The well-rested Carolina Panthers came to Minneapolis with the hope of kick-starting their five-game playoff push with a win against the Minnesota Vikings.
They left cold, embarrassed and with their bleak hope of a playoff berth on life support.
The Vikings beat Carolina in all three phases of the game in their 31-13 romp of the Panthers as Carolina (3-8-1) extended its winless streak to seven games and drop the Panthers to 2-7 all-time in games played in temperatures below freezing.
The Vikings (5-7) blocked two Carolina punts and returned them for touchdowns, and their 28-6 halftime lead proved too great to overcome.
The first blocked punt came with seven minutes left in the first quarter. Adam Thielen rushed at 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 what was at the time the longest blocked punt returned for a touchdown in Minnesota history.
The record stood for 12 game minutes.
On Carolina’s next punt attempt, Jasper Brinkley slid past Ben Jacobs, who took responsibility in the locker room afterward, and blocked Nortman’s punt. Everson Griffen collected it and rushed 43 yards for the touchdown.
“I just didn’t set deep enough,” Jacobs said. “That’s all there is to it, really. I didn’t get the depth.
“It’s not even an overload. I just needed to get deeper. I didn’t get the depth necessary to be effective on that play. You saw what happened.”
It was just the fourth time in NFL history, and the first time since 1990, that multiple blocked punts were returned for touchdowns in a single game.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera attributed both punt blocks to individual breakdowns on the punt team.
“We get two blocks, you go down 21 points because of those blocks and you never really give yourself a chance to compete,” Rivera said. “You’re throwing the game plan out.”
The Vikings only needed the ball for eight minutes 17 seconds to do their damage in the first half. Gifted 14 points thanks to special teams, Minnesota only ran 22 plays in the first half.
Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took advantage of a short field on the Vikings’ first possession to go 45 yards in six plays. His 4-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph came when safety Thomas DeCoud bit hard on a play fake.
DeCoud would be benched in favor of rookie Tre Boston.
With 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half, Bridgewater took the Vikings 80 yards in a series capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings. Panthers cornerback Antoine Cason was frozen on a simple move by Jennings, who had a clear path to the end zone.
Cason would be benched in favor of rookie Bene Benwikere, who played the remainder of the game.
Carolina offered a glimmer of hope to start the second half, but it turned out to be fool’s gold. The Panthers sandwiched their lone touchdown – a 32-yard fourth-down pass to Philly Brown – between two three-and-outs forced by the defense.
Midway through the third quarter, the Panthers had the ball at midfield with a chance to make it a one-possession game if they could get a touchdown. Instead they gained 7 yards, punted and didn’t score again the rest of the day.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton continued his season struggles on Sunday. He didn’t make quick decisions in the passing game, was off target and behind to a number of his receivers and remained a step slow when running.
Newton mustered 194 passing yards on 18 completions, one touchdown and one interception.
Newton broke a franchise record when his interception gave him at least one in eight consecutive games.
The loss clinched a losing season for the Panthers, who were coming off a 12-4 year and an NFC South title in 2013. Carolina has not had consecutive winning seasons in its 20-year history.
But Newton remained optimistic.
“It’s just a matter of time until we get this ship going,” he said. “I know that’s probably not the answer that I would want to say right now. But yet, the truth of the matter is we’re just a couple plays away, a couple plays here and there and we’re looking at a different situation. ... I have yet to play a great game, in my opinion.”