOTEBOOK: Rare Red Zone Woes Undermine Vikings Offense & Defense

Posted Dec 10, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Vikings reached the red zone four times but never really entered “the zone” on Sunday against the Panthers.

Minnesota scored just one touchdown on four trips inside the Carolina 20-yard line and went 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations, departing from a slew of success since the bye week in a 31-24 loss.

The Panthers, however, scored three touchdowns on their four trips to the red zone, including both times they were awarded a goal-to-go situation.

The Vikings went 12-for-15 in the red zone and limited opponents to 4-for-11 in their four previous games (Washington, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit and Atlanta).

Minnesota continued that effectiveness when Case Keenum perfectly placed the ball over the outstretched arms of safety Mike Adams for an 18-yard touchdown to Kyle Rudolph.

The second trip stalled at the Carolina 12 after an incompletion and short gains on passes to Jerick McKinnon and Adam Thielen.

The third trip sputtered at the 4-yard line but was close to putting the Vikings ahead.

After incompletions to Thielen and Rudolph, Keenum guided another pass to Thielen who grabbed the ball and landed in bounds. Unfortunately, the football moved when Thielen hit the turf and caused what was initially ruled a touchdown to be taken off the board after officials review.

The final trip to the red zone was set up by a 34-yard interception return by Andrew Sendejo to the Minnesota 6. The Vikings, however, couldn’t get six points and settled for a chip-shot field goal that tied the game at 24 with 3:07 remaining.

Latavius Murray was stopped for no gain on first down, and James Bradberry broke up a pass intended for Diggs. Keenum was then sacked on third down for a loss of 3.

“I missed a throw after Sendejo’s interception,” Keenum said. “We’ve got to score a touchdown there. The defense comes up big after we score to get within three. I wanted that one bad. That was tough. You’ve got to give it to them. They did a good job, made some plays. I think it just comes down to making the right play at the right time.”

Keenum finished 27-of-44 passing for 280 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 75.9. He also lost a fumble during one of the six sacks by Carolina against an injury-depleted offensive line.

Beyond the red zone, there were big plays and bad plays, three costly turnovers and narrow misses in Minnesota’s first defeat since Oct. 1.

There also was an impressive comeback effort in the fourth quarter when the Vikings erased an 11-point deficit with a 52-yard touchdown pass from Keenum to Thielen and field goal that was set up by Sendejo’s second interception of the season.

“[The Panthers are] a good team, but I have 100 percent faith in my guys,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “We left a lot out there, and I feel like we didn’t come up with enough plays, especially on my part. We’re going to do better.”

What’s it mean for playoff position?

The Vikings were denied in their first opportunity to win the NFC North in the Queen City.

Minnesota (10-3) needs one more win, or one more loss/tie by Detroit and Green Bay, to secure its second division title in three seasons. The Vikings also need patience to wait until next week since the Lions (7-6) won by a field goal and the Packers (7-6) won in overtime.

The Vikings will host Cincinnati (5-8) next Sunday.

“This is when everything starts to get important, this is when juices get ramped up, as they say,” Brian Robison said. “But once again, we have to put this one behind us and just move on to the next one.”

Philadelphia (11-2) reclaimed the No. 1 spot on in the NFC Playoff standings with a 43-35 win over the Rams (9-4), but QB Carson Wentz suffered a knee injury.

Runs that stunned

The Vikings defense entered the game as the best team in the NFL at preventing explosive runs, having allowed just 15 of 10-plus yards through 12 games.

Carolina, however sprung free on its third offensive snap, using an imbalanced offensive line and catching Minnesota with a missed run fit.

Jonathan Stewart sped to a 60-yard touchdown, his first of three rushing scores on the day, on a third-and-1. He also became the first player to rush for more than 100 yards against the Vikings in 2017, totaling 103 on 16 carries.

“There ain't like no magical question or magical answer for it,” Everson Griffen said. “They popped a long run, somebody got out of their gap, he [got an open] run. We just have to come back and figure it out, and come back refocused.”

The Vikings never led but fought back to tie it late, seizing momentum until Cam Newton broke free for a 62-yard run down the middle of the field to the Minnesota 8. Newton totaled 70 rush yards on 11 attempts, helping the Panthers total 216 on 36 attempts.

“Momentum is momentum. It’s up and it’s down,” Diggs said. “It’s kind of like when you get it, you try to keep it, and that’s how it goes. They made some plays afterwards, they bounced back after we had some momentum, and we just have to continue to fight and play the whole game, the full game.”

Tight end milestone

Rudolph totaled three receptions for 41 yards before leaving the game with an ankle injury, pushing his season total to 53 receptions, 506 yards and seven touchdowns.

It is the second time in his career in which he has had at least 50 catches, 500 yards and five scores, tying him with Steve Jordan for the most such seasons by a Vikings tight end.