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MINNEAPOLIS – The Carolina Panthers came out of their bye, still carrying a legitimate chance of repeating as NFC South champions despite persistent problems on offense and defense.
Better put special teams on that list, too, thanks to the Minnesota Vikings.
Adam Thielen and Everson Griffen each returned blocked punts for touchdowns, the first time in 24 years one team had two in the same NFL game, and the Vikings handed the Panthers their sixth straight loss with a 31-13 victory on Sunday.
"It's really disappointing. It's frustrating. Every adjective you can come up with, it's that," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "Right now we're not very good."
The Panthers (3-8-1) entered the stadium just a half-game out of first place, but they again stumbled out of their annual in-season week off. They fell to 0-4 after the bye under coach Ron Rivera, and they haven't won since Oct. 5 against Chicago.
Just as damaging were wins by division co-leaders Atlanta and New Orleans on Sunday, bringing both teams to 5-7, but as Olsen tersely put it after the game, the playoff talk is essentially irrelevant with the way the contenders-in-name-only Panthers have been playing after going 12-4 last year.
"I told the guys we've got four games left to go. We're going to play all four games, expect to win all four games, and keep going from there," Rivera said.
The Vikings (5-7) are well behind in the NFC North, but they had plenty to smile about on this frigid afternoon. Griffen had two of the four sacks of Cam Newton, and Teddy Bridgewater threw for scores to Kyle Rudolph and Greg Jennings without a turnover.
The rookie led the Vikings on just their third opening-drive touchdown of the season and their first since his debut on Sept. 28 and guided an 11-play, 80-yard drive to push the lead to 28-6 with 16 seconds left before halftime.
"I think I'm better at just making quicker decisions," said Bridgewater, who went 15 for 21 for 138 yards.
Newton, on the other side, turned in another unremarkable performance. He was intercepted for the eighth straight game and finished 18 for 35 for 194 yards and one touchdown, plus 49 yards on nine rushes.
"I have to come in each and every day with a clear mind to try to get better, because I have yet to play a great game in my opinion," Newton said.
Here are some key points to know about the game:
This was the seventh-coldest game in Vikings history, with a kickoff temperature of 12 degrees and a wind chill well below zero. They are playing outside this year for the first time since 1981. This was only the second under-25-degrees game the Panthers had played since the franchise began in 1995. They played in the NFC championship game after the 1996 season at Green Bay with a kickoff temperature of 3 degrees.
Griffen picked up the ball after Jasper Brinkley's block in the second quarter and ran 43 yards for the touchdown, but he was more impressed by Thielen's all-in-one play in the first quarter. He burst through the middle unblocked and was so deep in the backfield he had to be careful to avoid a penalty for running into punter Brad Nortman.
"I got so far in on him that I had to move my hands down. It probably would've hit me in the face, but I blocked it with my hands," Thielen said.
His dive landed him on the ball, and he leaped to his feet to pick it up and race 30 yards into the end zone.
"That's unbelievable. He blocked the kick, he picked up the kick and he scored, so he got like 10 points on one play," Griffen said, using a generous scoring formula. "That's awesome for him."
The last time a team scored on two blocked punts in an NFL game was on Sept. 30, 1990, when Kansas City did it against Cleveland. This was also the first blocked punt return touchdown by the Vikings since Oct. 12, 1986, against San Francisco, the longest active NFL streak without one.
Xavier Rhodes had three passes defended for the Vikings and helped limit Panthers star rookie Kelvin Benjamin to five receptions for 56 yards. Newton targeted Benjamin 12 times.
The Panthers reported injuries to free safety Tre Boston (ankle) and running back DeAngelo Williams (hand), but Rivera said he didn't know the severity of either. Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd had a sack in the first quarter before aggravating a knee injury that kept him out the week before. Linebacker Anthony Barr also hurt his knee that has given him some discomfort this season. Coach Mike Zimmer said neither of them were serious.
Cordarrelle Patterson had his usual spot as kickoff returner for the Vikings, but he was barely used as a wide receiver. Zimmer said the absence from the offense was not disciplinary but rather because of knee trouble that kept Patterson out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
"Feel like I'm 100 percent. I feel like the coaches didn't feel I was 100 percent, so they decided to hold me out. I respect them for that," Patterson said.
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