The Vikings welcomed the Carolina Panthers to Minnesota on Sunday but sent their guests packing rather quickly, jumping out to a 21-3 lead by the 2nd quarter and not taking their foot off the pedal all the way through a 31-13 victory in front of a home crowd that braved the bitter cold. Air temperatures hovered around 10 degrees and wind chills made it feel sub-zero, but the Vikings all-around team performance was hot and paced the way to a resounding victory.
Why did the Vikings win Sunday's game? Let's take a look.
1. Pounced on Panthers' PuntsThe Vikings entire special teams effort was outstanding on Sunday, but blocked punts directly resulted in two touchdowns and staked the Vikings to a 21-3 lead early in the 2nd quarter. The first blocked punt came with seven minutes to play in the 1st quarter, as Adam Thielen broke through the middle of the Panthers punt formation, blocked the punt, picked up the ball and ran 30 yards to the end zone for the score. Carolina's next possession resulted in a field goal, but the possession after that also ended with a blocked punt. With the Vikings base defense on the field, Jasper Brinkley registered the second blocked punt and Everson Griffen scooped up the loose ball and out-sprinted Carolina for a 43-yard touchdown.
2. Fast Start, Strong FinishThe Vikings defense set the tone early on Sunday by forcing Carolina to go three-and-out on their first possession. That, coupled with a poor punt on 4th down, gave the Vikings offense possession on the plus-45. It didn't take QB Teddy Bridgewater long to drive the Vikings for a score, as he went three for three on the first drive and capped the series with a four-yard scoring strike to TE Kyle Rudolph. The two blocked punts ensued and the Vikings were up big during the early stages. The fast start was complemented perfectly by a strong finish, as the Vikings defense forced three straight punts and then intercepted QB Cam Newton to end the game.
3. Bridgewater's Efficiency + No TurnoversThose who were concerned about Bridgewater's ability to play in cold weather had to love what they saw on Sunday. Bridgewater was sharp and efficient, completing 15 of 21 passes (71.4%) for 138 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 120.7. The Vikings won the turnover battle 1-0, with CB Josh Robinson collecting the game's lone turnover when he intercepted Newton late in the 4th quarter.
Aside from not turning it over, Bridgewater was at his best when it counted most – in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations. The Vikings were perfect in both areas, going one-for-one in goal-to-go situations and going two-for-two in the red zone.
4. Pass Defense Stayed StingyThe Vikings entered Week 13 action with the No. 3 pass defense in the NFL and they did nothing to hurt that ranking against Carolina. Newton completed just 51.4% of his passes for a per-attempt average of only 5.5 yards. Vikings defenders totaled eight pass breakups (PBUs) and Newton completed just two passes for 20+ yards the whole day. Xavier Rhodes played particularly well, tallying three PBUs on his own and forcing at least another couple completions without registering a PBU. Any defensive coach will tell you pass defense is the combination of rush and coverage, and the Vikings pass rush was also effective on Sunday. Newton was sacked four times, including 2.0 from Griffen.
5. Backups Stepped UpStarting RB Jerick McKinnon did not play because of a lower back injury, but Matt Asiata returned from the lineup and gained 52 yards on 14 carries plus added four receptions. Mike Harris filled in admirably for Phil Loadholt at right tackle and Joe Berger continued to play solidly in place of Brandon Fusco. Defensively, Gerald Hodges came on in place of Anthony Barr and had one of the Vikings eight PBUs and Shamar Stephen saw increased snaps once Sharrif Floyd left the game. The performance of these backups in place of starters was an important part of the Vikings effort on Sunday and has been something the Vikings have seen frequently throughout the season with starters such as Matt Cassel, Fusco, Adrian Peterson and Rudolph all missing significant time.