MINNEAPOLIS — The Carolina Panthers were more impressive in their 35-10 victory against Minnesota Sunday than they were in their 38-0 victory three weeks ago against the New York Giants.
The game was on the road, in the loudest NFL stadium I’ve ever stepped into. And the Vikings are less bad than the Giants.
We’ve twice seen the Panthers at their finest. Now we need to see them win when they’re not. If they can dominate Minnesota on the road, shouldn’t they be able to beat St. Louis at home next week?
Cam Newton was outstanding in Minneapolis, as were his receivers. They did more than hang onto the ball. They did what professionals do.
Ted Ginn Jr. threw a block on Brandon LaFell’s 79-yard touchdown reception that was Ryan Kalil worthy. Kalil, the Panthers’ center, weighs 300 pounds. Ginn Jr. weighs 185.
Steve Smith (185 pounds) leveled Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway (242 pounds) with a block and made a diving catch over the middle.
“It felt good just to be involved,” Smith says.
Sunday was a harmonic convergence for the Panthers, a coming together of offense and defense, play-calling and special teams.
Newton threw 26 passes and was sacked once for 6 yards. Although one sack was negated by penalties, the maligned offensive line was outstanding. Blockers gave Newton time to throw and running backs room to move.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was brilliant. I’ve criticized Shula for game plans that, if they were a color, would be beige. But the offense was crisp and creative, and Shula left the Vikings guessing and missing all afternoon.
I expected to lean forward every time Adrian Peterson, playing after the tragic death of his 2-year-old son, was handed the ball.
It’s what you do during a baseball game when a home run hitter steps to the plate. But I leaned forward when the Panthers had the ball. What they did, large and small, worked. There was the handoff to receiver Brandon LaFell, the way they deployed Ginn as the world’s fastest decoy.
Carolina’s game-opening drive lasted 12:57 and covered 62 yards. Twice Ron Rivera went for it on fourth down and twice his players succeeded.
Easy to miss on the drive, which felt like as if it began in Duluth, was a 2-yard run by DeAngelo Williams. On the next play, which was almost identical, Williams went for seven. He fooled them.
“We had a couple things set up for last week as well we would have liked to have used,” says Rivera. “But we never put ourselves in a positive position. And again if you can be creative it keeps people off balance. We’ve got several weapons right now. I think Ted Ginn is keeping people off balance. … We’ve got a weapon at tight end and our running backs (131 yards) are playing very well as a group.”
Linebacker Thomas Davis had a game-high nine tackles and a game-high two sacks. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott sent him twice on blitzes and both times he smacked Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel.
Last season, Davis was a warm comeback story. This season, he’s simply an excellent player.
What’s it like when you rush the quarterback and the offense is so surprised there’s nobody between you and him?
“ Oh, man,” says Davis. “Your eyes get big and you just go. Try to hit it the same way each time so there’s never a letdown. You don’t know you (if you’ll) come free. Just have to make sure you rush ‘em hard.”
This is Davis’ ninth season as a Panther. Was this your best game?
“I have to go back and look at the film,” Davis says.
Man, you sound like a coach.
“It definitely was a good game,” Davis says.
The Panthers have lost three close contests and won two blowouts. How do you make sense of it?
Steve Smith, in his 13th season, who has played for a one-victory team and a team that made the Super Bowl, explains.
“What happened (Sunday) is a team that seems to understand the importance of where we are right now,” says Smith. “We understand where we are in our careers and also understand where our season is and where we can go.
“Guys understand and trust the techniques that we’re taught, and the coaches trust the ability of the players and we’re able to do things in a way they understand. So it’s a lot of give and take. It’s a lot of pulling and prodding. And I think it doesn’t help with the news about (Rivera) being on the hot seat.”
Smith then says what every fan of Carolina desperately wants to believe.
“I think it’s a team that seems to be waking up,” he says.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; email@example.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen