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Vikings-Panthers Notebook: Paths to Punter Pivotal

View images from the week 13 matchup at TCF Bank Stadium between the Vikings and Panthers.

MINNEAPOLIS — Block-by-block can be a description for building a team, but on Sunday, it was the Vikings path to a 31-13 victory over the Panthers.

Minnesota (5-7) blocked two Carolina punts and scored touchdowns on each, becoming the fifth team in NFL history to do so and first since 1990. The plays helped the Vikings seize momentum in the first half, and they protected the ball and the lead in the second at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jasper Brinkley drew too much attention from the Panthers (3-8-1) the first time, resulting in a remarkable punt block, recovery and franchise record 30-yard return by Adam Thielen, and was ignored the second time when his block of Brad Nortman's offering led to a record-trumping 43-yard return for a score by Everson Griffen.

On the first block, Brinkley was lined up over the long snapper and drew a block, allowing Thielen and Andrew Sendejo to move through the middle of Carolina's linemen on each side of Brinkley. The upback opted to go after Sendejo, and Thielen capitalized on a clean release.

Thielen got there so fast that he had to lower his hands from the original point as he dove. The ball landed beside him, and he snared it with one hand as he got up. Thielen broke two tackles and spiked the ball in celebration as he slowed his sprint to turn toward fans in the northeast corner of the stadium.

"It's a crazy feeling," Thielen said with a smile masked by dangling mustache whiskers from his participation in Movember. "It all happens so fast that you don't have time to think about it. I saw it, and my eyes got real big. At that point, it was block it and then hopefully scoop and score. Being on the ground and having to pick it up, I thought for sure I was going to get tackled from behind, and I couldn't look back so I just had to run for the end zone. I got lucky I guess."

Teammates mobbed Thielen in celebration, showing their happiness for the native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., who does a considerable amount of unsung tasks and became the fourth Viking to ever block a punt and return the ball for a touchdown.

"Adam is awesome, the kind of teammate you want to have and the kind of player you want on your football team," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He'll do anything to win, he'll do anything for his teammates, and you want things like that to happen to guys like him."

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who was facing his former team for the first time, said Thielen "works hard on and off the field and gives you his all, on special teams, offense. You can ask him to go out there and play cornerback and he'll give it a try. He's going to give you his all, and to see him get the blocked punt, scoop it and score, it was excellent."

It was the first touchdown of the reserve receiver and special teamer's career, who plans to clean up the facial hair Monday morning.

"He was there quick, and Andrew Sendejo was quick as well," Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said. "I didn't think Thielen was going to get free based on what we saw in protection, we thought Andrew might have a shot, but he did such a great job getting through there. Part of the way you block punts in this league is you have to believe that you're going to block punts and our guys believed going in that we had a chance to block them."

The second block, however, was a little less intentional. It occurred with the Vikings guarding for a fake by the Panthers, who were trailing 14-3 and facing a fourth-and-5 from the 50 with less than 10 minutes left in the first half. It was the first time the Vikings blocked two punts in a game since 1983.

Brinkley and Brian Robison lined up on the left side of the Vikings defense, and their quick release off the snap forced wing Ed Dickson to decide between the two.

Brinkley said he wasn't surprised Dickson opted for Robison because of the respect the defensive end has earned as a pass rusher.

"I would definitely try to block Brian before me," Brinkley said. "Brian was on the outside of me. Any time you have a wide look like that, it puts a lot of stress on the wings of the punt team, so that's the look that we had and we knew it was going to stress them. I did an up and under."

Griffen said "the ball bounced right in front of me, and I had to take it and scoop it and score it."

Griffen showed the speed that enabled him to play a gunner role on special teams earlier in his career before getting the chance to start. As Harrison Smith said, "nobody's going to catch him when he gets the ball."

"I've got a little bit of wheels," Griffen said. "I got it from my mom. Rest in peace, Sabrina (Scott). I love you."

GRIFFEN UPS TOTAL: Griffen was able to boost his team-leading sacks total to 11 on the season by recording 2.0 in the fourth quarter. Griffen wrapped up Cam Newton to stop his progress the first time, and dropped the 6-5, 245-pound QB on the next series, forcing punts by the Panthers on their first two possessions of the fourth quarter.

