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Panthers snap Vikings' eight-game winning streak

Cam Newton shook off a fourth-quarter interception to Andrew Sendejo, juking the Minnesota safety on the next drive en route to a 62-yard run that set the stage for Jonathan Stewart's game-winning touchdown leap. Here's what we learned in the Carolina Panthers' thrilling 31-24 victory over the Vikings in Week 14:

  1. While the Vikings failed to take advantage of the opportunity to clinch the NFC North title, the Panthers moved into a first-place tie with the Saints atop the NFC South. Carolina's offense was powered by a trio of big plays. In addition to Newton's 62-yard read-option keeper, the 2015 MVP escaped pressure to find Devin Funchess in the end zone to open the second half. Stewart raced 60 yards untouched to pay dirt on the opening drive of the first half to kick off the scoring. Stewart not only rushed for a career-best three scores, but also became the first back this season to clear the 100-yard mark against Minnesota's previously impregnable front seven.
  1. By Mike Zimmer's own halftime admission to CBS' Tracy Wolfson, the Vikings were beating themselves with game-altering mistakes. The usually sure-handed Kyle Rudolph dropped a pass down the seam that would have gone for a big gainer. Although Adam Thielen came up clutch with a 52-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, he marred his All-Pro campaign by dropping a touchdown. Two plays later, he was victimized by the catch rule's "process" clause when he lost control of the ball as his elbow hit the ground at the back of the end zone. Just as Keenum was heating up for the first in a series of fourth-quarter comeback sallies, Stefon Diggs' drop bounced off his own helmet and into the hands of cornerback James Bradberry. Keenum played much better than his numbers would suggest, but this wasn't the fundamentally sound Vikings outfit we've come to expect.
  1. Are the Vikes developing chinks in their armor? After taking just five sacks in his first 300 pass attempts over nine games this season, Keenum has gone down 10 times -- including six sacks by the Panthers -- on his last 104 attempts over the past three weeks. Already playing without right tackle Mike Remmers and center Pat Elflein, Keenum lost blindside protector Riley Reiff to an ankle injury on Sunday. Beyond the offensive-line issues, Kai Forbath appears to be battling a case of the yips, missing five kicks in the past four games.
  1. Victories by the Panthers and Falcons bode poorly for the NFC's three-pack of 7-6 teams. The way it stands now, there's certainly no guarantee that a 10-6 record will guarantee a postseason berth. The Packers, Lions and Cowboys have to hope that two of the NFC South's trio of contenders cannibalize the weakest member in the season's final three weeks.
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