This weekend’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Carolina Panthers is getting closer, folks. It’s been an interesting week for the purple and gold, particularly on the injury front, and soon we’ll be getting an opportunity to see just how things have affected them.
Once again this week, we have our widget from our good friends at The Crowd’s Line for your prediction purposes. You can put your prediction in here and see how you’re doing as far as accuracy in predicting our favorite team’s games.
The Vikings are a pretty significant underdog in this one, and given the way the Panthers have performed at home recently, it’s not a huge surprise, I suppose. The Panthers haven’t lost at home since November of 2014. Going back to last season, they’ve also put up at least 31 points in their last seven home games, including dropping 46 on the San Francisco 49ers last week.
The Panthers are led by Cam Newton, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, and got their best wide receiver back in third-year man Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin, who missed all of 2015 with a knee injury, has put up 199 yards and three touchdowns through Carolina’s first two games this season. Former Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olson is still a big part of Carolina’s offense, as he’s put up 195 yards and a touchdown through the first two weeks.
As for Newton. . .well, there’s a reason he was deemed the NFL’s best player last season. There are so many things that he can do that other NFL quarterbacks can’t, and though the Vikings kept him in check the last time these two teams got together back in 2014, he’s evolved significantly as a player since then. He’s going to make his share of big plays on Sunday afternoon, and the Vikings’ defense is going to have to do their best to limit those.
Limiting Newton can be done, though, and the Vikings have the sort of defense that has the ability to do that. In last year’s Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos got after Newton with some pretty relentless pressure, and with the offensive line still being one of Carolina’s weak points, the Vikings’ defensive front has an opportunity to have a huge impact on this one. They need to show the sort of approach that they showed with Russell Wilson in last year’s playoff game. . .getting pressure on the quarterback while limiting his ability to get out of the pocket and improvise. It’s something they’ll absolutely have to do in this one if they want to have a chance to win.
The Panthers have a pretty outstanding defense of their own, led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is one of those linebackers that plays a lot like a guy that used to kill the Vikings on a regular basis in former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. He’s the last guy not named J.J. Watt to be named Defensive Player of the Year (having won the award in 2013), and the Vikings are always going to have to know where he is.
On the bright side, Kuechly and the Panthers should be facing a Minnesota defense that will be more dynamic and less predictable than they’ve been in recent years. The (likely) season-ending injury to Adrian Peterson is going to affect this offense, but it should also allow them to do more things as far as spreading out the defense is concerned. The two-headed monster of Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata (because I don’t think new addition Ronnie Hillman is going to make a significant impact yet) will have an opportunity to get some yards, and having the benefit of less predictably run-heavy sets should help them a lot.
Where the Vikings might be able to make more hay, however, is in the air. Yes, the Vikings being dangerous through the air. . .strange, right? Sam Bradford had an outstanding Minnesota debut last week, and it was due in large part to the presence of Stefon Diggs, the NFL’s current receiving yardage leader. With the Panthers having lost cornerback Josh Norman to the Washington Redskins this offseason, their secondary has taken a hit and is relying on a lot of younger players to get the job done. Diggs has been huge this season so far, and if Bradford can find him, he’s going to have opportunities to make plays. Of course, if the Minnesota offensive line. . .now anchored by T.J. Clemmings at left tackle after the season-ending injury to Matt Kalil. . .doesn’t start doing a significantly better job of protecting Bradford than they did last week, he’s not going to have a whole lot of time to do anything, because he’ll be spending most of the afternoon on his backside.
When the schedules came out back in April, I think that this was one of the few games that fans of the purple almost universally had chalked up as a loss. While I think this is going to be a much better football game than a lot of Carolina’s recent home contests have wound up being, I also think that Newton and company are going to be just a little too much for our favorite team in this one. I hate picking the Vikings to lose, but one has to be realistic on these sorts of things, too.
Panthers 24, Vikings 20 in a matchup that I think we’ve got a pretty good shot of seeing again this year in January. As always when I predict a Vikings loss, I’ll be more than happy to eat crow on Sunday evening and have the leftovers on Monday morning if the purple wind up winning.
How about you, folks? Who have you got in this one?