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'Like it was meant for me to catch it': Tom Johnson Recalls 1st INT

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — For just a moment, time seemed to slow down.

Stadium noise became muffled, and streaks of opponents slowed in Tom Johnson's peripheral vision as he watched an errant pass from Panthers QB Cam Newton, who had been simultaneously hit by Everson Griffen, floated through the air.

Johnson rolled out of his block, leapt in stride, felt his fingertips graze the leather and pulled the ball in.

"It was one of those things that you never think is going to happen or unfold the way it did," Johnson recalled more than a year later. "It's like it moves in slow motion. You feel like you can do everything right. And in that moment, I felt like I did everything right – it's like it was meant for me to catch it."

The defensive tackle carried the pick about six yards but was caught by Marcus Ball, who punched the ball out of Johnson's arms. Harrison Smith ran from behind, slid and scooped the ball on his way out of bounds, retaining possession for the Vikings.

"If it ever happens again, I know to tuck high and make sure I don't give them an opportunity to knock it out," Johnson said.

Griffen doesn't shy from ribbing his teammate of four seasons about the play.

"He didn't possess the ball. Somebody else had to come get it to save our lives," Griffen quipped with a grin. "I was impressed by the one-handed [catch], but the thing that happened after that, the next step, was not impressive."

The interception marked Johnson's first of his career, and on Sunday he'll return with the Vikings to Carolina.

Johnson this year wouldn't mind another interception, but he'll also be sniffing out a sack. Minnesota's defense has taken down Newton 12 times over the teams' past two meetings, including eight in the 2016 contest.

He believes they're able to affect Newton because of a familiarity with Carolina's offense and what it might present. The Vikings defensive linemen, however, are prepared to face a Panthers offensive line that Johnson described as "big and athletic." He emphasized that the offensive line moves well but is also benefited by a strong, mobile quarterback.

"He moves around," Johnson said. "When guys beat their guys 1-on-1, clean, Cam's athletic enough to make them miss or [can] run the ball, which tires the defensive linemen.

"They do a lot of good things," Johnson continued. "We just have to stay disciplined, stay aggressive and when we get those opportunities to beat your man, you'll win your battle and be able to take them down."

There's one matchup Johnson is specifically looking forward to, and that's a **reunion between Griffen and former Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil**.

When asked specifically about the former teammates – who also practiced against each other as teammates at USC – Johnson smiled.

"He knows Everson pretty well; Everson knows him pretty well," Johnson said.

The respect between Johnson and Griffen is mutual.

Griffen enjoys giving grief to his older teammate but emphasized that Johnson is a "key piece" of a dominant Vikings defense.

"We all come together, we all fight together, and he's doing a great job rushing the passer," Griffen said. "He's 33, but he doesn't look like he's 33. He's moving good, and he's playing at a high level. As long as you're winning games, that means everybody's doing his job right. And he's doing his job right, day-in and day-out."

Now in his fourth season in Purple, Johnson will take the field at Carolina for his 99th NFL game.

He looked up in surprise when presented with the number.

"I wasn't paying attention to that stat," Johnson said, laughing. "The NFL isn't a career that lasts that long, so for me to just be around as long as I have been, it's an accomplishment. So I think that it's a good thing. But I've never thought about that stat at all."

Added Johnson: "That's good to know. That's a fun fact, definitely."

More important to Johnson than the 99, however, will be if Minnesota notches its ninth consecutive win.

If the Vikings defeat the Panthers on Sunday, they will **clinch the NFC North**. A victory will also mean a sweep of the NFC South division by Minnesota this season. But what may seem like another significant benchmark for Johnson, who played for the Saints from 2011-13, is actually something that doesn't much faze him.

Johnson said he doesn't view the accomplishment as sweeping his former division but rather as a pride point for his current team. The Vikings right now are the NFC's No. 1 seed.

"For us to be in the position we are is [special]," Johnson said. "So we're just trying to take advantage of the situation we're in; we're going to continue to play with that chip on our shoulders, and we're looking at coming in Sunday, being aggressive and coming out with a W."

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