One play said it all.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the score tied, Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson threw a third-and-goal pass from the 3 toward the end zone.
Carolina defensive end Ray Seals raised his big right arm and swatted it down. End of play and time for the Vikings field-goal unit to come onto the field, right?
In one of the quirkiest plays you'll ever see, Seals' deflection sent the ball back in the direction of Johnson, who reached down and caught his own pass and ran with it into the end zone for a touchdown.
The NFL's statistical experts hunted their records for hours to determine whether any quarterback had ever thrown a touchdown pass to himself, then decided to put the search off until today.
The Panthers, who went on to lose to the Vikings 21-14, are searching for answers too.
The defeat was Carolina's third in a row and dropped the Panthers to 2-4, matching the number of losses they had in the entire regular season last year when they made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
As the losses mount, this Panthers season appears to have the same postmark as the Johnson-to-Johnson touchdown pass: Return to sender.
``Last year, that doesn't happen to us,'' nose tackle Greg Kragen of the score that put the Vikings ahead 14-7. ``This year, it does.''
Tight end Wesley Walls put it even more succinctly.
``When the dad-gum quarterback scores the touchdown . . . it's typical of our season right there.''
What hurt Sunday was that Carolina generally played well -- certainly much better than in their losses the previous two games to Kansas City and San Francisco.
Quarterback Steve Beuerlein passed for 227 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his first start since being named to replace Kerry Collins. Beuerlein bravely directed the team in the second half despite a gimpy right knee. He will have a magnetic resonance imaging exam today.
But two old haunts -- mistakes and penalties -- got in Carolina's way again.
The Panthers battled back to tie the score 14-14 after Johnson's touchdown and even had a chance for a go-ahead drive, but Rae Carruth's fumble with 5:21 remaining set up the Vikings' winning touchdown.
Then, after Minnesota took a 21-14 lead, the Panthers self-destructed with 40 yards in penalties on their final possession.
``We keep beating ourselves,'' said guard Greg Skrepenak. ``Other teams are showing up, playing hard and figuring that sooner or later the Carolina Panthers are going to shoot themselves in the foot. And that's just what we've been doing.''
After Sunday's loss, it's hard to imagine the Panthers challenging San Francisco for the NFC West title. The 49ers improved to 5-1 win a win over St. Louis and have a commanding three-game lead over the Panthers.
``This one was big,'' Carolina linebacker Sam Mills said. ``You've got to look at the overall picture of what we play for. We play to win the division and to have a good record. With our record now, it's not the position we want to be in. What do you do? We all know it. You keep fighting.''
At halftime, the score was tied 7-7. Minnesota (5-2) scored first on a 6-yard pass from Johnson to Cris Carter, but the Panthers countered with a 16-yard touchdown from Beuerlein to Walls with 5:23 remaining in the first half.
Then, after the wacky Johnson-to-Johnson touchdown on the second play of the fourth quarter, Beuerlein rallied the Panthers.
Carolina's tying drive covered 65 yards in 13 plays and was a testament to Beuerlein's competitiveness. Despite getting consistently punished by the Vikings' pass-rushers, he keep getting up and completing passes.
He limped because of his injured knee for much of the drive.
``Steve hung in there,'' said coach Dom Capers. ``He really really played a courageous game.''
Beuerlein tied the score 14-14 when he hit Carruth with a 5-yard touchdown pass with 7:22 remaining.
After the Panthers defense forced the Vikings to punt, Beuerlein and the offense took over with less than six minutes left in the game with a chance to drive for a win.
Beuerlein started out hot again, firing a completion to Carruth.
However, Vikings linebackers Jeff Brady and Ed McDaniel converged and sandwiched Carruth with simultaneous hard hits.
``They almost ripped me in half,'' Carruth said.
The hits jarred the ball loose and Minnesota's Fernando Smith recovered, giving the Vikings possession at the Carolina 45 with 5:21 left.
It was the play that turned the game around.
Four plays later, the Vikings had the lead when running back Robert Smith ran 4 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 lead.
The Panthers got the ball back with 3:33 left, and had good field possession at the Minnesota 48 thanks to Michael Bates' kickoff return. However, penalties nullified some big plays by Beuerlein and killed their chances of scoring.
A holding call on Skrepenak gave the Panthers a second-and-20 from their 42.
Beuerlein responded with a 15-yard completion to Walls.
But Walls gave all 15 of the yards back with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. He spiked the ball at Minnesota's Dwayne Rudd, who had tackled him hard, smashing his head to the ground.
``It was a dumb play on my part,'' Walls said. ``I thought it was a cheap head shot. It hurt. All I could think about was retaliation. I'm an emotional type guy. I made a mistake.''
The penalty left the Panthers stuck at second-and-20 again.
Undeterred, Beuerlein zipped a 21-yard pass to Carruth for a first down. But, again, the play didn't count because of a penalty -- holding against guard Matt Campbell.
Even though that put the Panthers in a second-and-30 hole, Beuerlein got them out of it by throwing 30 yards to Carruth for a first down at the Vikings' 38.
Carolina's surge ended there, however. A false start penalty against the offensive line and a sack of Beuerlein by Minnesota's John Randle (it was his third sack of the game) backed the Panthers up again and they couldn't come back.
Now, Carolina is where it never wanted to be -- 2-4, with an extremely difficult schedule ahead in November and December.
``This team is real frustrated,'' said Skrepenak. ``It knows it can win and it wants to win real bad. Right now, it doesn't look too good for us, but we're not going to give up. We're never going to give up.
``We've been working hard on the mistakes and I guess now we've got to work super, super hard on them. A rehab program right now is the way for us. What they do in there is step by step, day by day.''