MINNEAPOLIS — Carolina coach Ron Rivera earned the moniker "Riverboat Ron" last year after he gambled early in a game against the Minnesota Vikings by twice going for it on fourth down, a successful strategy that helped spearhead the Panthers' eight-game winning streak that pushed them into the playoffs.
He probably should have taken the same approach in the rematch on Sunday.
Panthers punter Brad Nortman had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the first half of a 31-13 loss to the Vikings, making Carolina the first team to give up two punt blocks for touchdowns in the same game since 1990.
"It's really disappointing. It's frustrating. Every adjective you can come up with, it's that," said tight end Greg Olsen, whose Panthers have lost six straight and, thanks to a tie with Cincinnati, have not won since Oct. 12. "Right now we're not very good. We're not playing very well. And you lose in this league when you play poorly. It's pretty simple."
Cam Newton was 18 for 35 for 194 yards with one touchdown and one interception and rushed for 49 of the team's 178 yards. But the break downs on special teams put this chilly game on ice in a hurry.
Adam Thielen got things started in the first quarter when he blocked Nortman's punt, picked it up, broke a tackle and ran 30 yards for a touchdown that made it 14-0 just over midway through the quarter. Just over 13 minutes of game time later, Jasper Brinkley blocked Nortman's punt and Everson Griffen ran 43 yards for another score and a 21-3 lead.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the blocks were the result of breakdowns by individual players he did not identify, and had nothing to do with blocking schemes.
"We get two blocks, you go down (18) points because of those two blocks and you never really give yourself a chance to compete," Rivera said after his team fell to 0-4 coming out of the bye during his tenure. "Now you're throwing the game plan out."
It was just the fifth time in NFL history that a team has had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the same game, according to STATS. The Detroit Lions were the last team to score on two blocked punts in one half back in 1975.
"It's frustrating. It's tough," Nortman said. "We want to make a positive impact on the game. As a punt team, we strive for that. So having plays like that occur, it's obviously not what we go for and it makes it a tough deal for the other sides of the ball."
Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who struggled in a loss to the Green Bay Packers last week, was 15 for 21 for 138 yards and two touchdowns, including a 17-yarder to Greg Jennings just before halftime that gave them a 28-6 lead.
Newton threw a 32-yard touchdown to Philly Brown in the third quarter that made it 28-13, but the Panthers struggled with field position for much of the second half, another side effect of the blocked punts. Marcus Sherels returned two for 45 yards in the fourth quarter, giving the Vikings the ball in Carolina territory each time.
"With the two blocked punts, we tried to become a little bit more protection-oriented at the end of the game," Nortman said. "It was just one of those things where you obviously couldn't allow another one."
Even though they came into the game at 3-7-1, the Panthers actually still held out hopes of making the playoffs in the woeful NFC South. They were just a half-game behind the division-leading Saints with a game in New Orleans looming next week. But the Saints beat the Steelers and after the sloppiness in Minnesota, the Panthers felt much further away.
"You play this game for one reason and one reason only, and that is to win," Newton said. "So as far as being frustrated, I'm not frustrated at all. I'm just yearning for a win."
NOTES: It 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. ... Jonathan Stewart rushed for a season-high 85 yards on 12 carries. ... Panthers S Tre Boston will get X-rays after rolling an ankle, Rivera said. RB D'Angelo Williams also left the game with a hand injury, but Rivera said he was uncertain on the severity of that injury.