The Carolina Panthers in many ways have mirrored the Vikings this season. At times, they have shown flashes of being a team capable of making a playoff run, but, more times than not, have found ways to lose close games. The Panthers are just 2-5 on the season, but have lost several games they had a chance to tie or win late in the fourth quarter. Of their five losses, they were defeated by seven points at Arizona, seven points vs. Green Bay, five points at Chicago and three points vs. New Orleans.
Panthers fans are giddy about their prospects moving forward. After being the league's worst team a year ago, the Panthers and their fans are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel – a signal of brighter days coming in the future.
That optimism is based on the impressive start to the season of rookie QB Cam Newton. While he has struggled with interceptions at times (a common rookie mistake when throwing into coverage on passes that would have been completions in college but are picks in the NFL), he has energized the team and the fan base with his shockingly good play. He has brought the deep pass back to the offense (he's averaging 300 passing yards a game) and has a whopping seven touchdown runs in seven games (only one less than Adrian Peterson). He has turned the tandem backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart into a three-headed monster. Williams leads the team in rushing, but is averaging less than 10 carries a game. Stewart and Newton have been averaging almost nine carries apiece and the Panthers are on pace to rush for 23 touchdowns between them.
While simply looking at the stat sheet would point out that Newton is a scrambler, to watch him on film, you get a much different impression of him. He is quickly becoming a complete quarterback, allaying the fears some scouts had that his experience in college (where he took 90 percent of his snaps out of the shotgun) wouldn't translate to the NFL. He has found a way to spread the ball around – four receivers have 21 or more catches – and nobody has been brought back to life more than Steve Smith. After diminishing returns the last couple of years, Smith leads the NFL with 818 receiving yards (a blistering pace that, if maintained, would equal 1,870 yards at season's end), but imported tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey have become important cogs to the offense as well. Both are on pace to catch more than 50 passes and are finding their careers reclaimed in Carolina as well.
The biggest problem the Panthers have endured this season has been a rash of injuries. Less than halfway into the season, Carolina has already placed 10 players on season-ending injured reserve, including starting linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and offensive linemen Jeff Otah and Geoff Schwartz. Of those injuries, the loss of Beason and Davis has significantly hurt the Panthers defense.
Opposing quarterbacks haven't lit up the Panthers defense, but they have been very efficient. Through seven games, opposing quarterbacks have averaged 237 yards with nine touchdowns, just four interceptions and a passer rating of 96.3. They have been able to successfully move the football both through the air and on the ground. The Panthers have the league's 29th-ranked defense, allowing opponents to average almost 135 yards a game. They have been routinely scorched by opponents with a lone primary running back (Beanie Wells, Maurice Jones, Matt Forte and Michael Turner), so the expectations for Adrian Peterson will be off the charts. This is a defense that was thin to begin with, but losing its two best linebackers has tested that depth even more.
The Panthers have seen more than their share of defensive struggles and the special teams haven't held up their end either. Carolina has allowed opponents to average 25 yards per kickoff return and more than 20 yards on punt returns, including two being brought back the distance for touchdowns. Former Vikings special teams coach Brian Murphy in running the special teams for the Panthers and his unit is struggling badly and hurting the team more than it has helped.
From their records to their list of opponents to putting the offenses in the hands of rookie quarterbacks, there are a lot more similarities between the Vikings and the Panthers that make this matchup intriguing on several levels. Both teams will be heading into their bye week following Sunday's game, so there will be a sense or urgency for both teams and this could be one of the more spirited games of the weekend and could go a long way to telling where the two teams will finish when they return from their byes for the second half of the 2011 season.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Newton strong, Panthers defense weak
Viking Update Top Stories
Counting snaps: Vikings vs. EaglesDespite a “soft” performance on the offensive line, according to coach Mike Zimmer, the Minnesota Vikings seemed interested in getting a rotation going there.
Viking Update6:23 AM
Holler: R-E-L-A-XMike Zimmer wasn't kind in his assessment of the Minnesota Vikings Sunday following their humbling 21-10 loss to Philadelphia, but it isn't as though the season is going down the…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 10:11 PM
Pass protection fails Bradford, VikingsThe Minnesota Vikings still haven’t been able to solve their offensive line issues, a theme going back to last year, but Mike Zimmer and the players aren’t denying it. They have to…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 5:23 PM
Notebook: Bradford-Wentz duel fizzlesSunday's game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles was supposed to be a marquee battle of quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz. Instead, it was a long day…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 3:39 PM