Panthers Preview

The Carolina Panthers are coming off their bye week with a 4-2 record in which all but one of their games has been decided by four points or less. The Vikings are heavy underdogs, but, if history holds to form, it could easily come down to a one-possession game that will make the difference between winning and losing Sunday.

Many people believe that the Vikings saved their 2005 season last Sunday with a win vs. the Packers. But as they travel to Carolina for this Sunday's game, they are going to face a Panthers team that is talented, deep and rested. The Panthers come into the game after going to their bye week with a 4-2 record – allowing key players who were injured to heal up.

One of those players is quarterback Jake Delhomme, who was knocked out of the Panthers' last game with a concussion. Delhomme has had an up and down season, throwing 10 touchdowns to go with eight interceptions. He has proven to be a winner who has poise under fire and is especially dangerous when given time in the pocket. Delhomme lacks mobility, so look for the Vikings to bring varied blitz packages to keep him getting rid of the ball before he wants to.

For that to happen, the Vikings will have to make the Panthers one-dimensional on offense. The running game is once again a question mark. Stephen Davis is among the NFL leaders in touchdowns, but he's averaging just 3.1 yards a carry. As always seems the case, DeShaun Foster has been slowed by injuries – this time an ankle problem that has limited him to just 45 carries a game. Foster is a slasher who can hit the outside and turn the corner, while Davis is more of a between-the-tackles runner. If the Vikings can shut down the inside running lanes, the Panthers will be forced to pass.

That may not be a bad idea in the minds of some Panther observers. Steve Smith missed the entire 2004 season and the result was a huge year for Muhsin Muhammad, who has since moved on to Chicago. Smith is among the NFL leaders in every statistical category – catching 39 passes for 596 yards and seven touchdowns. He has half again as many receptions as the rest of the team's wide receivers combined, but the Panthers do have other options. Keary Colbert is developing into a solid No. 2 receiver and former Redskin Rod Gardner is looking to revive his career. Tight ends have been a trouble spot for the Vikings defense all year, but Kris Mangum has just 11 receptions all year and likely won't be much a downfield threat, but will have to be watched in the Red Zone.

Last year, the Panthers offensive line was only slightly better than hideous, but the team is convinced that improvement is coming faster than some might think. At the tackles, the Panthers have a pair of young bookends in second-year left tackle Travelle Wharton and third-year right tackle Jordan Gross – taken when the Vikings ran out of time on the draft day clock and the Panthers and Jaguars jumped in to make their selections. In the middle, the team's biggest free agent acquisition was signing former Packer Mike Wahle to man the left guard spot, joining nine-year veteran Jeff Mitchell at center and six-year man Tutan Reyes at right guard. It is a line that isn't loaded up with Pro Bowl talent, but one that is improving and is stout enough to control the line of scrimmage late in games.

While the Panthers offense has been up and down, its defense is what has kept the team in most of its games. From front to back, the Panthers have talent that John Fox brought in and refined, and it all starts up front with one of the game's pre-eminent defensive players – DE Julius Peppers. While he has just one sack this year, he is almost constantly double-teamed, which opens up opportunities for tackles Brentson Buckner and Jordan Carstens – who is filling in for injured Kris Jenkins, who again was lost for the season with an injury. On the other side, Mike Rucker has become a dominant pass rusher that will chase down Daunte Culpepper from the blind side and be a menace throughout the game. The Panthers are allowing opponents just 75 yards rushing a game, so establishing the run and not giving up on it will be a priority for the Vikings offense.

In the middle, Dan Morgan is fighting a dislocated shoulder but is expected to play. A heavy hitter in the run game and a solid pass defender, Morgan is one of the key players that benefited the most from the Panthers having a bye week come when it did. He is flanked by former Giant Brandon Short and fourth-year pro Will Witherspoon. While not the most athletic group of linebackers, these guys make plays up and down the field and will be responsible for keeping the Vikings running backs and tight ends in check and force the Vikings to try to beat them with their wide receivers.

The Panthers secondary has been lit up for more than 250 yards a game, primarily because of teams' inability to run against them. They've put their faith in former Seahawk Ken Lucas, whom the Panthers signed to a long-term deal in the offseason. He's already picked off a pair of passes and returned them 60 yards – both critical to Panther wins earlier in the season. He's joined by former Ohio State standout Chris Gamble at the other corner, with ageless veteran Mike Minter and five-year veteran Marlon McCree at safety. In certain passing situations, former starting CB Ricky Manning comes in as the nickel back and will likely be lined up one-on-one with Marcus Robinson or Troy Williamson in those situations.

It's hard to get a true read on the Panthers, who could just as easily be 6-0 or 2-4, depending on who you ask. They've won three games in a row against teams that had losing records when they played – the Packers, Cardinals and Lions – by a combined total of seven points, and both of their losses (to the Saints and Dolphins) have been by three points. The Panthers haven't been a team that has blown people away, so there is a likelihood that the Vikings will be in the game heading into the fourth quarter. If that's the case, the Vikes could steal a game on the road that they desperately need and get the 2005 season back on course with another big momentum-building win.

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