Carolina (2-0) has two wins over formidable opponents and now returns their best player who will be hungry to catch the ball and get into the end zone. Minnesota (0-2) has two losses to formidable opponents, yet their offense has appeared absolutely pathetic, prompting a change at quarterback from the young, mobile Tavares Jackson to old, reliable Gus Frerotte.
On the surface the Minnesota Vikings, once a popular pick to make noise in January and perhaps even get to the Super Bowl (sound familiar?), have glaring weaknesses and welcome the Panthers on Sunday looking more like a wounded animal than a playoff contender. Coach John Fox and the Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, are climbing the so-called power rankings of various media sources and now have Steve Smith back in the fold after a two-game suspension. Sunday sounds like a walk in the park. Yet Fox has the difficult task of convincing his team that they should be ready for a war on Sunday, because this has "trap game" written all over it.
The Vikings have an above-average running back. Maybe you've heard of him. Adrian Peterson. They also have an emerging defensive line that can get after the quarterback. Those are two things that keep teams in ball games, two things that the Panthers rode to Super Bowl XXXVIII five seasons ago, two things the Panthers are in the process of re-establishing today.
Some teams get down and appear out and then prove they are out by laying down and quitting. Others fight back with veracity. Minnesota has yet to prove which team they are, but the Carolina Panthers have the responsibility of proving to their fans and the rest of the NFL that they are who they think they are.
Since the start of training camp the vibe coming out of that locker room, even after the Steve Smith-Ken Lucas incident, has been one of togetherness and the belief that this team could truly be something special. The fact that they've gone on the road to beat San Diego in thrilling fashion, then come from behind to get a tough, gritty victory at home (where they have traditionally struggled the last four years) over the Chicago Bears has their fans believing.
That enthusiasm comes with a caveat, however, and the Panthers know it. Lose to the wounded animal and you are just another 2-1 team. Beat Minnesota on Sunday and suddenly the Panthers are 3-0 and going into a eight game stretch of their schedule in which they should be favored in every game.
Pundits are calling the victory over Chicago a statement game, but this one in Minnesota stands to have much bigger ramifications in terms of the Panthers' reputation both at home and nation-wide. But in order to make the statement they desire, they will have to avoid the trap and take it to Minnesota like they, and not the Vikings, are the 0-2 team.