MINNEAPOLIS Gus Frerotte stabilized Minnesota's wobbly passing attack for at least one week, after Antoine Winfield and the rest of defense bailed out their teammates once again after an unproductive first half.
Winfield's sack of Jake Delhomme and subsequent 19-yard fumble return for a touchdown right before halftime spurred the Vikings to a 20-10 victory over Carolina on Sunday to hand the Panthers their first defeat.
"You can't afford, in this league, to go 0-3," Winfield said. "We put ourselves in a tough situation, but I think we battled back today and made a statement."
Replacing Tarvaris Jackson after a pair of woeful games by the offense, Frerotte might have helped save the season for Minnesota (1-2) by completing 16 of 28 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown to Visanthe Shiancoe.
The 37-year-old was more aggressive than Jackson and made some crisp throws down the stretch to keep the Vikings in front and atone for some off-the-mark passes in the first half.
"You get amped up, ready to play, excited to go out and try to make some throws," said Frerotte, who also threw an interception. "It was a lot of fun. I feel really comfortable with our team, with our coaches, with our line. Obviously, I have some good friendships with those guys so the huddle is really good."
Steve Smith gave Delhomme the downfield threat he missed during his two-game suspension for punching teammate Ken Lucas, but his first three receptions and 60 yards all came in the first 17 minutes until a 10-yard grab late in the fourth quarter. Delhomme finished 17-for-29 for 191 yards, but he was never in rhythm.
Jared Allen and Kevin Williams each sacked him to end a desperation drive before it ever got going, shortly before the 2-minute warning. The swarming Minnesota defense held Carolina to 49 yards rushing, and the Panthers were flagged 12 times for 67 yards.
Adrian Peterson played through a hamstring injury that limited him in practice all week, rushing 17 times for 77 yards. Chester Taylor chipped in 44 yards on 11 carries.
With barely more than a minute left before halftime and the Panthers facing third down at their 29, Winfield raced into the backfield on a wide-angle cornerback blitz and leveled Delhomme. The ball popped out, and Winfield picked it up for an easy score to tie a game the Vikings had no business being in just seconds earlier.
There was nothing easy about their attempts on the other side to reach the end zone or even come close over the first two quarters. Frerotte started 4-for-10 and didn't get the ball across midfield until less than 6 minutes were left in the half.
Ryan Longwell kicked a 28-yard field goal to kill the shutout with 1:46 remaining, just before Winfield's big play. Minnesota has one touchdown in seven possessions this year inside the opponent's 20.
Momentum carried over, and Frerotte found a rhythm in the first series following the break. He fired a perfectly placed pass over Bernard Berrian's shoulder for a 48-yard catch, Willie Mays style, and sent one up the seam to Shiancoe for a 34-yard touchdown the Vikings' first in more than six quarters. Wearing a visor on the sideline, Jackson clapped and slapped hands with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell after watching Shiancoe hang on and give his team the lead.
The Panthers were deflated after that. They got only one first down and completed only two passes in the third quarter, and let Minnesota keep the ball for a whopping 11:34 on a penalty-filled drive that mercifully ended on a 32-yard kick by Longwell that made it 20-10 with 9:07 remaining.
Delhomme hasn't been great in his return from elbow surgery, but he did rally Carolina for victories over San Diego (26-24) and Chicago (20-17) in the first two weeks.