The Minnesota Vikings have been attempting to adjust on the fly in light of the loss of three starters in the last few days – Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil and Sharrif Floyd – and heading into Charlotte to play the Carolina Panthers is likely the last thing a team is looking for when trying to extend a winning streak.
The Panthers have won 14 straight games at home and have been the dominant team in the NFC during that span. They can beat teams with offense, defense and special teams and don’t have a glaring weakness.
Offensively, it all runs through quarterback Cam Newton. The reigning NFL MVP, Newton hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down. Through two games, he has thrown for 547 yards, five touchdowns and has rushed 17 times for 91 yards and has scored the Panthers’ only rushing touchdown. The Panthers are one of the few teams that deliberately call for the quarterback to run up the middle on power runs typically reserved for running backs. Every time Newton takes a snap, there is the potential he can run, which may be necessary given the state of the Panthers running game.
The Panthers only have four running backs on the roster, so being without nine-year veteran Jonathan Stewart will leave a void. Picking up the slack will be Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne. Whittaker has averaged 6 yards a carry and will likely be asked to carry the lion’s share of the rushing game. Fullback Mike Tolbert is a strong blocker, but is also used as a short-yardage back and part-time featured back, so there is the potential the Vikings will see him running the ball between the tackles with power.
The Panthers passing game was good enough to win the NFC Championship despite being without its most potent weapon. The team was without Kelvin Benjamin last season, but he has been the primary receiver for Newton upon his return. He has caught 13 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns. But Benjamin is far from the only weapon. Ted Ginn had a career year last season and is a dangerous deep threat, and Devin Funchess is another big receiver who makes the tough catches to move the chains.
The player to keep an eye on is tight end Greg Olsen. He has caught 12 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. Between them, they create a fearsome foursome that will test the Vikings secondary all day long.
If there is a weakness to the Panthers offense, it is the tackle combination of Mike & Mike – Michael Oher and former Viking Mike Remmers. Both of them have taken a circuitous route to get to Carolina and both were dominated in the Super Bowl. If the Vikings are going to limit the Panthers offense, it will likely require that defensive ends Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter will have to win their battles, much in the same way DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller did in the Super Bowl.
The Panthers defense has talent at all three levels that can make life miserable for opposing offenses and, despite losing Josh Norman, Carolina has a dominating defense that starts up front with a young group that could be in place for years.
The only grizzled veteran on the defensive line is 10-year defensive end Charles Johnson. He is nearing the end of the line – he signed a one-year deal for less money than he was due after being cut in March – but he still brings the heat from the outside. He is joined by third-year pro Kony Ealy, who was a breakout player late last season and allowed the Panthers to move on from former Viking Jared Allen. The Panthers have dominating young talent in the middle at defensive tackle with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short as the starters and first-round rookie Vernon Butler and veteran Paul Soliai as the backups in a four-man rotation. The Panthers run them in and out regularly and can not only stuff the run but also collapse the pocket from the middle.
The linebackers are led by Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Kuechly has established himself as one of the top tacklers in the league and, even at the age of 33, Davis is still at the top of his game. 2015 first-round pick Shaq Thompson is the other starter and is being groomed to be Davis’ replacement when he retires. He has worked his way into the starting lineup and gives Carolina three strong linebackers who can all make big plays.
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The Panthers secondary misses the shut-down capability of Norman, but still have talent. Both starting cornerbacks – Bene’ Benwikere and James Bradberry – have interceptions and have held up well in man coverage that the Panthers employ. The biggest defensive addition is Kurt Coleman, who came over from Kansas City in 2015 and led the team with seven interceptions. He is a playmaker who helps cushion the blow from the loss of Norman.
The Panthers haven’t lost at home since 2014 and, for the Vikings to break that streak, both sides of the ball are going to have to play at an extremely high level that will likely mean winning the turnover battle because the Vikings don’t turn the ball over at all. The Vikings will be facing some long odds, but, if they’re going to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender despite their numerous injury losses, this could be the statement game that gets national attention that the Vikings are one of the teams to be feared in the NFC – a distinction the Panthers currently have.