CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was supposed to be a night when the Minnesota Vikings celebrated a division title and inched closer to the best record in the NFC.
Instead it was night of dropped passes, missed tackles, poor protection -- and a dustup between Brett Favre and the coach who worked so hard to bring him back from retirement.
After the Carolina Panthers dominated the fourth quarter Sunday night in a 26-7 win over the Vikings, Favre acknowledged he had a "heated discussion" with coach Brad Childress.
Favre claimed the coach wanted to take him out of the game to avoid taking any more hits from Julius Peppers and the Carolina defensive line.
The Vikings (11-3) clinched the NFC North title hours earlier when Pittsburgh beat Green Bay.
"Brad wanted to go in a different direction. And I wanted to stay in the game," Favre said. "It's not 70-6, but we were up 7-6. I said I'm staying in the game. I'm playing."
It didn't work out well, with the Panthers outscoring Minnesota 20-0 in the fourth quarter.
Surprisingly, the best quarterback on the field wasn't the 40-year-old Favre, but Matt Moore. In his third start for the injured Jake Delhomme, Moore threw for a career-high 299 yards and three touchdown passes.
Steve Smith caught nine passes for 157 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown pass and a long catch and run set up the clinching score. Jonathan Stewart added 109 yards rushing and a TD on 25 carries, snapping Minnesota's streak of 36 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
The Panthers (6-8), who were officially eliminated from playoff contention a night earlier, were the more energized team. They harassed Favre all night, sacking him four times.
Childress apparently wanted to protect his QB. Favre would have nothing of it.
"No way being up 7-6 and getting banged around a little bit would I consider coming out," Favre said.
Favre was 17 of 27 for 224 yards and no touchdowns. Adrian Peterson had a tackle-breaking 4-yard touchdown run, but was held to 35 yards rushing. But Carolina's struggles on offense kept Minnesota in the lead until the fourth quarter -- even if Childress wanted to make a change at QB.
"We were just having a good conversation about the game was heading at that point and time," Childress said of the third-quarter argument. "And what we needed to do to head the other way."
It was another Sunday night dud for the Vikings, who were blown out two weeks ago in Arizona and dropped to 4-3 on the road.
"We were playing great defense until the fourth quarter," said Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, outplayed by Carolina counterpart Peppers. "We've got to dig down, we've got to find that fight within us to win games. You've got to battle for it."
The Panthers (6-8) lost top rusher DeAngelo Williams to a first-quarter ankle injury, then made numerous key errors that kept them out of the end zone until an improbable touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Facing third-and-26, Moore heaved a pass to the right side and Smith beat Antoine Winfield for a 42-yard touchdown and a 12-7 lead.
"Smitty is a special guy, so it was one of those deals where if we get this look we want to throw it up to him and let him make a play," Moore said. "That's really what he did."
It was the beginning of three touchdowns on consecutive drives. Smith's 45-yard, tackle-breaking catch-and-run set up Stewart's 3-yard TD run.
Moore then threw a 2-yard TD pass to Stewart to put it away.
Moore, who went undrafted out of Oregon State in 2007, completed 21 of 33 passes with no interceptions and improved to 4-2 as an NFL starter.
"It'll be a win I'll remember for a while, I think," he said.
Favre's difficult night ended when he was picked off in the end zone by Chris Harris on the ensuing possession.
"That was one of our more complete games," Panthers coach John Fox said. "We had a more complete one out in Arizona, it seems like 100 years ago. But it was good to see those guys show up like they did tonight."
It was about 35 minutes before kickoff when the video boards showed Pittsburgh's winning touchdown on the final play over Green Bay that clinched the NFC North title for Minnesota.
The Vikings fans in the stands -- and there were plenty of them -- cheered wildly. But there was little reaction from the players. Favre did stop briefly to check the replay, which showed Mike Wallace was inbounds on his diving catch as time expired for the Steelers. Favre then took a snap and fired the ball downfield to continue his warmups.
The Vikings' chance to clinch a first-round bye Sunday was dashed a few minutes earlier when Philadelphia beat San Francisco. But with the Saints' first loss, the Vikings had a chance to move within a game of the Saints for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Instead, Minnesota remains two games back and the coach and the QB weren't on the same page.
"I don't know if it's exactly to protect me. We had seven points," Favre said. "That's his call, but we talked it out."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved