1. Zimmer thanks Rhule for the help

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer won his fifth game of the season with one heck of a nice assist from Panthers rookie head coach Matt Rhule. Leading the Vikings 24-21 with 2 minutes, 26 seconds left, Rhule either signed off on or didn’t overrule offensive coordinator Joe Brady when the Panthers threw back-to-back incompletions that took only eight seconds off the clock, saved the Vikings from taking their last timeout and gave them another stop of the clock at the two-minute warning. Doh! “I was glad they did that,” Zimmer said after the wacky 28-27 victory. “It saved some time for us.” Make that a lot of time. Rhule also has to live with the fact that the Vikings tried even harder to hand him the victory. “We basically gave them 17 points off turnovers today,” Zimmer said. What a bad, bad loss for Rhule.

2. A tale of two red zones is the difference

How would the Vikings do inside the 20 without Adam Thielen? Quite well. In fact, they didn’t even need the one-handed red zone bandit. Offensively, the Vikings had 45 yards, three touchdowns and 25 points on 10 snaps over four red zone trips. Defensively, the Vikings held Carolina to 17 yards and three points in 11 snaps over three red zone trips. The Vikings ran the ball three times for 11 yards, including a 10-yard run by fullback C.J. Ham. Cousins targeted three different players, completing four of seven passes for 34 yards and three touchdowns. Jefferson caught two of the four passes intended for him for 22 yards and two touchdowns. Somewhere, Thielen had to be proud, even if Jefferson did use two hands each time. Defensively, the Vikings’ red zone defense held old friend Teddy Bridgewater to 0-for-2 passing with one interception by Eric Kendricks.

3. Zimmer gets away with his biggest blunder

Zimmer has built a sturdy reputation as the guru of calling third-down defenses. But he botched one late in the second quarter that could have been the difference. With a 7-0 lead and Carolina facing third-and-11 from the Vikings 41, Zimmer got too cute with a complex blitz package that sent the safeties and dropped defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo into coverage. “Unfortunately,” Zimmer said of the call, “the one blitz I called was not a good one for what they had there.” A shallow crossing route to speedy receiver Robby Anderson made for an easy completion for Bridgewater. Anderson ran untouched for the tying score. Before that completion, Bridgewater was awful. He was 6-for-14 for 55 yards and an interception. Two snaps before the blitz, Bridgewater sat in a clean pocket and overthrew an open D.J. Moore on a deep ball to the goal line.

4. Wild ride continues for Vikings’ special teams

Kris Boyd threw his helmet on the sideline, so maybe that’s a good sign. At least he gets it that he needs to stop drawing flags on special teams. Three in two games is unacceptable. A week after committing penalties on back-to-back snaps and negating a successful fake punt, he picked up another block in the back on a fair catch by Chad Beebe late in the first quarter. Of course, Boyd isn’t the only concern on Marwan Maalouf’s sometimes not-so-special teams. A switch from K.J. Osborn to Beebe at punt returner nearly lost the game when Beebe muffed a fair catch near his own goal line late in the game. The Vikings haven’t had a spark at returner since Marcus Sherels got too old. It’s time they start taking those roster spots more seriously. On the flip side, D.J. Wonnum’s blocked field goal helps cool Maalouf’s hot seat.

5. Three hard counts are two too many

Quarterbacks have been having fun with hard counts in empty stadiums. Cousins joined in with some success on a beautiful opening drive. He ran 8 yards on third-and-8, threw a 12-yard touchdown on third-and-8 and used a hard count to get the Panthers to jump offsides on third-and-4. But that’s where Cousins’ hard count stopped being a problem for Carolina and started being one for the Vikings. On third-and-2 from his own 15-yard line, he barked out a hard count that caused left guard Dakota Dozier to jump. It was Dozier’s team-leading sixth penalty of the season. The Vikings ended up punting on that possession. Right before the half, Cousins did it again on second-and-10 from the Carolina 29. Beebe jumped offsides with 16 seconds left. A delay of game two snaps later left the Vikings settling for a season-long 53-yard field goal by Dan Bailey.