GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Curt Menefee, JC Pearson
SERIES: Sixth meeting. Minnesota leads series, 3-2, but will be making its first regular-season appearance in Carolina. The Vikings, who played at Carolina in a preseason game in 1998, won the first three meetings against the Panthers. Carolina beat the Vikings 21-14 the last time the teams played in 2002.
2005 RANKINGS: Vikings: offense 22nd (26th rush, 11th pass); defense 25th (30th rush, 15th pass). Panthers: offense 23rd (24th rush, 26th pass); defense 19th (3rd rush, 27th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Vikings have been outscored 95-21 in their three road games, so getting through the first half still within striking distance is the first priority. Minnesota is expected to stick with the 3-4 defense that coordinator Ted Cottrell starting featuring two games ago. DT Pat Williams has benefited most from the switch, and will play a big roll against Carolina, which desperately wants to get its struggling running game going. Panthers RB Stephen Davis is averaging a career-low 3.1 yards per carry, although backup DeShaun Foster is expected to return from a knee injury to help carry the load. The Vikings' running game has been even worse, averaging just 84.5 yards per game and putting too much pressure on QB Daunte Culpepper in long passing situations. With Panthers MLB Dan Morgan battling a shoulder injury, the Vikings might have more success pounding away between the tackles.
FAST FACTS: Vikings: Have been outscored 77-10 in the second quarter. ... This is their first regular-season game in Carolina. Panthers: Are 6-2 in their past eight games against the NFC North.
--LB Dontarrious Thomas, who suffered a bruised right shoulder last week in practice and missed last Sunday's game, was able to practice for a second consecutive day.
--LB Napoleon Harris returned to practice Thursday after having fluid drained from his right knee Tuesday. Harris suffered a torn meniscus cartilage in the knee last year with Oakland. Acquired in the Randy Moss trade, Harris has lost his job as the starting strongside linebacker to Keith Newman.
--QB Daunte Culpepper was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in the Vikings' victory over Green Bay. It was the eighth time in Culpepper's career he has received the award, a team record.
--RB Mewelde Moore will return punts for a second consecutive game Sunday but coach Mike Tice indicated he would like to use WR Nate Burleson in that role when he is 100 percent recovered from a sprained left knee. Burleson returned to the field last week after missing three games.
--LT Bryant McKinnie was perfect in pass protection in last Sunday's victory over the Packers, according to coach Mike Tice. McKinnie said he is having the best season of his four-year career.
--CB Chris Gamble, clearly the weaker of Carolina's two starting cornerbacks this season, can expect to be tested often Sunday by Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper. While he's listed as questionable on the injury report because of a lingering ankle sprain, Gamble has practiced all week and appears ready to go.
--KR Rod Smart appears to have recovered from a groin injury and will resume his role as the team's kick returner. Smart is in no danger of losing his job to Jamal Robertson, who averaged just 20.9 yards per kickoff return in Smart's absence. Smart was averaging 25.3 yards per kickoff return before his injury.
--FB Brad Hoover has practiced all week and appears ready to play Sunday, although he admitted he'll need to wear additional padding to protect his injured left shoulder.
--WR Steve Smith has seven touchdown catches this season, matching his single-season career high. He can surpass it with a TD reception on Sunday against the Vikings.
--K John Kasay is 5-for-5 for the Panthers from inside 50 yards, but is 3-for-6 from beyond with two kicks having been blocked.
INSIDE THE CAMPSVikings:
The Vikings appear set to go with a 3-4 base defense for a third consecutive game Sunday when they play at Carolina.
Forced to go with the look two weeks ago against Chicago because of a lack of healthy defensive ends, the Vikings coaches liked what they saw against Chicago and Green Bay.
The Bears beat Minnesota 28-3 two weeks ago but 14 of Chicago's points came when it took over deep in Vikings territory. Last Sunday, the Vikings rallied to edge Green Bay 23-20 as the defense gave up only three second-half points.
"We worked on the 34 defense the entire training camp, but it was mostly a nickel 34," coach Mike Tice said. "We didn't play any 34 defense in preseason games, but we played a lot of it - except for the paid scrimmages on Tuesday nights - in practice. It was successful in our 'dog' package.
"But when we had Kenechi (Udeze) and Spencer (Johnson) go down at the same time and we had two weeks during the bye to do something, I felt in talking with (defensive coordinator) Teddy Cottrell and our staff that it would be the best way for our team to go. Now if Spencer is healthy do we make that same decision? I can't tell you, because at the time, he wasn't."
Johnson is ready to return from a knee injury and figures to be used as a backup lineman. Kevin Williams and Darrion Scott will start at end and Pat Williams at nose tackle.
Part of what has made the 3-4 a success is the play of outside linebackers Keith Newman and Raonall Smith, neither of whom were starters at the beginning of the season. Newman has replaced Napoleon Harris on the strong side and Smith was brought in as the extra linebacker.
"It works well for our two middle guys, E.J. (Henderson) and Sam (Cowart), and we have two perfect guys coming off the edge in Raonall (Smith) and 52 (Keith Newman)," Tice said. "It suits our linebackers pretty good."
Panthers coach John Fox believes that outside linebacker Will Witherspoon is finally close to 100 percent following a lateral collateral ligament knee sprain he suffered earlier in the season.
In the first two games of 2005, Witherspoon looked like the dominant outside linebacker the Carolina Panthers always hoped he would become. With 18 tackles, a batted pass and an acrobatic diving interception of New England's Tom Brady, Witherspoon seemed to be all over the field.
But since missing Carolina's Week 3 game against Miami with a knee injury, he has been less visible and has at times seemed a little slow to react, even though he has 23 tackles during that span.
In Carolina's most recent game against Detroit, Witherspoon was beaten in coverage by tight end Marcus Pollard for an 86-yard pass play, something that almost never happened to him in the second half of last season, when he began to emerge as a solid linebacker.
Thursday, Fox said he thinks the knee problem hindered Witherspoon's effectiveness more than fans know, but said he believes last week's bye has helped him immensely.
"I think it hurt him when he first came back," Fox said. "He wasn't 100 percent. I think at this stage now he is back to 100 percent.
"These guys for the most part understand the difference between pain and injury, and he definitely had pain even though he was off the injury report and out there playing. But that has gotten better as we've moved forward."