Griffen said he got chipped by an extra blocker most of the game, but was able to capitalize on one-on-one matchups for each sack.

"I don't care if I get no sacks a game, as long as we're winning," Griffen said. "Getting the numbers is great, but winning the game is even better."

Smith and Sharrif Floyd also recorded sacks of Newton. Floyd's came on the opening possession of the game to force a three-and-punt, but the defensive tackle left the game with a knee injury that was a recurrence of what sidelined him the previous week against Green Bay. Anthony Barr also missed part of the game with a knee injury.

STRONG OPEN AND CLOSE: The Vikings offense was able to bookend the special teams scores with touchdowns of its own to open and close the first half.

A 28-yard punt by Nortman gave Minnesota the ball at the Carolina 45, and the Vikings converted a third-and-5 with a 7-yard pass from rookie Teddy Bridgewater to veteran Greg Jennings that was followed by a 24-yard catch and run by Charles Johnson. Bridgewater found Kyle Rudolph for a 4-yard touchdown two plays later. It was the 17th TD catch of Rudolph's career, placing him in a tie with Stu Voigt for third in team history.

Bridgewater led an 11-play, 80-yard drive in 3:12 at the end of the half by converting third-and-13 with a 17-yard completion to Johnson, and finding Jennings for a gain of 11 to move the ball to the Carolina 17 and stop the clock with 23 seconds and a timeout remaining.

Having the timeout in the bank allowed Bridgewater to throw underneath to Jennings and enabled a savvy play by the receiver for his 61st career TD. Jennings was moving toward the Panthers sideline, but stopped on a dime, cut up field and won a race to the pylon for a commanding 28-6 lead with 16 seconds left in the first half.

"It's a matter of feeling your defenders," Jennings said. "I saw them dropping back in the zone. I knew we had a timeout left so I could make an inside cut and if I got tackled, then we'd call timeout, but if I could make them miss, we'd score, so I chose the right decision."

Bridgewater finished 15-of-21 passing for 138 yards with two touchdowns, no turnovers and a career-high passer rating of 120.7 in his fourth career victory as a starter.

Left tackle Matt Kalil, who evened the score against his brother Ryan's team in the second meeting in as many seasons, said it was important to open and close the first half with touchdowns.

"Once Teddy gets in a rhythm, I think he's an awesome quarterback," Kalil said. "It's crazy to think this is his first year and how much he has grown. He definitely has a bright future, and our goal as an offensive line is to give him as much time as we can, and he's definitely going to make some plays."

JERSEY SWAP: Munnerlyn wasn't the only Vikings cornerback to face a former teammate. Xavier Rhodes had multiple matchups on the day with receiver Kelvin Benjamin and swapped jerseys with his former Florida State teammate after the game.

"It's a great feeling, going against my old teammate from college. We did what we needed to do and did our jobs out there," Rhodes said. "I think I did good because we came out with a W. There's still some areas and plays I need to work on, but overall, I think I did good."

Rhodes was credited with three of the eight pass breakups awarded to Vikings defenders.

INT ENDS THREAT:Josh Robinson curtailed the last real threat from the Panthers when he intercepted Newton at the Minnesota 20 and returned it 23 yards with 2:18 left in the game. Minnesota was able to run off 1:59 off the clock as Carolina opted not to use any of its remaining timeouts.

It was the third interception of the season for Robinson and fifth of his career.

SEVENTH COLDEST: The 12 degrees Fahrenheit temperature at kickoff tied the record for the seventh-coldest home game in Minnesota history (Dec. 26, 1976 against the Los Angeles Rams in a playoff game). The record is minus-2 (Dec. 3, 1972 against Chicago), and the Vikings have two remaining home games this season, as well as next year's slate outdoors to chase that mark.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer thanked fans who were energetic despite the elements.

"I want to tell the fans that I appreciate them being here, being out in the cold," Zimmer said. "It means a lot to us when they come out and they support us like they did. They were very loud, especially in the first half."

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