Panthers 26, Vikings 7
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Presented with an opportunity to get back into the race for the best record in the NFC, Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings fell flat with another Sunday night dud.
Steve Smith caught the go-ahead touchdown pass and his long catch and run set up the clinching score and the Carolina Panthers used a ferocious defense to stifle Favre, Adrian Peterson and the Vikings in a 26-7 victory.
Hours after clinching the NFC North when Green Bay lost, the Vikings (11-3) failed to move within a game of NFC-leading New Orleans a night after the Saints’ first loss of the season.
Surprisingly, the best quarterback on the field wasn’t the 40-year-old Favre, but Matt Moore. In his third start for the injured Jake Delhomme, Moore threw for a career-high 299 yards and three touchdown passes.
“You saw a young guy mature,” Smith said.
A four-time Pro Bowl pick, Smith had been quiet most of the season with Carolina’s quarterback woes. But he caught nine passes for 157 yards and keyed Carolina’s huge 20-point fourth quarter.
Jonathan Stewart added 109 yards rushing and a TD on 25 carries, snapping Minnesota’s NFL-long steak of 36 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
It was that kind of thorough beating for the Vikings, which left Favre sitting alone on the bench in the final minutes.
“We were playing great defense until the fourth quarter,” said Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, outplayed by Carolina counterpart Julius Peppers. “We’ve got to dig down, we’ve got to find that fight within us to win games. You’ve got to battle for it.”
The Panthers (6-8) lost top rusher DeAngelo Williams to a first-quarter ankle injury, then made numerous key errors that kept them out of the end zone until an improbable touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Facing third-and-26, Moore heaved a pass to the right side and Smith beat Antoine Winfield for a 42-yard touchdown and a 12-7 lead.
It was the beginning of three touchdowns on consecutive drives. Smith’s 45-yard, tackle-breaking catch-and-run set up Stewart’s 3-yard TD run.
Moore, looking poised in the pocket and getting time to throw despite an offensive line that lost both starting tackles, then threw a 2-yard TD pass to Stewart to put it away.
Favre’s difficult night ended when he was picked off in the end zone by Chris Harris on the ensuing possession.
“That was one of our more complete games,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “We had a more complete one out in Arizona, it seems like 100 years ago. But it was good to see those guys show up like they did tonight.”
Minnesota lost for the second time in three games ó both road routs on Sunday night ó to drop to 4-3 away from home ahead of a visit to Chicago next Monday night.
It was about 35 minutes before kickoff when the video boards showed Pittsburgh’s winning touchdown on the final play over Green Bay that clinched the NFC North title for Minnesota.
The Vikings fans in the stands ó and there were plenty of them ó cheered wildly. But there was little reaction from the players. Favre did stop briefly to check the replay, which showed Mike Wallace was inbounds on his diving catch as time expired for the Steelers. Favre then took a snap and fired the ball downfield to continue his warmups.
The Vikings’ chance to clinch a first-round bye Sunday was dashed when Philadelphia beat the 49ers. But the Vikings had a chance to move within a game of the Saints for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.