Marcus Sherels headlined a big day for Minnesota's special teams unit.
The Vikings needed a momentum swing late in the first half, and Sherels gave it to them with a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown. Sherels fielded the punt at the Minnesota 46-yard line and dodged a few defenders before breaking loose and running it down the Vikings sideline to the end zone.
"We got the kick we wanted; the guys did a great job blocking for me," Sherels said. "I kind of hit the seam, and the next thing I knew, I was in the end zone."
Sherels' return for a score extended the franchise record that he already held. The play put Minnesota within two points of Carolina heading into halftime and sparked a Vikings turnaround that ended in a 22-10 victory to snap the Panthers 14-game win streak at home.
"All three phases played well today, and special teams did our part as well," Sherels said.
The touchdown wasn't the only important role Sherels played in Sunday's game.
On Minnesota's second punt of the day, Sherels sprinted down the field while tracking the ball in the air. Sherels timed it perfectly and batted the ball as it came down, stopping it from entering the end zone and instead pinning the Panthers down at the 4-yard line.
"Any time we can back up the opposing team's offense is a good thing," Sherels said. "[Punter Jeff Locke] does a great job pinning it down there for us, and it kind of makes our job easy."
Sherels also got his hand on a Cam Newton pass late in the fourth quarter as Carolina attempted to get back in the game.
"He's a guy that sticks around, number one. He gets his opportunity," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said of Sherels. "He does a good job there. He's played corner for us, he's played nickel for us, he's played safety for us. At the end of the day, he's a very valuable guy."
Safety Harrison Smith also had big praise for Sherels after the game.
"Marcus Sherels, he can play any position on the football field," Smith said. "He does it so casually. He scores – no celebration. 'Been there, done that.'
"He's there all the time," Smith continued. "He's not flashy, he's not celebrating, so the casual fan might not notice him, but we notice him every day. He's one of the biggest value players in the whole league. He's one of the best punt returners – I think he is the best punt returner in the game […] He doesn't make many mistakes, he can go in there and play defense. I know he could play offense, too, if he wanted."
Across the board, the Vikings special teams stood out in a big way for the second consecutive time facing the Panthers.
Locke followed up a great game against Green Bay with another solid performance.
On seven Minnesota punts, Locke averaged 45.6 yards per boot, his longest being a 62-yard punt. He managed to pin the Panthers inside their 15-yard line three times.
"Jeff did a nice job today," Zimmer said. "He continues to do a good job, and we talk about field position and making it difficult for the other team when you have to go 90 yards."
Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer utilized wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as a gunner on punt coverage in addition to his usual contributions as a kick returner. Patterson downed the ball at Carolina's 2-yard line in the second quarter. Later, Panthers receiver Ted Ginn attempted to return a Vikings punt, but Patterson immediately tackled him for a 1-yard loss.
Zimmer said Patterson played a key role when he was called on due to players struggling with the heat.
"In games like this, a lot of guys step up to a lot of things that you've been practicing but you don't really get to use," Zimmer said.
View images as the Vikings take on the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium Sunday.
Patterson entered Sunday's game leading the league with an average of 41.0 yards per return. His average at Carolina on two returns was 25.0 yards.
Blair Walsh missed a PAT following Sherels' return, but he maintained his composure and made both field goal attempts on the day from 28 and 31 yards out, respectively. Panthers kicker Graham Gano was 1-of-2, missing a 54-yard attempt midway through the second quarter after making a 48-yarder to cap Carolina's first possession.
Smith said it was an overall great team win with big contributions from special teams.
"I think we just have so many really good players who love the game, who play for one another who listen to the coaches. The coaches put us in a great position to win," Smith said. "It's a collective effort. We feed off of special teams getting us the ball backed up. That's nothing that we did – that's what special teams did."