Panthers fall in OT

Sloppy finish undermines good start

The Carolina Panthers' starters might not be regular-season ready yet, but they're getting close.

The Panthers looked impressive when their first-teamers were playing in the first half of Saturday night's 25-22 overtime exhibition loss to the Minnesota Vikings at Ericsson Stadium.

But the play of the backups late in the second half got so spotty that coach Dom Capers said ``some things blew up on us.''

This is how bad it was:

The Vikings blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone to cut a 22-14 lead to 22-20 with 3:32 remaining in the fourth quarter. Then Carolina had only 10 men on the field when Minnesota completed a game-tying two-point conversion pass.

Kicker John Kasay broke an 11-for-11 preseason streak by narrowly missing a 43-field goal attempt with 10 seconds remaining in regulation that would have won the game. It hit the right goalpost, forcing sudden death overtime.

Quarterback Dameyune Craig was sacked and fumbled at the Vikings' 32 on Carolina's fourth play of the extra period. That led to a game-winning 26-yard field goal by Gary Anderson. The fumble spoiled an otherwise sparkling performance by Craig, who was 11-of-14 passing for 128 yards.

That nightmarish conclusion negated a stellar start by the Panthers, who led 14-7 at halftime when both teams were mostly playing their starters.

``I was pleased with the way our first unit played,'' Capers said. ``I think we were fairly consistent.''

Quarterback Steve Beuerlein, starting for injured Kerry Collins, threw two touchdown passes in the first half -- the first points of the preseason allowed by the Vikings, who shut out 1997 playoff teams New England and Kansas City by a combined 62-0 in their two previous exhibitions.

Carolina's defense held Minnesota without any points until the second quarter, after some of the Panthers' top defensive players (i.e. linebacker Kevin Greene and cornerback Doug Evans) had gone to the sidelines for the night.

The biggest blow of the night wasn't the defeat, but the loss of starting center Frank Garcia for at least four weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament and a bone bruise in his right knee.

Garcia will miss at least the first two regular-season games and will be replaced by Bucky Greeley, Capers said.

The Panthers fell to 2-1 in the preseason while the Vikings improved to 3-1. Carolina finishes its exhibition schedule next Saturday at Pittsburgh in a nationally-televised game (ESPN, 8 p.m.).

Carolina's problems offensively against the Vikings switched from red-zone scoring efficiency to their running game and poor field position.

The Panthers' best starting point in the first half was their 20-yard line, while Minnesota began two possessions on Carolina's side of the 50-yard line and another on its own 45.

The Panthers showed flashes of getting their running game going in the first quarter with Fred Lane in the game. He rushed eight times for 30 yards, including a 12-yard gainer.

But Carolina's other feature backs struggled. Tshimanga Biakabutuka had minus-5 yards on seven carries when he had to leave the game with a slightly sprained left shoulder. In three exhibitions, Biakabutuka has combined for 11 yards on 21 carries.

The Panthers had only one rushing first down against the Vikings, bringing their total for the preseason to eight.

``We'd obviously like to run the ball better, but I'm more pleased with the progress of our passing game than I am disappointed with our running game,'' Capers said.

Beuerlein got the offense started strong with a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on the Panthers' opening possession of the game. It helped that the Vikings had a critical third-down penalty early in the drive to give Carolina a first down.

The big play, however, was a 46-yard pass from Beuerlein to receiver Mark Carrier, who didn't appear to be the person the ball was directed toward.

Beuerlein eluded a Vikings blitz and threw toward Rae Carruth, who wasn't able to make the catch. But Carrier was a few yards behind Carruth and caught the ball, then turned it into a long gain to the Vikings' 15.

Carruth later caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Beuerlein after faking out Minnesota cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock with a nifty move. Hitchcock bit on Carruth's inside fake, leaving Carruth wide open in the left side of the end zone to catch the TD.

The Panthers' defense continually held the Vikings offense despite being at a field goal position disadvantage. Minnesota had non-scoring drives to end at the Carolina 47 and 38, plus its 45.

Carolina's first-team secondary, minus injured cornerback Eric Davis, shut out Vikings' star rookie receiver Randy Moss, who went 0-for-2 on long passes when he was covered by Evans.

Moss finally broke loose for a 51-yard catch in the second quarter against backup defensive back Michael Swift.

The Vikings' lone touchdown of the first half came on a 6-yard run by backup running back Moe Williams with 4:12 remaining in the second quarter. That possession started at the Panthers' 48.

Williams' TD tied the score 7-7, but Beuerlein and the Panthers struck back fast.

Carolina darted 82 yards in just four plays -- all Beuerlein passes -- for the go-ahead score. Beuerlein threw 8 yards to fullback Scott Greene, 14 to Rocket Ismail and 22 to Mark Carrier to move the ball to the Vikings' 38.

On the next play, Ismail ran a streak pattern, zipping past Hitchock, and caught a touchdown pass from Beuerlein.