Sunday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium was one of the chilliest in Vikings history, with the temperature at the noon kickoff barely hitting double digits and the wind whipping up to around 20 miles per hour, leading fans to huddle in the concourses until the national anthem called them out into the cold.
This was winter weather that rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had never experienced during his college career at Louisville and certainly not in his Florida youth, the kind of bone-chilling cold that can make a player question why he even left the locker room in the first place.
But after leading the Vikings to a touchdown on their first possession — the kind of hot start that has often eluded them this season — Bridgewater spent most of the first half sitting still on the sideline, and he couldn’t have been happier about it.
“I actually liked it,” Bridgewater said after the Vikings’ 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers. “I’m able to sit on the bench and stay warm.”
The reason Bridgewater could keep his long overcoat on and his throwing hand stuffed in his hand warmer for the majority of the first half was a Vikings special teams unit that took over the game with a feat only four NFL teams had previously accomplished, none of which wore purple.
With two blocked punts returned for touchdowns on consecutive Panthers punts and a pair of TD passes by Bridgewater, the Vikings (5-7) jumped out to a 28-6 halftime lead against the visitors and cruised to a decisive victory. The 28 points were the most they had scored in a first half this season, and more than the team had scored in eight of its previous 11 games.
“We knew that we just had to jump on these guys early in the game,” Bridgewater said.
After Bridgewater completed his first three passes on the opening drive, including a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings defense forced Carolina to bring out punter Brad Nortman.
The Vikings and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer had seen tendencies in previous Panthers games that gave them confidence that they could get to Nortman before he got his punts off. And it proved to be warranted when Adam Thielen sprinted past Panthers long snapper J.J. Jansen and laid out to smother Nortman’s second punt of the game.
“It was just one of those things where we knew someone was going to come free, and I just kind of came free,” Thielen said. “Nobody blocked me. I knew I was going to block it.”
The blocked punt landed next to Thielen, who pulled the ball into his body as he picked himself up off the turf. His 30-yard touchdown return after the blocked punt was the longest in team history, but the receiver only held on to that record for a little more than 11 minutes of game time.
On Nortman’s next punt, linebacker Jasper Brinkley burst though the line to block it. Defensive end Everson Griffen scooped it up and scored after a 43-yard return.
The Vikings were the fifth team in NFL history to score on two blocked punts in the same game, and they joined the 1975 Detroit Lions as the only teams to do it in the same half.
“It was crazy,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “I haven’t seen that before in my lifetime playing football. It was a great start, a great jump for our team.”
Bridgewater and the offense piled on before escaping the cold at halftime. He capped off an 80-yard drive by connecting with receiver Greg Jennings on a 17-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left in the half.
Bridgewater misfired on a few open throws early in last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, but he completed nine of his 12 first-half attempts for 92 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. The rookie, who has been under the weather the past couple of days, finished the game with 138 yards on 15-for-21 passing. His 120.7 passer rating was a career high by more than 20 points.
The Panthers scored on a fourth-down play early in the third quarter to make the score 28-13 and threatened to score again when they began their next possession at midfield.
But after one Carolina first down, the Vikings defense pushed back. Safety Harrison Smith recorded a tackle for a loss on first down and cornerback Xavier Rhodes and linebacker Chad Greenway broke up passes on the next two downs, forcing a punt.
Pinned deep by Nortman, the Vikings were able to regain favorable field position when Bridgewater threw an accurate deep ball to Jarius Wright on third-and-3.
“The momentum was starting to change, I felt like,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “When we were able to do that and then flip the field, I thought that was big. … It kind of got things back in our favor a little bit.”
From there the Vikings coasted, with the defense pounding Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and the offense taking the air out of the ball and their opponent.
“If you are losing in a game like this,” Jennings said, “that temperature kind of stings you and you almost want to quit.”
The Panthers, despite their 3-8-1 record, entered freezing TCF Bank Stadium a game out of first place in the lowly NFC South. But it was the Vikings, out of the playoff hunt, who looked like the better team and the one playing with more desperation, especially early on.
“Everybody was asking me about, ‘Well, are you getting ready for next year?’ ” Zimmer said. “I told the team [Saturday] night that we’re about this week coming up and the week after that and the week after that. I don’t ever want to be thinking about next year.”