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Bridgewater shines as Vikings beat Panthers

MINNEAPOLIS - The defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers looked like contenders in name only.

The Minnesota Vikings quickly swatted them aside.

Adam Thielen and Everson Griffen each returned blocked punts for touchdowns, the first time in 24 years one team had two in the same game, and the Vikings handed the Panthers their sixth straight loss with a 31-13 victory Sunday.

"I don't know about demoralizing the other team, but I do know that when you score on defense or you score on special teams, your odds of winning a football game go way up," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, "and I tell the team that."

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. The Panthers (3-8-1) entered the week just a half-game out of first place, but they again stumbled out of their bye. Now 0-4 under coach Ron Rivera following the annual in-season week off, the Panthers play at division leader New Orleans (5-7) next week.

"All that other stuff, playoff talk, that's irrelevant," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We've just got to win a 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'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 burst through the middle in the first quarter, and he was so far in the backfield that when he leaped at Brad Nortman's attempt he had to pull his hands back to avoid a penalty.

"I just kind of came free. No one really blocked me, and I knew I was going to block it," Thielen said.

Thielen landed on the turf, picked up the prize on his way for a 30-yard touchdown and leaped into the corner seats to celebrate.

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 in the second quarter. 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.

Rivera didn't name the players who missed their blocking assignments, but he said he saw no problem with the protection scheme.

"I'm just focused on catching the ball and kicking it. I don't even see them coming," Nortman said.

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.

This was also the first blocked punt return touchdown by the Vikings since Oct. 12, 1986, the longest active NFL streak without one.

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.

"You want to see your team stepping toward success and taking a step in the right direction," Jennings said. "Today, that's what took place, and it starts with him."

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.

"We knew we just had to jump on these guys early in the game. Our guys did a great job," Bridgewater said.

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.

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. The Panthers outgained the Vikings 348-210 in total yards.

NOTES: Xavier Rhodes had three pass breakups for the Vikings and helped limit Kelvin Benjamin to five catches for 56 yards. He was targeted 12 times. ... Panthers injuries: FS Tre Boston (ankle) and RB DeAngelo Williams (hand). ... Vikings injuries: DT Sharrif Floyd (knee) and LB Anthony Barr (knee).

Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press

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