The Vikings' defense will need to stop Cam Newton on Sunday at the Metrodome.
The Minnesota Vikings keep running into teams with the same record. When they host the 1-3 Carolina Panthers this week, it will be the third straight game the records have been the same. For both teams, their only win came over a team that remains winless—the Vikings beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Panthers beat the New York Giants.
The Panthers and Vikings are two teams that are very difficult to figure out.
On offense, they are both better at running the ball than passing it. The Panthers have the seventh-best rushing offense, averaging 137.0 yards per game, but their passing game, with Cam Newton at quarterback, ranks 30th in the NFL with only 192 passing yards per game. Overall, they are 24th in the league with 329 yards per game.
The Vikings offense is only slightly better overall. They are averaging 350 yards per game with the 10th-best rushing offense and 23rd passing offense. Yet, the Vikings have been able to put the ball in the end zone. Their 28.8 scoring average ranks fifth in the NFL.
This game features a matchup of each team's weaknesses and strengths. The Panthers will put their 27th-ranked scoring offense against the Vikings' 29th-ranked scoring defense. On the other side of the ball, the Vikings' fifth-ranked offense will try to score on the Panthers' third-ranked scoring defense.
This could wind up being a low-scoring game, and the winner will be determined by whichever team's weakness is better than the others.
When the Panthers Have the Ball
Newton is the first quarterback the Vikings defense has faced who is a threat to run. One of the keys will be to keep him from escaping the pocket and picking up big chunks of yardage with his feet. When the teams played in 2011, Newton finished with 53 yards on six carries.
That's something he has done less of this season. He is averaging only five rushing attempts per game for an average of 30.8 yards—both the lowest of his three seasons.
If the Vikings can force the Panthers to pass the ball, surprisingly it just might favor Minnesota. Before you stop reading, thinking I must have taken one too many hits to the head, stick with me.
If the Vikings can put some pressure on Newton, there's a chance to force some turnovers. So far this season Newton has thrown five interceptions, and the Vikings defense, with seven picks, is currently tied for third in the NFL. If this trend continues, the Vikings could end up winning the turnover battle. If that happens, it could lead to their second win of the season.
Of course, the Vikings will have to find a way to slow down wide receiver Steve Smith. A third-round draft pick of the Panthers in 2001, Smith has played six games against the Vikings. In those games, he had four touchdowns and averaged over 100 yards per game.
With how badly Minnesota's defensive secondary has been burned this season, even slowing down Smith could be a problem.
When the Vikings Have the Ball
The key for the Vikings offense will be to protect the football. If they can go another game without a turnover, and generate enough offense to score more than 14 points, then they have a very good chance to win the game.
With the quarterback controversy going three-wide into the first turn of the season, (sorry for the NASCAR reference) don't expect the Vikings offense to amass a lot of yards through the air—despite who starts. For that matter, gaining any yards on the ground could be difficult too.
The Panthers bring the third-ranked defense to the Metrodome. In Week 1, they only gave up 12 points to the Seattle Seahawks, a team that has averaged 27.4 points per game this season.
Another key for the Vikings will be the same as it has been for most of the season—having possessions end in scores, preferably touchdowns. If the Carolina offense continues to struggle scoring, then a half dozen Blair Walsh field goals may do the trick.
Behind Walsh's strong leg, the Vikings could win this game by being able to drive to the Panthers' 35-yard line.
Despite the Panthers having the seventh-best rushing defense, only allowing 92.3 yards per game, the Vikings need to give the ball to Adrian Peterson—a lot. Coming off the bye week, Peterson is second in the NFL with 421 rushing yards. With the return of fullback Jerome Felton from his three-game suspension, Peterson finished with his best rushing total of the season against the Steelers—140 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns.
With two touchdown runs of 60 and 78 yards, the Vikings' biggest threat this season is still Peterson.
If Peterson can effectively run the ball, that could open things up for the passing game. Jerome Simpson leads the team with 19 receptions and 342 yards, but he has yet to score for the Vikings. With a stingy Panthers defense that only averages two touchdowns, it's not likely Simpson's drought will end.
In his first start as a Viking, Matt Cassel completed passes to seven different receivers—but four of them only had a single reception. He did lead the Vikings to their first game without a turnover, although he had plenty of luck on his side. There were a couple of passes that should have been intercepted, and he fumbled the ball that Simpson recovered for a first down.
Still, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, and unfortunately, Christian Ponder has been neither—that and a rib injury will most likely drop him to third on the depth chart.
It's a simple formula for the Vikings. On defense, keep Newton in the pocket, get a couple of interceptions and win the turnover battle.
On offense, get Peterson rolling, have him score his seventh touchdown of the season and spread the ball around just enough to sustain some drives, win the field-position battle.
In the end, it will come down to what Walsh does best—kicking long field goals.