Justin Jefferson, Harrison Smith lead Vikings to first win of 2023 season at Carolina

The Minnesota Vikings were staring at their first 0-4 start in 12 years on Sunday at the Carolina Panthers, but Justin Jefferson and Harrison Smith made sure that wouldn't happen.

Jefferson caught a pair of touchdown passes, and Smith had three sacks and created a defensive touchdown that swung the game as the Vikings beat Adam Thielen and the Carolina Panthers 21-13 on Sunday for their first win of the 2023 season. They avoided their first 0-4 start since 2011.

That's despite two turnovers from Kirk Cousins, and trailing 13-7 at the half.

"All our team has done all year long regardless of the result is continue to trust in their preparation, continue to lean in even more on each other. Those guys fought off the feeling of ‘Woe is me’ or ‘Here we go again.’ We just weren’t going to have it," Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell said after the win. "We found a way to piece together a complementary win."

Jefferson had six catches for 85 yards and two scores. Smith's first sack forced a Bryce Young fumble. D.J. Wonnum scooped it up and took it 51 yards for a touchdown that gave the Vikings a 14-13 lead in the third quarter. The game turned on that play, and the Vikings never looked back.

"We’ve been chasing for a while but when your number is called, you’ve got to make a play. it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of guys doing it today when we needed it," Smith said.

Smith’s other two sacks came on Carolina’s final drive, with the Panthers needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game in the final minute. His third sack forced a turnover on downs, and the Vikings could run out the clock. Smith also led the defense with 14 tackles, eight solo tackles and two tackles for loss.

"Just an unbelievable performance today. Does not surprise me one bit, he’s somebody who I lean on constantly. One of my all-time favorites, and when we had to have it, he was at his best today. He’s being doing it for his whole career, and it’s just good to see him back in positions to make huge plays to impact football games," O'Connell said. "We’re the best version of the Minnesota Vikings defensively when Harrison Smith is an impact player."

The Vikings scored 14 unanswered points, while the defense pitched a shutout in the second half and got two sacks from Marcus Davenport in his first full game of the season. They limited the Panthers to 232 total yards, held Young to 204 yards passing and got five sacks. The Panthers were just 5-of-14 on third down, and most importantly, didn't score an offensive touchdown.

Cousins was 13-of-19 for 139 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The first turnover was an interception at the goal line by Sam Franklin Jr. on a pass headed for K.J. Osborn. Franklin jumped the route, took it 99 yards for a score and a 7-0 Panthers lead in the first quarter. It was a 14-point swing, as the play before, Cousins hit Jefferson for a touchdown that was wiped away by a Josh Oliver holding call.

Cousins’ second turnover came after Ed Ingram allowed a pressure, and a hit on Cousins altered the pass. Carolina turned it into a field goal as the Vikings trailed 13-7 at the half.

Jefferson’s second touchdown of the day came on a free play, after the Panthers jumped offsides. Cousins hit him from 30 yards out to give the Vikings a 21-13 lead to end the third quarter. O'Connell said had Carolina not jumped, he would've let the third quarter clock run out.

"Kirk knew right where he was going with the ball once he confirmed the flag came out. Just absolutely dotted that ball to Justin in a 1-on-1, which was a huge play. If there’s even a remote possibility of somebody jumping, it’s going to be a free throw up to the best receiver in football," O'Connell said.

The Vikings ran the ball efffectively for the second straight game, collecting 135 yards and averaging 5.9 per carry. Alexander Mattison had 17 carries for 95 yards. Cam Akers added five carries for 40 yards in his first game action with the Vikings.

In his first game against his former team, Thielen had seven catches for 76 yards.

There is still plenty to fix, as the Vikings managed just 265 total yards, were 1-for-8 on third down and now have 11 turnovers in 16 quarters. They’re also minus nine in turnover differential, but the bottom line is the Vikings are 1-3 with the Kansas City Chiefs coming to Minneapolis next Sunday afternoon.

"Definitely good to put one win on the board, definitely was good to get a win, see these happy faces in this locker room. Gotta have this same energy going into next week. I feel like we came to play whenever we needed a score to put points on the board," Jefferson said.