By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings returned two blocked punts for touchdowns in the first half to build a 22-point lead heading into the break. The Vikings coasted to a 31-13 victory Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium over the Carolina Panthers.
The Vikings (5-7) scored a touchdown on their first offensive possession on a short touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater to Kyle Rudolph. They started in at the Panthers 40-yard line after a short punt by Brad Nortman following a three-and-out.
The Vikings extended their lead to two touchdowns when Adam Thielen blocked a punt, picked up the loose ball and ran it into the end zone for his first career touchdown. It was the first blocked punt return for a touchdown since 1986.
Jasper Brinkley burst through the offensive line and blocked Nortman’s second straight punt. Everyone Griffen picked up the ball and 43 yards for a touchdown.
The Panthers (3-8-1) got to as close as 15 points in the third quarter on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Philly Brown. The Panthers wide receiver got underneath Josh Robinson with Harrison Smith too late to help for the score on a fourth-down play.
The Vikings defense took over from there holding the Panthers to just 82 yards over the their final five possessions. The Vikings offense also did their job by keeping the clock running.
Offense Grade: B
The Vikings offense only had the ball three times in the first half and scored two touchdowns. Bridgewater tossed scoring passes to Rudolph and Greg Jennings. But, in the second half, the unit had six drives and punted on five of them — including a minus-nine yard drive right after the Panthers scored their touchdown. The positives in the second half were a pair of drives back-to-back that stemmed the Panthers’ momentum. They began at their own seven-yard line and moved the ball 53 yards on nine plays before punting. Then on the ensuing drive went 19 yards on six plays to kick a field and extend the lead to 18 points.
With leading rusher Jerick McKinnon inactive, Matt Asiata returned to the lineup after missing last week’s game with a concussion and started. He had a game-high 14 carries and 52 yards. Recently added Ben Tate got his first carries as a Viking and finished with 15 yards. Tate got four of his five carries in the fourth quarter, including the team’s final two plays on offense.
Jennings was the leading receiver with five catches on six targets for 45 yards and a touchdown. Cordarrelle Patterson was targeted just once, but fell incomplete.
The most encouraging aspect of the Vikings offense was the line. They allowed Bridgewater to step up and make throws or run when necessary. It was one of their two or three best games of the season.
Defense Grade: B-
The Vikings defense struggled to stop the running of Newton and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers finished the game with 178 yards on 33 carries, which includes a 16-yard run by Fozzy Whittaker on the last play of the game.
However, when the Panthers had to pass, the Vikings played their best. Sharrif Floyd and Harrison Smith had one sack each and Everson Griffen had two. Robinson atoned for the touchdown by intercepting Newton late in the game to seal the victory. Xavier Rhodes broke up three passes. He continues to separate himself as one of the league’s best cornerbacks.
Quarterback Grade: A-
Bridgewater had a very good game, a lot of that can be attributed to his blocking. He made good decisions with the football and did not put the team in bad situations.
He finished the game with just 138 yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-21 passing as well as posting a 120.7 rating. He also had two carries for 12 yards.
Special Teams Grade: A+
The Vikings special teams won the game in the first half. Mike Priefer’s group made big plays in the punting game. The two blocked punts alone is a very good game, but return them for a touchdown and it is an spectacular game. Even when they didn’t block the punt, Marcus Sherels had two big punt returns. He averaged 22.5 yards per return with a long of 26.
Blair Walsh was perfect on kicks in the cold weather, including the very important field goal that gave the Vikings a three-score lead in the fourth quarter. Punter Jeff Locke was OK despite the weather. He got two punts inside the 20-yard line, including one that came with a very friendly bounce.
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Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. Joseph is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.