CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Adam Thielen isn’t ready to call it a revenge game.
But the Carolina Panthers wide receiver won’t deny he’s been eagerly awaiting Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, the team that released him in the offseason after 10 years with the organization.
Thielen said he’s been anticipating this game since the NFL schedule was released. It takes on added importance with both teams at 0-3.
“It's really hard to explain the emotions of it,” Thielen said when asked if he's out for a little revenge. “Is there a little bit of that? Yeah, maybe. But I'm not the type of person to hold grudges. I think it is what it is, and I'm happy where I'm at. I can't look at the past. I'm just focusing on the now. But there are a lot of emotions. We are emotional beings and we are going to have emotions.”
Thielen said contrary to some reports, the Vikings never attempted to renegotiate his contract. With the 32-year-old set to count nearly $20 million against the salary cap, the Vikings simply chose to release him.
Panthers coach Frank Reich advised Thielen not to let his emotions get the best of him on Sunday.
“You're going to get a little emotional, but try to work through that because it can be a distraction," Reich said. “He's a such a pro and I know he will manage it well. He will feel something and it will feel different. But I know he can manage it.”
Now Thielen has a chance to be the guy in Carolina.
And so far he's done well, catching 11 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown last week against Seattle.
“I think he’s got a lot of good football left in him,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “We’ve gotta contain him. I’ll always be pulling for him, but on Sunday, obviously, we’ll have different interests for the first time in about six years.”
Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell said he's not surprised how well Thielen has done in Carolina.
“I think he’s got 11 third-down receptions. He’s been really targeted, and you can tell the quarterbacks, no matter who’s in the game, have such a confidence in Adam to make the play, separate, and make contested catches," O'Connell said. "He’s doing great things that are jumping off the tape.”
Thielen's big game last week came with Andy Dalton at quarterback.
But Dalton heads back to the bench this week with rookie Bryce Young expected to return after missing Week 3 with an ankle injury.
Some skeptics have wondered if Young, because of his slight frame, can hold up to the physicality of the NFL.
“That doesn't drive me at all, ” Young said. “I can't control that and it's not something I think about. Ultimately I care about the opinions of the people in this building. I care about my teammates and coaches and I trust everyone here. That's who I listen to.”
Young has struggled in his two starts, throwing for 299 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Dalton threw for 361 yards and two scores last week.
The Vikings replaced Thielen with first-round draft pick Jordan Addison, who’s off to a promising start, but they clearly miss Thielen inside the 20-yard line. The Vikings are tied for 21st in the league in red-zone touchdown rate and rank 26th in goal-to-go situations with five touchdowns in nine opportunities.
Over Cousins’ first five years with the Vikings, Thielen had the third-most red zone touchdown catches in the NFL (34) behind Davante Adams (43) and Travis Kelce (37), according to Sportradar. His 56 red-zone receptions from 2018-23 were the fifth most in the league.
“Adam has always done a great job of separating with tight coverage, using his body to create space, and I always have felt like coaches have done a great job with red-zone concepts of creating reads for me where Adam was getting open,” Cousins said. “I was throwing to the open guy, and it happened to be Adam. So, I’ve got to give coaches a lot of credit and give Adam a lot of credit for being open. There were a few one-handed catches down there and double moves and things that he made, tight windows where he’s just being the great receiver that he is.”
The Vikings have fumbled a league-high seven times and lost them all, and that doesn’t include two more that were negated by a defensive penalty and a borderline forward progress call. O’Connell, who led the Vikings to 13 wins in his debut season, has been as stern with his players as ever in the attempt to stop the ball-security problems, running them through a number of drills to practice hanging on.
“When there’s five guys around you or there’s six guys around you, at some point you’ve just got to accept it and not try to fight for those extra yards,” tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “I think that’s a mental thing.”
IN THE MIX
The Vikings have said they remain committed to Alexander Mattison as their featured running back, but the recent acquisition of Cam Akers is bound to cut into his playing time. O’Connell said the plan is to work Akers into the offense on Sunday.
”I feel like I’m at home,” said Akers, who played the previous three-plus seasons for the Los Angeles Rams. “This is a great place to start the next chapter of my career.”
Panthers kicker Eddy Pineiro had his streak of 25 straight field goals snapped last Sunday when he missed from 55 yards. It's the first time in eight career attempts that Pineiro has missed from beyond 50 yards.
AP sports writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
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Steve Reed, The Associated Press