CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After Cam Newton strolled into the end zone untouched to give the Carolina Panthers a 10-0 first-quarter lead, the reigning MVP pantomimed pulling open an imaginary dress shirt to reveal the Superman logo.
But by the end of the game, after eight Vikings sacks and a trio of interceptions, Newton resembled Clark Kent and probably wished he could seek shelter inside a phone booth.
The Vikings, on the other hand, again looked like the early team to beat in the NFC.
Thanks to yet another dominant performance from coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, a special-teams touchdown and a third straight turnover-free game from the offense, the Vikings stunned the Panthers, last season’s conference champions, with a 22-10 win at Bank of America Stadium. The win stopped Carolina’s 14-game home winning streak.
“We got a great team, great coaching and we fight,” said defensive end Everson Griffen, who led the way Sunday with three sacks. “No matter what situation we’re in, we stay patient and fight back. We have a great team, the best team I’ve been a part of.”
This also might be the most resilient team the seven-year veteran has been a part of. Having already lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater earlier this month and now down star running back Adrian Peterson and starting left tackle Matt Kalil for possibly the rest of the season, the shorthanded Vikings were eager to show they still have plenty of talent and fight.
In the early going, though, it looked as if the home team might run away with this one. After two drives apiece, the Panthers offense had outgained the Vikings 115 yards to 9. Newton, the once-in-a-generation dual-threat talent, completed his first nine passes against Zimmer’s defense for 133 yards. And Newton’s 3-yard touchdown run — the 45th of his young career, an NFL record for quarterbacks — put the confident Panthers ahead by 10.
But despite not having much going offensively, the Vikings (3-0) pulled within two points by halftime. Defensive end Danielle Hunter buried Newton for a second-quarter safety. Then, moments later, cornerback Marcus Sherels swerved through traffic then sped down the left sideline to return a Panthers punt 54 yards for a touchdown. It was a franchise-record fourth career punt return for a score for Sherels.
Kicker Blair Walsh missed the extra point, though, keeping the score at 10-8.
“The safety that Danielle Hunter got was a big turning point in the game along with the punt return by Marcus Sherels,” Zimmer said. “It didn’t look good at the beginning of the game. But we settled down and played pretty well the rest of the way.”
The Vikings took their first lead on the first drive of the second half, going 79 yards on 10 plays. Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata rushed for big gains and Sam Bradford capped off the drive with a 15-yard touchdown to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who had a Panthers defender draped all over him while making the catch in the end zone. McKinnon, the lead back in Peterson’s absence, ran for a two-point conversion that made it 16-10.
“We told those guys [on the Vikings defense] that the next time they take the field, expect to have a lead. And we just got back to being us on offense,” Rudolph said.
Bradford, often under pressure, had just 26 passing yards in the first half. But he made some clutch throws in the second half of his second start and finished with 170 through the air.
Early in the fourth quarter, Walsh kicked a 28-yard field goal to put the Vikings up by nine points. He was good again from 31 yards to put the game out of reach at 22-10.
The defense was the difference, though, as the Vikings improved to 3-0. In the season opener, that group scored two touchdowns to rally the Vikings back from a double-digit deficit. In Week 2, they flustered star quarterback Aaron Rodgers while taking down the Green Bay Packers at home. And then the Vikings battered Newton repeatedly Sunday.
They briefly knocked Newton out of the game in the second quarter when nose tackle Linval Joseph tripped up the quarterback, who is built like a defensive end, for a sack. Newton returned a play later and threw his first interception at the end of the half.
The pounding picked up after halftime. Griffen, despite battling an illness, recorded a sack hat trick. Fellow defensive end Brian Robison threw Newton down once. Safety Harrison Smith and outside linebacker Anthony Barr both got to Newton as blitzers. Heavy pressure led to two more Vikings interceptions of Newton in the second half.
That fierce pass rush made Newton, one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, look like a mere mortal, and his Panthers (1-2) never got close to the end zone again as the Vikings scored 22 unanswered points and another convincing victory against one of the NFC’s best.
“In order to be the best, we’ve got to beat the best,” said Griffen, his voice especially raspy after celebrating all those sacks. “And we went out and we beat another great team.”
Matt Vensel covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org