Vikings down Panthers with big special teams plays

MINNEAPOLIS – You can outrush a team 178 yards to 92. You can out-possess that team 35:48 to 24:12. You can record 23 first downs to their 12.

The Carolina Panthers did all of those things Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium.

But none of it could repair the damage that was done by the Vikings blocking two punts in the first half, both of which were returned for touchdowns. That's the first time two blocked punts have been returned for touchdowns in a half since 1975 when the Detroit Lions did it against the Green Bay Packers, according to Elias Sports.

"You never really give yourself a chance to compete," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We didn't give ourselves an opportunity."

The Panthers are now winless in their last seven games after losing 31-13 to the Vikings.

"Right now, we are not very good," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We are not playing well, and you lose in this league when you play poorly. It's pretty simple."

Minnesota opened the scoring by taking advantage of a short field following a Carolina three-and-out and a 28-yard punt.

Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater culminated a six-play, 45-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph off a play-action rollout.

On Carolina's ensuing possession, the first punt block occurred. Adam Thielen broke through, blocked the punt, scooped up the loose ball and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.

The Panthers responded with a 14-play, 68-yard drive that stalled at the Minnesota 12-yard line. Graham Gano then kicked a 30-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-3 late in the first quarter.

When Carolina got the ball back again, the offense advanced to midfield before being forced to punt. This time, Jasper Brinkley blocked it, and Everson Griffen returned it 43 yards for a touchdown with 9:35 left in the second quarter.

The Panthers answered once again by entering the red zone but failed to come away with a touchdown. Instead, they settled for a 35-yard Gano field goal.

"I thought we moved the ball well enough on offense," Rivera said. "But you can't kick field goals early."

Minnesota countered with an 11-play, 80-yard drive to close the first half. Wide receiver Greg Jennings' 17-yard touchdown reception gave the Vikings a 28-6 lead in the closing seconds.

Carolina got exactly what it needed to start the second half. The defense forced the Vikings to punt after three plays.

Quarterback Cam Newton then engineered an 80-yard drive, capped by a 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Philly Brown on fourth-and-4. The Panthers trailed 28-13 with plenty of time left.

"We had a chance. We had a chance to put this game in reach when we got the ball back (trailing by 15)," Newton said. "If we went down there and scored again, who knows what would have happened. But we're talking about what could have happened."

Carolina never got any closer. The Panthers were forced to punt from the Minnesota 42-yard line on their next possession and didn't cross midfield again until late in the fourth quarter.

"Stay focused, stay together, and do your job, that's really all there is to it," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "There are definitely not guys that are going to quit. We just have to keep getting better and come back each week with the same mindset of, 'What can we do to get a win,' and that's what we are going to do."

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