MINNEAPOLIS -- Gus Frerotte gave a wobbly passing attack some life with the kind of calm, poised performance his coach had in mind when he made the switch.
Frerotte couldn't have helped save Minnesota's season, however, without another productive performance by that relentless defense.
Antoine 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 completed 16 of 28 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown to Visanthe Shiancoe -- the first by the Vikings in more than seven quarters.
"I really don't have any idea how they're a 1-2 football team," said Delhomme, who got standout wide receiver Steve Smith back but couldn't do much against frequent pressure.
The Vikings' rough start wasn't because of the defense, though a couple of long plays allowed in the first two games were costly. It wasn't due to a lack of a running threat, either. Adrian Peterson, whose injured hamstring recovered in time for him to gain 77 yards on 17 carries, led the league in rushing over the first two weeks.
Disappointed by Jackson's tentativeness and the overall lack of success, coach Brad Childress pulled the plug on the project this week and called for the 37-year-old Frerotte -- who's in his second stint with Minnesota, his seventh NFL team.
After some off-the-mark passes and one interception in the first half, Frerotte found his rhythm after Winfield's big play and following the break marched the Vikings 80 yards in barely more than 2 minutes to take a 17-10 lead.
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 score. Wearing a visor on the sideline, Jackson clapped and slapped hands with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell after watching the Shiancoe hang on and then break a tackle. The tight end dropped a third-down throw in the end zone by Jackson in last week's 18-15 loss to Indianapolis.
"It was a lot of fun. I feel really comfortable with our team, with our coaches, with our line," Frerotte said.
Though the play-calling by Childress and Bevell was in a better groove than before and the receivers were more helpful than they were to Jackson, Frerotte was a clear upgrade from the first two games.
"He's been doing it so long that he just has a great way about him, a great confidence about him," Childress said. "He enjoys it. You can tell that he still has a burning desire to compete."
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.
The Vikings marked Smith well.
"We tried to jam him at the line and not let him get a clean release," Winfield said. "He didn't really catch any deep balls on us. That's the key today."
Jared Allen and Kevin Williams each sacked Delhomme to end a desperation drive before it ever got going, shortly before the 2-minute warning, and Delhomme went down behind the line of scrimmage a total of five times. Minnesota held Carolina to 49 yards rushing, with linebacker E.J. Henderson appearing in the backfield often, and the Panthers were flagged 12 times for 67 yards.
Six of those penalties were false starts, and there was also a delay of game call.
"It was loud, but we knew that coming in," Delhomme said. "We have to get better in that area, and we have to get better quick."
Left tackle Jordan Gross had a tough time against Allen.
"Their down four is, I think, the best group we've faced so far," Gross said. "So that demands a lot of attention. They started blitzing, and we didn't pick it up well. It's hard for Jake to hit anybody downfield when he's got people in his face."
The Panthers let the Vikings keep the ball for a whopping 11 minutes, 34 seconds -- the second-longest drive in team history -- on a penalty-filled march that mercifully ended on a 32-yard kick by Ryan Longwell that made it 20-10 with 9:07 remaining.
"We knew we were coming in for a fight," Carolina coach John Fox said. "We watch the tape. We don't look at the records."
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