CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Vikings vs. Panthers game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s showdown in Charlotte, N.C.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams, primarily the opponent, ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

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Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota brings a 2-3 record into Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, and it’s been a tumultuous season for the Vikes thus far. Despite losing very close games to quality opponents such as the Cardinals and Browns, they also barely came away victorious against the winless Lions last week. A tough team to gauge, perhaps. But they definitely have some clear threats to address week in and week out. 

The Vikings enter Sunday’s game with a boost to the backfield as Dalvin Cook returns from a one and a half game absence due to injury. Alexander Mattison played well in relief, but there are few alternatives to Cook in the NFL. His ability to dominate up the gut, off tackle, and in the receiving game makes him an invaluable asset every down. It’s been a slower start for the Pro Bowler than usual (296 total yards and one touchdown), especially considering he tallied 16 rushing touchdowns in 2020. Carolina was able to contain Alvin Kamar earlier this season, but Ezekiel Elliott had a field day against them just a couple weeks ago. They’ll be tasked with shutting down someone with a combination of their skill sets on Sunday. 

CINCINNATI, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 12: Dalvin Cook #33 of the Minnesota Vikings runs with the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The receiving corps is a force as well. Adam Thielen is an experienced vet that wins on possession downs and is a polished route runner. He leads the team with four touchdown catches so far this season. Justin Jefferson has emerged as a star in a short amount of time. He burst through in his rookie season in 2020, and has continued from where he left off. The speedy sure-handed receiver leads the team in receptions (33) and yards (462). The Panthers hope to have the help of cornerback C.J. Henderson, who is listed as questionable. Kirk Cousins isn’t a particularly dangerous quarterback, but he’s performed well for the Vikings so far, and has been more efficient this season than in years past. His 5:1 touchdown to interception ratio is fantastic with just two interceptions overall, though he has also fumbled twice this season. He’s a prototypical pocket passer, so if the Panthers can get pressure, primarily up the middle, that will go a long way towards slowing the offense down. 

On defense it’s not the Vikings unit of old that we’re used to, but there are still more than capable playmakers on that side of the ball. Eric Kendricks is a versatile middle linebacker that can cover in space as well as be stout in the run game. Defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen stand out. Hunter is a younger, all-around pass rusher while Griffen is a bull-rusher who tests left tackles pretty routinely. Those two, along with the rest of that defensive front, have contributed heavily to the team’s 17 sacks this season, which ranks second in the league. And they hurry the quarterback at a league-high rate of 18.3%. And while Mackensie Alexander and Patrick Peterson are valuable assets at the cornerback position, the safeties are what stick out most in the secondary. All-Pro Harrison Smith, though perhaps not as dominant as he once was, is still a force in every aspect. One of the better run defenders at the safety position, Smith is unsurprisingly second on the team in tackles. At free safety, Xavier Woods is much better in space and possesses great ball skills. Deep shots are hard to complete against this group. And their 586 air yards to date are among the fewest in the NFL. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA – OCTOBER 03: Everson Griffen #97 of the Minnesota Vikings sacks Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Carolina Panthers

While it appeared that Christian McCaffrey was set to return this Sunday, the Panthers placed him on injured reserve Saturday solidifying his absence for at least the next three weeks. He would be set to return as early as week nine. 

It’s obviously a blow to the team, and Chuba Hubbard will once again be tasked with starting in his place. The rookie has shown flashes of good play, but the team is still looking for more consistency which may just take some time given his limited snap count so far. He’s still seeking his first NFL touchdown despite recording 68 touches. They’ll be looking for more out of him and backfield mate Royce Freeman this week. 

Sam Darnold hasn’t looked nearly as good the past couple of weeks than he did during the team’s 3-0 run. He’s still feeling his way through a new offense under Joe Brady, and is in the process of continuing to form comfort with the receiving corps. But there’s no doubt there have been some poor decisions made that have turned into untimely turnovers. Some of the struggles in both the passing game and run game can be due to inconsistent line play. But the offense needs elevated play from the quarterback as well. 

The defense stumbled two weeks ago against Dallas, but played relatively well against a Philadelphia team that was held in check for most of last week. Unfortunately for Carolina, they’ll be without linebacker Shaq Thompson for the contest as he continues to deal with a foot injury. 

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 10: Sam Darnold #14 of the Carolina Panthers throws under pressure from Fletcher Cox #91 of the Philadelphia Eagles during a football game at Bank of America Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Keys to the game

Possess the ball: Winning the time of possession and sustaining long drives will go a long way to keeping Carolina in control against a team that can run the ball with the best of them. A steady ground game from the Panthers will greatly aid in this effort, and will afford Darnold more favorable outcomes off of play action. We know the Vikings don’t give up many big plays, so it’s going to require patience and efficiency for the Panthers to pull it off. 

Play disciplined defense: This mainly applies to the threat Dalvin Cook presents. The defensive front seven will need to be gap disciplined if they hope to at least limit his impact. Cook has great acceleration, and the slightest opening could turn into a huge play. That’s always a priority in the NFL. But when you’re facing one of the best in the business, that need becomes magnified. Given Carolina’s difficulty with the big play on offense, the defense needs to limit the Vikings in that area to keep pace. 

No turnovers: It’s no surprise that in their two losses this season, the Panthers have lost the turnover battle. Five in the last two weeks has been a killer, especially considering they had just two turnovers the first three weeks. If they hope to accomplish the first key to the game, they’ll need to hang onto the football.