Vikings’ defense steps up, makes amends

The Vikings’ defense collapsed in the late going last week against Dallas. Not this time.

Minnesota used some key late-game defensive stops to pull out a improbable 28-27 comeback victory over Carolina on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

In a 31-28 home loss to Dallas on Nov. 22, the Vikings allowed the Cowboys to score two key fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last one a game-winner from the 2-yard line with 1:37 left. But on Sunday, with the Panthers at the Vikings’ 3 in the waning moments, Minnesota’s defense saved the game.

With the Panthers leading 24-21, Chad Beebe fumbled a punt, losing the ball at the Vikings’ 9 with 2:10 left. But after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater missed a wide-open D.J. Moore in the end zone on third-and-goal at the 3 that could have wrapped up the game, Carolina had to settle for a Joey Slye field goal with 1:51 left to make it 27-21.

That opened the door for Kirk Cousins’ 10-yard touchdown pass to Beebe with 46 seconds left for the go-ahead points.

“That was a major stop for us on defense to give our offense a chance to go down and score, which they did an amazing job doing,” Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson said. “I think we did a great job of responding to adversity in the game, on offense and defense.”

Beebe’s touchdown didn’t mean the Vikings’ defense was done for the day. Carolina drove into position for a winning field-goal attempt. But Slye’s 54-yard attempt sailed wide left with one second left, and the Vikings held on.

“I dove for (a block) and I was on the ground, and I heard my guys celebrating, and so that’s amazing,” Wilson said. “It was an amazing win.”

The Vikings’ defense allowed just 13 points on Sunday; Carolina got more than than — 14 points — on two fumble returns for touchdowns by safety Jeremy Chinn early in the third quarter. Yes, Minnesota gave up 374 yards of Carolina offense, but that was still better than the defense’s average coming in, 382 yards per game.

Overall, it was one of the best performances of the season for a unit that entered the game ranked No. 27 in the NFL in scoring defense and No. 23 in total defense.

“I thought all day long the defense played very well,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’ve got to continue to get better. Still got a long way to go.”

Zimmer called the defensive stop with two minutes left “really big.” There were some other stops that also helped keep the Vikings in the game.

Early in the fourth quarter, with the Panthers leading 21-13, the Vikings held them to a field goal for a 24-13 lead after they had first-and-10 at the Minnesota 31. On Carolina’s possession before Beebe’s fumble, the defense forced the punt, which didn’t allow the Panthers to take more time off the clock.

And in the first half, the Vikings held the Panthers to just seven points. They might have had more had linebacker Eric Kendricks not intercepted a Bridgewater pass early in the second quarter at the Vikings’ 7.

“I’m thrilled with the way (the defense) played today, and Eric’s interception was an enormous play in the game as you look back at it,” Cousins said. “So, when you have a game like that, where it goes back and forth, there’s so many plays you can point to. But certainly our defense kept showing up time and again to give us a chance to get back in it.”

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