MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota's defense was up to the task.
The Vikings were asked to make two late-game stops and delivered, enabling a dramatic 28-27 comeback win over the Panthers.
In a game filled with events that would have been possible to make up, Carolina entered the final five minutes with a 24-21 lead and moved the ball efficiently to midfield. On first-and-10 from the Minnesota 47, rookie cornerback Cam Dantzler stopped running back Mike Davis for a 4-yard loss. The Panthers then opted for back-to-back pass plays, and both were incompletions by former Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater.
Carolina punted with 2:18 remaining, but things went from hopeful to potentially horrendous when Chad Beebe muffed the punt return and the Panthers recovered at the Minnesota 9.
The Vikings didn't give up, though.
"We told them, 'We stop them three times here, and they've got to kick the field goal, and we'll have a chance to win,' " Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said.
And they did just that.
Harrison Smith and Eric Wilson tackled Davis after a 4-yard gain on first down, and Eric Kendricks limited the back to a gain of 2 on second down. Bridgewater's third-down pass to DJ Moore was incomplete, and the Panthers were forced to settle for a 21-yard field goal, which allowed Kirk Cousins and the offense to take over.
"I give [the defense] just a ton of credit. That's obviously really hard to do," said Beebe, who later went on to score the game-winning touchdown. "For them to come up with a stop there and hold them to a field goal was huge."
Added Zimmer: "That was really big. It gave us an opportunity to win the game. We played great in the red zone today, defensively. We had an interception, and I think they were 0-for-3 in the red zone. But none of them were any bigger than that."
It was Kendricks who came up with the red zone interception, picking off his former teammate as the Panthers threatened a second-quarter score.
On third-and-11 from the Minnesota 12, Bridgewater threw over the middle to Davis, but Kendricks jumped the lane and secured the ball.
The interception marked his third this year – all over the past four games and all inside the 20 – and seventh of his career. Kendricks now is tied with Wilson for the most interceptions in the league by a linebacker this season, and the teammates are tied with Smith for the team lead.
"That's major, when you get a stop on defense that takes points off the board for them," Wilson said. "It's great to do that and contribute. Turnovers are big."
The Vikings offense unfortunately was unable to capitalize on the takeaway, but it nonetheless preserved an early 7-0 lead. In addition to the interception, Kendricks also led the team with 12 tackles, including two tackles for loss, and added a pass defensed.
"Eric is a good football player," Zimmer said of Kendricks. "I thought Eric Wilson did a good job today, as well."
Minnesota's solid defensive performance helped the Vikings overcome critical mishaps in the game, including the muffed punt and fumbles by Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook that were returned for touchdowns on back-to-back plays by Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn. Penalties also tripped up the team throughout the day.
But despite the roller coaster of events, the mentality on the sideline remained positive.
"Throughout the game, there's definitely going to be ups and down. [But] we have to continue to fight and continue to hone in our techniques and details of the way we play defense, and make sure that we do our part," Wilson said. "No matter what's going on in the game, even if they make a play on offense on us, we have to respond, we have to keep fighting.
"It's not just one of us," he continued. "It's our entire defense, it's our entire team, it's the coaches putting us in great positions to win, and I think it was a great team win."
On the day, the Vikings allowed the Panthers 107 yards rushing – led by Davis with 55 – and 267 yards through the air. Bridgewater finished the contest 19-of-36 passing with one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 74.7.
The former Viking, who suffered a devastating knee injury just before the 2016 preseason and in 2018 signed with the Saints in free agency, spread the ball around to Robby Anderson (94 yards), Curtis Samuel (72) and Moore (61).
Minnesota was unable to sack Bridgewater (although Kendricks came close) but pressured him on a number of occasions.
"I think we did a good job of rallying on defense and running to the ball," Wilson said. "Of course, there are some things that we can clean up and do better on. But I think we did a great job of responding to adversity."
In addition to Dantzler and Kendricks, Smith and Jeff Gladney also recorded tackles for loss. Passes defensed were credited to Kendricks, Smith, Jalyn Holmes and rookie D.J. Wonnum, who additionally blocked Carolina's 28-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter.
View game images as the Vikings take on the Carolina Panthers at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
"[That] took points off the board. It could have been the difference from winning and losing," Wilson said. "You never know what big play you can make to make a difference – and that blocked field goal was a big positive play."
Cousins lauded a defensive performance that helped Minnesota improve to 5-6 ahead of next week's third straight home game.
"Our defense only allowed 13 points, and that's a really good showing. Anytime you can hold teams to field goals and not touchdowns, it ends up having a major impact on the game, so I'm thrilled with the way they played today," Cousins said. "And Eric's interception was an enormous play in the game as you look back at it. When you have a game like that where it goes back and forth, there's so many plays you can point to, but certainly our defense kept showing up time and again to give us a chance to get back in it."