It seems like a sense of déjà vu as the Vikings prepare to meet up with the Carolina Panthers Sunday at the Metrodome. While it's still too early in the season to view games in terms of playoff elimination, realistically there isn't much in the way of room for error for either team.
In their last game, the Vikings were 0-3 facing another 0-3 team with the option for the loser being dire. For the winner, the bye would come with a flicker of optimism. This week, the Vikings are a 1-3 team facing another 1-3 team. The winner will find their way back into the playoff picture (with New Orleans at 5-0, the odds of the Panthers getting back in the division title chase look bleak, but the wild card remains a possibility) and the loser will find themselves on the edge of the cliff waiting to get pushed off into the abyss.
Carolina is a 1-3 team desperate for a win and has the talent to go on a run of victories. They are the first of eight straight NFC opponents the Vikings are going to face, so the desperation goes both ways. Most 1-3 teams have glaring weaknesses that help explain why they're so brutal. The Panthers really don't have those obvious weaknesses that stand out and have assembled the personnel to be a legitimate playoff contender.
In many ways, the Panthers have been like the Vikings, allowing late scores to turn what could have been victories over Seattle and Buffalo into losses. Without question, the key to the Panthers' success rides on the arm and legs of quarterback Cam Newton. A dynamic playmaker, Newton has earned his reputation by being a dangerous runner. But, in his third season, he has developed into a more complete quarterback. Through four games, he has rushed just 20 times – about a 40 percent reduction from his first two seasons. He has become more of a pocket passer and, while his numbers aren't off the charts, he is still the straw that stirs the drink in the Carolina offense.
With Jonathan Stewart on the physically unable to perform list, the bulk of the running game has been given to DeAngelo Williams. He has rushed for 85 or more yards in three of the first four games and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. If the Panthers can establish the run game with Williams, it will open things up for both Newton's rushing and passing acumen.
The Panthers don't have a deep receiver corps, but they do have some talented players capable of making big plays. Tight end Greg Olsen is the leading receiver with 21 catches for 273 yards and a touchdown, and ageless Steve Smith remains a focal point of the Panthers passing attack. He has yet to have a breakout game – he doesn't have more than 60 yards receiving in any game this season, but he remains a big-time threat who has burned the Vikings in the past. With Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn in the mix, the Panthers have enough talent at receiver to do some damage and will keep the Vikings defense on its toes.
The Panthers are in flux on the offensive line at the guard position. The expectation when training camp opened was that the Panthers would be starting nine-year veteran Geoff Hangartner and second-year pro Amini Silatolu. Hangarter was released in early August and Silatolu tore his ACL in Sunday's game with Arizona and is gone for the season. In their place are 10-year veteran Travelle Wharton and second-year pro Chris Scott, who was waived in July by Buffalo. Neither are dominant players and the Vikings can take advantage of that weakness. Fortunately for Carolina, the two guards are separated by three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the brother of Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil. If the Vikings can win the battle in the trenches, it will go a long way to containing Newton and keeping him on the run for all the wrong reasons.
Defensively, the Panthers have the third-ranked defense and have quietly built one of the better young defensive units in the NFL. It all starts in the middle, where first-round draft pick Star Lotulelei is quickly developing into a dominant run stuffer who can get penetration and blow up plays. He is flanked by 10-year veteran Dwan Edwards, but he is likely going to miss Sunday's game after missing practice all week with a hamstring injury. Edwards' injury will open up playing time for rookie Kawann Short, Carolina's second-round draft pick, and third-year run stopper Sione Fua. At the end, the Panthers haven't had a premier pass rusher since Julius Peppers went away, but both Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have three sacks. Offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt will have to be on their A-game because both of them are strong pass rushers who rarely take plays off.
The strength of the defense is in the middle, where middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is quickly becoming a dominant force. He has averaged nearly 14 tackles a game since taking over at middle linebacker a year ago and is playing at a Pro Bowl level. He is flanked by nine-year veteran Thomas Davis and former Giant Chase Blackburn. Neither of them is an overpowering presence, but they're both technically sound and get their jobs done. Depth is razor thin, so they can't afford injuries, but their starting three are rock solid.
The secondary is the weakness of the defense and the situation will be worse Sunday. Carolina will be missing one of its cornerbacks, as nickel back D.J. Moore has been ruled out, and safety Robert Lester, who is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, is doubtful. The Panthers don't have elite secondary players, but they have allowed just three passing touchdowns all season. Third-year pro Josh Thomas is in his first season as a full-time starter and Captain Munnerlyn is a physical corner but can get burned by speed receivers. Safeties Quintin Mickell and Mike Mitchell are decent, but nothing spectacular. If Matt Cassel gets the chance to air out the ball, there will be opportunities for big plays.
Prior to last week's game with the Arizona Cardinals, in which the Panthers were dominated on both sides of the ball, Carolina looked like a team that could recover and compete for a wild card spot, but at 1-3 and coming off their worst performance of the season, the Panthers will be hard-pressed to win at the Metrodome. This isn't technically a playoff-elimination game, but the loser will find itself in a huge hole that will likely put a realistic end to postseason hopes. Teams that start 1-4 historically don't make the playoffs and one of these two teams will be in that spot Sunday afternoon. The Vikings may be catching Carolina at the right time and have a good chance of making them that 1-4 team.
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.
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