Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was running out of adjectives to describe the 31-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoon.
He called it “frustrating” and “disappointing” before settling on the obvious.
“Right now we’re not very good,” Olsen said. “We’re not playing very well, and you lose in this league when you play poorly. It’s pretty simple.”
The loss, in which the Vikings (5-7) blocked two punts and returned them for touchdowns, extended the Panthers’ winless streak to seven games. Carolina’s (3-8-1) playoff hopesin the NFC South faded after a week in which players clung to the idea they controlled their own destiny.
“At this point we can talk about (the playoffs) if we win. Right now we’ve just got to win a game,” Olsen said. “We can (say) that other stuff, playoff talk and ‘Oh, we’re still in it.’ Yeah, I get it, but that stuff is irrelevant right now.
“We’ve got to find a way to win a game. Just one game.”
At least Sunday’s loss was innovative. For the fifth time in NFL history – and the first since 1990 – a team blocked two punts and returned them for touchdowns.
The first blocked punt came with seven minutes left in the first quarter. Adam Thielen rushed at punter Brad Nortman from the middle of the line between snapper J.J. Jansen and Mario Addison and suffocated the ball with his stomach.
Thielen picked up the ball and went 30 yards for the longest blocked punt returned for a touchdown in Vikings history.
The record didn’t make it to halftime.
On Carolina’s next punt attempt, in the second quarter, Jasper Brinkley slid past Ben Jacobs and blocked Nortman’s punt. Everson Griffen collected it and ran 43 yards for a score.
“I just didn’t set deep enough,” said Jacobs, taking responsibility for the second block. “That’s all there is to it, really.
“I didn’t get the depth necessary to be effective on that play. You saw what happened.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera was adamant after the game that the breakdowns were individual mistakes rather than symptomatic of larger issues with a special teams group that has struggled across the board.
Under special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers, the unit is allowing more punt return yards (14.9) than any other team, has missed four field-goal attempts, has tried out four kick returners and topped it off Sunday with something the NFL hasn’t seen in nearly a quarter-century.
Rivera agreed the unit didn’t give the Panthers an opportunity to win.
“We get two blocks, you go down 21 points because of those blocks and you never really give yourself a chance to compete,” he said. “You’re throwing the game plan out.”
The Vikings only possessed the ball for 8 minutes, 17 seconds in the first half. Gifted 14 points on special teams, Minnesota only ran 22 plays.
With 31/2 minutes left in the first half, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took the Vikings 80 yards, capped by a 17-yard scoring pass to Greg Jennings. Cornerback Antoine Cason was frozen on a simple move by Jennings, who had a clear path to the end zone.
Cason was benched in favor of rookie Bené Benwikere, who played the remainder of the game.
Carolina offered a glimmer of hope to start the second half, sandwiching its lone touchdown – a 32-yard fourth-down pass to Philly Brown – between two three-and-outs forced by the defense to make the score 28-13.
“I don’t think we handled the big lead coming out of halftime near as well as I would have liked,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “Then we gave up that poor touchdown there, at least I thought it was extremely poor. We made some mistakes on that drive defensively right before that so the momentum was starting to change, I felt like.”
Then, midway through the third quarter, the Panthers had the ball at midfield with a chance to make it a one-possession game.
Jonathan Stewart rushed for 14 yards to get them inside the Vikings’ 40, but his next run lost yardage and two incompletions forced Carolina to punt.
The Panthers didn’t score again.
Carolina rushed for a season-high 178 yards and dominated the time of possession, holding the ball more than 11 minutes longer than the Vikings. But Carolina’s paltry 13 points didn’t even outscore the special teams touchdowns.
Along with setting their playoff hopes back, the Panthers ensured another losing season. In the franchise’s 20-year history, the team has never had consecutive winning seasons, and only five times have the Panthers been above .500 at the end of the season.
“I’m not frustrated – I just want to win,” said quarterback Cam Newton, who finished with 194 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception. “I don’t think anyone looks forward to losing. So as far as being frustrated, I’m not frustrated at all. I’m just yearning for a win.”
Now the Panthers turn their attention to New Orleans, where the Panthers have won only once (2012) in the past five tries.
“I told the guys we have four games left to go,” Rivera said. “We are going to play all four games. I expect to win all four games, and we will go from that.”
Is that expectation rooted in reality? At kickoff next Sunday at the Superdome, it will have been 63 days since Carolina last won.
Vikings 31, Panthers 13
Min—Rudolph 4 pass from Bridgewater (Walsh kick), 9:41.
Min—Thielen 30 blocked punt return (Walsh kick), 7:00.
Car—FG Gano 30, :37.
Min—Griffen 43 blocked punt return (Walsh kick), 9:35.
Car—FG Gano 35, 3:28.
Min—Jennings 17 pass from Bridgewater (Walsh kick), :16.
Car—Brown 32 pass from Newton (Gano kick), 9:15.
Min—FG Walsh 39, 8:55.
|Total Net Yards||348||210|
|Time of Possession||35:48||24:12|
RUSHING—Carolina, Stewart 12-85, Newton 9-49, D.Williams 7-21, Whittaker 1-16, Tolbert 2-5, Brown 1-4, Presley 1-(minus 2). Minnesota, Asiata 14-52, Tate 5-15, Bridgewater 2-12, Banyard 2-8, Wright 1-5.
PASSING—Carolina, Newton 18-35-1-194. Minnesota, Bridgewater 15-21-0-138.
RECEIVING—Carolina, Olsen 5-59, Benjamin 5-56, Brown 2-34, Stewart 2-25, Cotchery 2-20, Tolbert 2-0. Minnesota, Jennings 5-45, Asiata 4-5, Charle.Johnson 2-41, Wright 2-40, Rudolph 2-7.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.