The Carolina Panthers (8-4) return to Charlotte on Sunday to face the Minnesota Vikings (10-2) for the first of three consecutive home games following a tough 31-21 road loss to the Saints last week. A loss that not only snapped a four-game winning streak for Carolina, but also handed New Orleans sole possession of first place in the NFC South. The Panthers need to bounce back to not only stay in the thick of the division race, but also because right now their hold on the final playoff spot is tenuous following Atlanta's win on Thursday night over the Saints.
The Vikings are already well-positioned in the NFC playoff race as the current No. 1 seed following last week’s 14-9 road win over the Falcons. It marked the eighth win in a row for the Vikings, tying them for the best record in the NFL. Minnesota will look to keep the momentum going as it plays its third road game in as many weeks. A victory on Sunday would not only clinch the NFC North for the Vikings, it also would complete an impressive season sweep of NFC South teams.
The Vikings lead the all-time series against Panthers with a record of 8-5. Minnesota has won three of the last four meetings, including a 22-10 victory in Charlotte last season.
Minnesota at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Minnesota -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Everson Griffen vs. Matt Kalil
One of the biggest predicaments the Panthers faced in last season’s 22-10 loss to the Vikings was keeping Cam Newton upright. Newton was sacked eight times in that matchup and hit an additional 12 times. Griffen, Minnesota's Pro Bowl defensive end, was responsible for three of those sacks and four more pressures, making easy work of then-left tackle Michael Oher. Of course, that was last season, and Griffen (above, right) will be facing a different foe at left tackle this time around. One that he is very familiar with in Kalil, a former teammate.
Griffen and Kalil were not only teammates for years in Minnesota, they also battled each other in practice as far back as 2008 when both played at USC. On Sunday, they square off for the first time ever as legitimate opponents in a must-watch matchup. The question is, will Kalil be able to protect Newton’s blind side against Griffen?
Kalil’s familiarity with Griffen should prove beneficial. However, if this matchup between former teammates turns out to be as lopsided on the field as it is on paper, it could prove to be another long afternoon for Newton. According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Kalil grades out as just the 63rd-best offensive tackle in the NFL, scoring a poor mark of 45.7. Griffen, on the other hand, grades out at an elite 90.2, making him one of the top players in the league at any position. Griffen also is on pace for his third consecutive Pro Bowl, already matching a career-best 12 sacks this season (fourth in the NFL).
2. Carolina passing game vs. Minnesota pass defense
Pass protection is just one concern facing the Panthers’ 25th-ranked passing attack heading into Sunday. Newton also may be hard-pressed to find open targets against a solid Minnesota pass defense. The Vikings are just one week removed from basically shutting down Atlanta's potent passing attack. Additionally, this is the same defense (for the most part) that forced Newton into three interceptions last season, while not allowing a single touchdown pass.
The Carolina passing game will get a much-needed boost if tight end Greg Olsen can return this week after re-aggravating his surgically repaired foot. The Panthers also have a solid pass-catching option that they didn’t have last season in versatile running back Christian McCaffrey. But Newton will most likely continue to rely heavily on Devin Funchess (right). Funchess quickly became Newton’s go-to-target after Kelvin Benjamin was traded to the Bills in October. And Funchess has yet to disappoint, hauling in 21 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns over his last four games.
Regardless, the Panthers’ leading receiver will have his work cut out for him on Sunday against Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes played a key role in limiting All-Pro Julio Jones to just two catches for 24 yards last week, just one week after Jones torched the Buccaneers for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Rhodes also loomed large in last season’s matchup against the Panthers, a game in which Funchess and Benjamin combined for zero receptions on just three targets.
3. The run game
One of the more compelling aspects of Sunday’s matchup will be how each team fares in the run game. Both teams feature top-five run defenses — the Vikings at No. 2 in the NFL (allowing 77.7 ypg) and the Panthers at No. 4 (88.6). Both teams also feature top-10 rushing attacks — the Panthers checking in at No. 5 (127.8 ypg) and the Vikings right behind them (122.8).
Carolina struggled to stop New Orleans on the ground last week, as Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The Panthers should return to form this week, but they could be challenged by another pair of solid running backs in Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.
Despite the Vikings’ elite status against the run this season, they will be tested by one of the more dangerous rushing attacks that they will face all season. Newton’s running ability adds a dimension to this matchup that could prove problematic for a Minnesota defense that has yet to face a true dual-threat quarterback. Newton ran for 26 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings last season.
The ground game certainly looms large on Sunday. However, it will likely be the team that fares better through the air that comes out on top. Cam Newton’s potential to light up the scoreboard cannot be discounted in any matchup. Unfortunately, you never know which Newton you might get from week to week. That lack of consistency, along with the unique challenge posed by a top-flight Minnesota defense, leaves room for skepticism. It doesn’t help that Newton struggled mightily against virtually the same defense last season.
Minnesota could have a tough row to hoe against an outstanding Carolina pass defense as well. But unlike Newton, Case Keenum has been a model of consistency for a much-improved Minnesota passing attack that continues to find success on a weekly basis. Keenum also benefits from a superior supporting cast. That should give the red-hot Vikings the edge they need to secure another hard-fought win on the road.
Prediction: Vikings 20, Panthers 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.