The Carolina Panthers may have kicked off their season on a sour note, losing to the Broncos for the second time in as many games, but it did not take Cam Newton and company long to get back on track with a dominant 46-27 victory over the 49ers in Week 2. Carolina will look to stay on a positive trajectory when it faces off with NFC North-leading Minnesota on Sunday. Ron Rivera’s Panthers have not lost a game at Bank of America Stadium since November 2014. Will they be able to keep their home winning streak alive against one of the top teams in the NFC?
The Vikings' season appeared doomed when they lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a devastating knee injury in the preseason. But thanks to Sam Bradford, the emergence of Stefon Diggs at wide receiver and an opportunistic defense, a resilient Minnesota team is now sitting alone atop the NFC North at 2-0 on the young season. Even better, the Vikings were able to knock off archrival Green Bay while breaking in brand-new U.S. Bank Stadium last week. This week, Mike Zimmer’s team heads south to take on the defending NFC champion Panthers. The Vikings will do so without star running back Adrian Peterson and starting left tackle Matt Kalil. Can the Vikings continue to overcome adversity and keep their perfect record intact?
Minnesota at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 25 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Carolina -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Minnesota’s Offensive Line
Minnesota’s offensive line was a glaring issue of concern last season. In order to address the problem, general manager Rick Spielman made some big moves in the offseason, bringing in right tackle Andre Smith and left guard Alex Boone via free agency. Former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano also was brought in to replace Jeff Davidson as offensive line coach. The Vikings appeared confident that these moves would help shore up their shaky offensive front and bring more intensity.
So far, the overhauled line has not met those expectations. Just last week, the Minnesota front allowed the Green Bay defense to use Sam Bradford as its personal tackling dummy, recording four sacks and putting him on the ground an additional 10 times. The offensive line has been even less helpful in regard to the Vikings' running game, which is averaging an NFL-worst 1.9 yards per carry through two contests.
To make matters worse, the Vikings have now lost starting left tackle Matt Kalil for the season due to a hip injury, putting replacement T.J. Clemmings in charge of protecting Bradford’s blind side. This does not bode well for an already porous offensive line that is about to face a Panthers front seven that ranks among the best in the NFL.
2. Backup Running Backs
This isn’t the first time Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata have had to fill in for Adrian Peterson. In 2014, McKinnon and Asiata combined to rush for more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns in place of the then-suspended Peterson. On Sunday, the tandem of McKinnon and Asiata will once again try to fill the void left by Peterson’s absence. McKinnon is expected to serve as the primary back, mostly on first and second down, while Asiata’s services will likely be called upon in the red zone and on passing downs.
While McKinnon and Asiata are capable replacements, they are not Adrian Peterson. Peterson’s presence on the field alone has an effect on opposing defenses that cannot be duplicated. Plus, this is not 2014’s offensive line that these two will be running behind. The Vikings' run blocking has been atrocious so far in 2016. McKinnon and Asiata could have a tough time against a stout Carolina defense on Sunday.
The Panthers also will be without their starting running back, Jonathan Stewart (hamstring), for Sunday’s matchup. Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne are expected to share the carries in place of Stewart. Whittaker filled in admirably last week following Stewart’s injury, rushing for 100 yards on 16 carries and adding three catches for 31 yards. While Stewart’s absence will be felt, it shouldn’t be as noticeable as the Vikings' loss of Peterson. Cam Newton has long been the driving force behind the Panthers' rushing attack anyway. So, it should be business as usual for the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense. The only thing that could prevent the Panthers' ground game from looking any different in Week 3 is a stout Vikings' run defense.
The Vikings have thrived off of takeaways so far this season. In fact, there is a good chance that they would be sitting at 0-2 without them. Minnesota has already generated six takeaways in its first two contests, two of which resulted in touchdowns. Conversely, the Vikings' offense has turned the ball over just once in two games. This could prove to be a great equalizer if they can capitalize on a Carolina offense that has already committed five turnovers.
That said, Minnesota's offense will feature some new faces at key positions this week, and the Vikings could be equally hard-pressed to protect the football from an aggressive Carolina defense that led the league in takeaways by a wide margin last season and already has six in the first two games. It seems like a safe bet that turnovers will be a factor in this game. The problem is trying to determine which team is better suited to make the most of them.
The Vikings are a resilient football team with one of the best defenses in the NFL. They have legitimate weapons in wide receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. They also have a quarterback in Sam Bradford that showed plenty of promise in his first start with his new team last week. The problem is that Cam Newton, Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen combine to form a trio that is far superior. The Carolina offense has an even bigger edge when you factor in Minnesota's suspect offensive line to go along with the loss of Adrian Peterson. The Vikings' defense, led by star safety Harrison Smith, could make it interesting by capitalizing on turnovers. Otherwise, Minnesota has too many deficiencies on offense to keep pace with a Panthers team that has been next to impossible to beat on its home turf.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Vikings 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.