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Vikings’ defensive stops keep playoff hopes alive

Jerry Holtz | Star Tribune via AP Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel (10) catches a pass over Minnesota Vikings strong safety Harrison Smith (22) on the Panthers last drive Sunday in Minneapolis.

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Even without receiver Adam Thielen, the Minnesota Vikings’ offense climbed back from a 21-10 deficit to get within striking distance in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers.

The offense, again, had done its part to keep Minnesota’s faint playoff hopes alive. The Vikings’ comeback, both Sunday and from the season’s 1-5 start, would need a stop from its young, inexperienced defense.

This time, it came through.

Minnesota forced a punt with 2:18 left. Vikings returner Chad Beebe fumbled the punt and Carolina took possession at the 9-yard line with a chance to seal a victory. The Vikings managed to hold again, forcing a field goal for a 27-21 deficit and setting up Kirk Cousins’ game-winning drive in the final two minutes.

The Vikings held the Panthers without a touchdown on three trips inside the 20-yard line. Eric Kendricks thwarted one attempt with an interception. D.J. Wonnum blocked a field goal, and the Panthers settled for a field goal on the critical possession after the muffed punt.

The victory kept Minnesota (5-6) in the hunt for the postseason, sitting a game behind Arizona for the final wild-card spot.

The Vikings are third in the league in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 51.28% of opponents’ drives inside the 20.

“What we have done is we’ve had really timely turnovers,” safety Harrison Smith said of the team’s sagging turnover-differential. “Red zone interceptions, blocked field goals — that’s not a turnover but it essentially acts as a turnover. So, there’s some big turnovers in those situations, but we definitely need more in all areas.”

Just a week earlier, Minnesota allowed a late, come-from-behind drive by Andy Dalton and the Dallas Cowboys.

WHAT’S WORKING

The passing game kept rolling without Thielen, who is tied for second in the NFL with 11 TD catches but is on the restricted/COVID-19 list, and tight end Irv. Smith Jr., who’s sidelined by a groin injury.

Rookie Justin Jefferson seamlessly moved into the No. 1 role, while Beebe, Bisi Johnson and tight end Kyle Rudolph all helped fill the shoes of Thielen and Smith. Jefferson, Beebe, Johnson and Rudolph each had at least seven receptions and 60 yards receiving Sunday.

It marked the second time in NFL history that one team had four receivers reach both thresholds in the same game, joining the 2012 New Orleans Saints.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Special teams. Beebe ended up a hero by catching the winning touchdown and overshadowing his muffed punt.

The Vikings’ special teams continue to struggle even during the team’s turnaround. Beebe was filling in for K.J. Osborn, who was inactive.

Minnesota allowed a 20-yard punt return to Pharoah Cooper and had a penalty on another punt.

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