Vikings return two blocked punts for TDs

The Vikings scored twice in the first half off of blocked punts in a 31-13 win.

The Minnesota Vikings swatted away Carolina’s improbable hope of making the playoffs.

Adam Thielen and Everson Griffen each returned blocked punts by Minnesota for touchdowns, the first time in 24 years one team had two in the same game, and the Vikings beat Carolina 31-13 on Sunday to hand the Panthers their sixth straight loss.

Teddy Bridgewater threw for two scores without a turnover, and Griffen had two of the four sacks by the Vikings (5-7) against Cam Newton.

Despite entering the week just a half-game out of first place in the struggling NFC South, the Panthers (3-8-1) again stumbled out of their bye. They’re 0-4 under coach Ron Rivera following the annual in-season week off.

This was the seventh-coldest game in Vikings history, with a kickoff temperature of 12 degrees and a wind chill well below zero. They’re playing outside this year for the first time since 1981.

In an otherwise-ordinary late-season game between two losing teams, the home team’s punt coverage unit made this a must-see first half.

Thielen, a reserve wide receiver who played at NCAA Division II Minnesota State, was so far in the backfield that when he leaped at Brad Nortman’s attempt, the ball hit him around the thigh. Thielen landed on the turf and picked up the prize on his way for a 30-yard touchdown.

Then after the first of two field goals by Graham Gano, Nortman came out to punt again with the Panthers facing fourth-and-5 at midfield. This time, Jasper Brinkley charged up the middle to swat the ball down. Griffen snatched it up and went 43 yards to the end zone for a 21-3 lead.

The last time a team scored on two blocked punts in the same NFL game was on Sept. 30, 1990, when Kansas City did it against Cleveland. This was the fifth time it happened in league history, according to STATS research dating to 1940.

Lost a little in the hubbub was one of the better performances Bridgewater has put together in his eight-game career. He led the Vikings on just their third opening-drive touchdown of the season and their first since his debut on Sept. 28, a bootleg throw to Kyle Rudolph from 4 yards out.

Late in the second quarter, Bridgewater guided an 11-play, 80-yard drive to push the lead to 22 points. Greg Jennings caught a short pass near the sideline and slipped through the secondary for a 17-yard score with 16 seconds left.

Newton hit Philly Brown for a 32-yard touchdown with a heave on fourth-and-4 in the third quarter to bring the Panthers within 28-13, but the former first overall draft pick had another unremarkable game for the defending division champions who went 12-4 last year.

Newton was intercepted in the fourth quarter by Josh Robinson, who was beaten by Brown for the earlier score, and finished 18 for 35 for 194 yards. He gained 49 yards on nine runs, and Jonathan Stewart had a season-high 85 yards rushing on 12 attempts.

But Xavier Rhodes broke up pass after pass from Newton for Kelvin Benjamin, limiting the star rookie to 56 yards on five catches, and the patched-together Panthers offensive line was shaky at times with the protection.

Bridgewater went 15 for 21 for 138 yards. Matt Asiata had 52 yards on 14 rushes, and Blair Walsh tacked on a 39-yard field goal with 8:55 remaining to give the Vikings another three-score lead.

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