When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis TV: Fox
When the Carolina Panthers came to Minneapolis last fall, they were a 1-3 team about to start an eight-game win streak on their way to a NFC South title.
This year, they're still in the hunt for a second consecutive division title, even though their record is a half-game worse than that of the last-place Minnesota Vikings. Both teams have lost star players to off-field issues (Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson); both have young QBs (Cam Newton and Teddy Bridgewater), although at different stages of the development process; and both head into Sunday's game trying to end losing streaks as the calendar turns to December.
ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton broke down Sunday's matchup.
Goessling: David, how would you assess the progress of Cam Newton in Year 3? It looked earlier this season as if he was turning the corner as a pocket passer, but his inaccuracy against the Saints and his turnovers the past two weeks make it seem as if he has taken a step back. What’s your take?
Newton: You’re right, Ben. He was looking pretty good as a pocket passer earlier in the season when doctors and coaches handcuffed his running while his left ankle continued to heal. He was going through his reads and progressions better than ever. When he was turned loose to run, he got back to an old habit of taking off before letting the play develop. Then injuries decimated an already suspect offensive line and he was under more pressure to make things happen. I really believe he’s trying to do too much, which is affecting his play. The return of fullback Mike Tolbert should help. Tolbert will help with the protection, as well as give Newton options on the run and in the passing game in the red zone he hasn’t really had.
Both teams have had issues with star players involved in off-the-field incidents that landed them on the commissioner’s exempt list. Hardy’s domestic violence case has had a major impact on Carolina’s defense. How have Peterson’s legal issues affected Minnesota on and off the field?
Goessling: We'll start with the on-field impact: We never got a chance to see how Peterson would fit in the framework of Norv Turner's offense, which called for him to be more involved as a pass-catcher than he'd been in the past, but I have no doubt his presence would make life easier for Bridgewater. If the Vikings had Peterson, commanding attention from defenses and forcing them to put extra men in the box, Bridgewater would get more favorable looks and teams might not be able to devote as much attention to pressuring him. Off the field, Peterson's absence has been noticeable; players certainly wanted him back, and a few of them haven't been shy about saying they think he should be allowed to play. Football people certainly want him back, although there's some concern about how the business and PR sides of his return would play out. It has had quite an impact on the season, though, and there's still at least one more twist coming; Peterson's appeal hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
You mentioned Hardy. Is that the main reason for the Panthers’ regression on defense this season, or have there been other factors?
Newton: There have been other factors, but it begins with Hardy. He was such a key cog to what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and his staff planned throughout the offseason. When you take away his team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures from 2013, his ability to stop the run, play end and tackle, and drop back into coverage well, you just can’t easily replace that. It forced others to try to do more. That led to missed assignments and an unusually high number of big plays. Even middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, made some uncharacteristic mistakes. The Panthers have finally adjusted to the new personnel and gotten back to stopping the run, which is key. They still haven’t put it all together on the pass rush, but the defense has played well enough to win the past month.
It looks as if Bridgewater is having a typical rookie season in terms of inconsistency. How much is Minnesota’s success dependent on him?
Goessling: Well, with Peterson out, the Vikings have to depend on Bridgewater much more than they'd like -- especially when you consider that Matt Cassel, not Bridgewater, was supposed to start this season. It's funny that you use the word "typical," considering all the atypical things that have happened around him this season, but yes, Bridgewater's inconsistency has been about what you'd expect for a rookie. He has shown some signs of progress, but he still looks as if he needs to speed up his progressions and trust himself to throw into tight windows more often. Essentially, he's going through the growing pains you see from most quarterbacks his age. The unfortunate thing for him is, he doesn't have much to count on around him: The Minnesota running game has been inconsistent without Peterson; the Vikings haven't gotten the breakout year they expected from Cordarrelle Patterson; and a solid offensive line was having protection problems even before it was hit with injuries. Bridgewater is being asked to carry quite a bit of the load right now. It's not ideal, but maybe he'll be better for it.
As silly as it seems, the Panthers are a half-game out of the lead in the NFC South. Is this a team that’s thinking playoffs? I know anything can happen once you get there, but would it even be beneficial for them to make the playoffs and drop 10-12 spots in the draft because of it?
Newton: As silly as it sounds for a team that hasn’t won since Oct. 3, yes, the Panthers are thinking playoffs. They really believe they can turn the season around this Sunday as they did in Minnesota last season when a 1-3 team began an eight-game winning streak with a 35-10 victory over the Vikings. Interesting on the draft, though. They could use a franchise left tackle, and the best way to get that usually is in the first 10 picks of the draft. That won’t happen if they make the playoffs. On the other hand, if they win the NFC South, they get a home playoff game, and that could be a good payday. And if winning breeds winning, making the playoffs probably would be as valuable for this franchise moving forward as a high draft pick because it has never made the playoffs two years in a row.
Obviously, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn played the past five seasons with the Panthers. How has he played so far this season, and do you think his former team will try to create a few mismatches with him, at 5-foot-8, defending 6-5 rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin?
Goessling: Munnerlyn got off to a rough start early this season, but he has played better in recent weeks. Really, the entire Minnesota secondary has shown quite a bit of improvement this year. Munnerlyn will be the left cornerback when the Vikings are in their base defense and will move inside to play the slot in nickel situations. Xavier Rhodes is the right cornerback, and Josh Robinson moves to left corner when Munnerlyn slides inside, so if the Panthers want to line up Benjamin on Munnerlyn, they'd effectively have to get him to the right side of their formation while the Vikings are in their base defense. It's likely Benjamin will see more of Rhodes, his former college teammate who has done a nice job handling bigger receivers. It should be a good matchup to watch Sunday.