Minnesota (2-0) at Carolina (1-1)
Minnesota opened U.S. Bank Stadium with a tough 17-14 win over rival Green Bay; Carolina allowed San Francisco to cut a 21-point lead to a touchdown before pulling away, 46-27.
This will be the 13th meeting between the two clubs. The Vikings hold a 7-5 edge. Their most recent matchup occurred on a cold November day at TCF Bank Stadium in 2014 when Minnesota manhandled the disinterested Panthers, 31-13.
Including playoffs, the Panthers have won 10 straight games at home.
The much-maligned Minnesota offensive line gave Adrian Peterson in the first two games an average of 6.9 inches before contact with a defender, according to Pro Football Focus.
Before last Sunday, Carolina running back Fozzy Whittaker had appeared in 40 games and rushed for 345 yards. Against the 49ers, Whittaker had 100 yards on just 16 carries.
Possible Ominous Sign
For the second week in a row, a defensive back led the Vikings in tackles. A week after cornerback Trae Waynes topped the stat sheet against Tennessee, safety Andrew Sendejo paced the club with nine tackles versus the Packers.
Reigning MVP Cam Newton has averaged 242 yards passing and 2.3 TDs in three career games against the Vikings. So far this season, Newton has played at a high level, completing 42 of 73 passes (57.5 percent) for 547 yards (7.5 yards per attempt), five touchdowns and two interceptions. His passing yards per game (273.5) are higher than in 2014 (239.8), but Newton’s completion percentage and yards per attempt have dipped from 59.8 percent and 7.8, respectively. After two games, Newton’s 92.7 quarterback rating is off from last year’s 99.4. Newton remains the prototypical dual-threat quarterback. He has rushed for 91 yards on 17 carries for a 5.4 yards-per-carry average, which is an improvement over last year’s 4.8 clip.
Going behind the numbers: Short throws were a problem last week for Newton. According to Football Outsiders, on passes to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage, he completed 6 of 11 for 17 yards and no first downs.
In three career games versus the Panthers, Minnesota’s Sam Bradford has averaged 217 yards passing and one TD. Last week, Bradford sparkled in his purple debut, completing 22 of 31 for 286 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. His performance exceeded his career averages in passer rating (121.2 to 81.5), completion percentage (71 percent to 60.3) yards per attempt (9.2 to 6.5) and yards gained per pass completion (13 to 10.8). Was last week an anomaly for Bradford or the result of finally being on a good team? The next several weeks should reveal the answer.
Going behind the numbers: On third and fourth down last week, Bradford completed 9 of 10 passes for 85 yards. However, as Football Outsiders points out, only four of those nine completions picked up a first down.
Purple Pass Protection
For Sam Bradford to remain healthy, the Minnesota offensive line will have to up its game. Pro Football Focus calculates that the line is on pace to give up a league-high 224 QB pressures in 2016. Losing left tackle Matt Kalil for possibly the remainder of the season won’t help the Vikings’ cause, but his replacement, second-year pro T.J. Clemmings, couldn’t be much worse, according to Pro Football Focus. Through two weeks, they have Kalil as the 65th-ranked offensive tackle.
Sunday’s matchup features three receivers off to hot starts: Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen of Carolina, and Minnesota wideout Stefon Diggs. After missing all of last year due to injury, Benjamin has flashed his rookie form from 2014, when he topped 1,000 yards. Against the 49ers, Benjamin snagged seven passes for 108 yards. Six of those receptions resulted in first downs. The always-dangerous Olsen chipped in with five catches for 122 yards. Through two games, the pair have a combined 25 catches for 394 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, the Vikings are surrendering 216 passing yards a game, have picked off two passes and collected seven sacks. Sunday will be a huge test for Minnesota’s linebackers and secondary.
Diggs followed a solid opener with a magnificent game against Green Bay, catching nine passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. Four of Diggs’ receptions were for at least 25 yards. After two weeks, Diggs leads the league in receiving yards (285) and is second in receptions (16). Compared to his fine rookie season of a year ago, Diggs has improved his catch percentage (percent of passes targeting him that are caught) from 61.9 to 80 percent. His yards per reception have jumped from 13.8 to 17.8. The big question: Can Diggs maintain his early-season production without the threat of Adrian Peterson in the backfield and with defenses rolling coverage his way?
Defensively, the Panthers are giving up 198 yards passing a game, have intercepted four passes and recorded four sacks.
Whittaker stepped in for an injured Jonathan Stewart against San Francisco and had the game of his life with 100 yards on just 16 carriers. Whittaker’s yards were fairly equally distributed as he had 28 yards running to left end, 17 to left guard, 28 up the middle and 27 off right tackle. Stewart has been ruled out for the Vikings contest, so Whittaker, a shifty-type back, will have the opportunity to prove he wasn’t a one-week wonder. As a team, the Panthers lead the league in rushing attempts (69) and yards (333).
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera has indicated that Cameron Artis-Payne, more of a bruising back, may see time against the Vikings. Inactive the first two weeks, the second-year player delivered 152 yards on 33 carries subbing for Stewart during the Panthers’ last three regular-season games in 2015.
The Vikes have been stout against the run, allowing just 73.5 yards a game. Last week, Minnesota held Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy to 50 yards on 12 carries. The Packers’ limited success on the ground occurred when they attacked the right side of the Minnesota defensive line. Green Bay’s three rushes that direction netted 24 yards.
Minnesota’s running woes have been well-documented. All-Pro Adrian Peterson averaged just 1.6 yards per carry before suffering a knee injury that will keep him on the sidelines, possibly for months. As a team, the Vikings are last in the league with 95 rushing yards in two games. According to Football Outsiders, 32 percent of the team’s rushing attempts have resulted in zero or negative yardage. Only Buffalo has a greater percentage of “stuffed” plays. The Vikings’ long run of the year is 12 yards by Matt Asiata. Without Peterson, Minnesota will have to rely on Jerick McKinnon and Asiata to attack the Panthers defense, which is giving up 106.5 rushing yards a game.
Carolina leads the league, scoring 33 points a game. Defensively, the Panthers rank 21st, allowing 24 points a contest.
Minnesota averages 21 points a game (17th) and gives up 15 (fifth).
Can’t Happen Again
The Vikings were flagged 13 times for 137 yards against Green Bay.
According to the computer analysis of fivethirtyeight.com, Minnesota has a 34 percent chance of beating Carolina.
WhatIfSports.com’s NFL simulation engine only had the Vikings winning 35.2 percent of the 501 simulated matchups versus the Panthers.