EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Though the playoff chase has eluded the Minnesota Vikings yet again this year, these final four games still serve an important purpose.
As soon as rookie Teddy Bridgewater took over at quarterback, his development was always going to be as much of a priority as winning itself. Progress has been sporadic, but his performance on Sunday was one of those steps forward.
''I think I'm better at just making quicker decisions,'' said Bridgewater, who posted season highs with a completion rate of 71.4 and a passer rating of 120.7 in the 31-13 victory over Carolina.
''Earlier in the year, I talked about getting rid of the ball faster. That wasn't the issue. I think I just made quicker decisions, and if I'm able to make quicker decisions I'm able to get the ball out faster.''
The Panthers are reeling, with only one win in their past 10 games, but Bridgewater was as sharp as he'd been since his debut on Sept. 28.
He threw two touchdown passes for the second game in a row, and for the fifth time in nine NFL starts he was turnover-free. He only went deep twice, but those throws were on target, which has been one of his struggles so far this season.
''Obviously he's going to get the brunt of everything because he's in the high-profile position,'' wide receiver Greg Jennings said. ''The way he bounces back, the way he performs, the way he leads without even audibly saying anything, he's a special kid to be around.''
Coach Mike Zimmer's casual chats with his experienced players have turned up the same intel.
''I ask them about Teddy, `What do you think of this guy?' They all tell me that they love him, number one, and they have great confidence in him in being a great quarterback,'' Zimmer said.
''Because they watch him every day, just like I do, they appreciate the way that he handles his business, the way he prepares and studies, all of the things that people outside the rooms don't see. A lot of them have been on other teams and seen a lot of other great quarterbacks, too.''
The leader on defense in the most improved category?
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes. He broke up three passes on Sunday to bring his season total to 14.
''I try to preach to these guys every day in practice: Don't let your guy catch the ball. I think that mentality is starting to show up a little bit with him,'' Zimmer said.
''I also think some of the toughness things are showing up with him, as well. I expect our corners to be tough guys and support the run, not come out of the games, things like that.''
The key for Rhodes, who also failed to stay healthy last year as a rookie, has been finding a way to play physical without being penalized for pass interference or holding.
''I found that happy medium. Now I'm learning. I know how and when to let go and not be so aggressive at a certain point in the game,'' he said. ''I'm learning the rules.''
As is with the case of wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, development takes place at different rates.
Zimmer said Patterson played only three snaps on Sunday because he missed so much practice time with the game plan this week. Patterson was absent on Wednesday and Thursday to attend a family funeral.
Patterson, who has also been bothered by a knee injury, sounded frustrated after the game and said he was given no explanation for his limited use. But Zimmer again brushed aside any notion of a problem.
''I have high hopes for him. I'm in his corner. I want him to be a good player,'' Zimmer said. ''It would help this football team, it would help me, it would help everybody around that he becomes a great player. It may be not right away.''
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