NFL Preview - Carolina (1-3) at Minnesota (1-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The quarterback carousel in Minnesota added a new horse this week when ex-Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman agreed to terms with the Vikings.
Freeman will be given every chance to become the long-term answer for the Vikings sooner rather than later but veteran Matt Cassel will likely get his second straight start on Sunday as Minnesota comes off its bye and attempts to climb back into the NFC North race against Cam Newton and the struggling Carolina Panthers.
The odd man out in the Vikings' current scenario is embattled former starter Christian Ponder, who has been cleared to return after suffering a rib injury in a Week 3 loss to Cleveland but lost his job due to ineffectiveness.
Cassel may have saved Minnesota's season in London back on Sept. 29, leading the Vikings to their first win of the season, a 34-27 triumph over Pittsburgh.
The ex-Kansas City starter completed 16-of-25 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns in the game, while All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
The Steelers trailed 34-17 heading into the fourth quarter, but fought back and had possession of the football at its own 22-yard line with 1:50 left and down by a touchdown.
Ben Roethlisberger, who was 36-of-51 for 383 yards with a touchdown and interception, drove the Steelers to the Minnesota 6-yard line in the final seconds. Everson Griffen, though, sacked Roethlisberger and forced a fumble on 3rd-and-goal. Minnesota's Kevin Williams fell on top of the ball and Cassel took a knee to seal the outcome for the Vikings.
"It feels great to get our first home win of the season," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. "And we had to come all the way to London to get it. I think I'll always have a special place in my heart for Wembley Stadium."
Greg Jennings hauled in a 70-yard touchdown among his two scores for the Vikings, who sacked Roethlisberger five times. Peterson broke off a 60-yard touchdown run and Jerome Simpson caught seven passes for 124 yards in the win. Jared Allen had 2 1/2 of Minnesota's sack total.
Carolina is also 1-3 after a dismal performance in the desert last week during a 22-6 setback to Arizona.
Newton completed 21-of-39 throws for 308 yards for the Panthers, who were coming off a bye week following a 38-0 thrashing of the New York Giants.
Newton did not resemble the quarterback that threw for 422 yards and totaled three touchdowns in his pro debut at University of Phoenix Stadium two years ago. He was pressured throughout and threw three interceptions while losing a fumble.
Daryl Washington, in his first game back from a four-week suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, finished with nine tackles, two sacks and an interception in Arizona's second straight win.
"When you score six points in the NFL it's on everybody," Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said of the loss. "Didn't do our job well enough."
Minnesota has won its last six home games immediately following a bye and is 5-2 all-time against Carolina in Minneapolis.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
No team has made the playoffs after an 0-3 start since the Buffalo Bills in 1998 and only five of 161 clubs to open a year with three straight losses since 1978 have reached the postseason.
The Vikings have a chance to make it six if Cassel can keep winning while Freeman gets ready to take the reins.
Cassel is the real loser in this QB derby, not Ponder. The veteran was going to get the ball moving forward and barring injury or a complete meltdown, Ponder's tender ribs were going to be used as an excuse to pull the plug on the Florida State product.
"One thing you can expect in the NFL: expect the unexpected," Cassel said. "Because every week it changes. You never know what's going to happen. I learned that over time. This is my ninth year now."
Freeman's ugly breakup with Greg Schiano in Tampa and the fact he wanted to play in Minnesota, though, gave Vikings GM Rick Spielman an opportunity to acquire a possible long-term answer.
Frazier has already said Freeman would not play Sunday but will be able to compete for the No. 1 job after learning the team's offensive scheme. Keep in mind, backups usually get no more than 10 percent of the repetitions at practice during the regular season, so this is Freeman's job when he is deemed ready.
"At the end of the day, you've got to follow your heart," Freeman told reporters in a conference call after passing his physical on Monday. "I'm not saying I was promised anything. I was not. All I was promised was an opportunity to be part of a first-class organization and be put into a role where I could nurture myself as a player."
This is far from a slam dunk. Freeman needs to prove the challenges to his work ethic as well as his leadership skills in Tampa were truly the manifestations of a deranged coach on a power trip.
"Obviously, he didn't feel that I was the guy he wanted leading his team," Freeman said. "I had a lot of great memories. Lots of good times with the fellas. Times change, things progress and I'm just fired up to be here in Minnesota."
Despite any flaws, Freeman has already excelled at the NFL level. In 2010, he threw 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Last year, he tossed for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns. That's a ceiling Ponder can't even see, never mind reach.
"I know he is a big quarterback with a strong arm that can do a lot of good things at all levels of the field," Spielman said.
And Freeman wanted in for the same reason Cassel does. They are salivating over what Ponder could never take advantage of, the constant eight-man boxes used to stop Peterson.
"My main focus was where can I go to that I can better myself the most and that's going to allow me to learn and just work?" Freeman said. "I wanted a good environment. That's something I know that I get with Minnesota."
Peterson isn't the only offensive option, though. Jennings headlines a solid receiving corps and his 70-yard TD in London was the seventh of that distance in his career, tied for 5th in NFL history and first among active players. Mix in a solid second option in Simpson and an emerging tight end in Kyle Rudolph and you have a well-rounded unit.
Carolina's offense, meanwhile, is sputtering behind Newton, whose 78.4 passer rating would be the lowest of his career if it continues. Carolina is 27th in the NFL in scoring at 18.5 ppg and 24th in total offense with 329 ypg.
"I think it's more on my behalf that I have to focus in and hone in on my skills and say 'Look, let me focus more in the second half and get the job done,'" said Newton.
Coach Ron Rivera, perhaps trying to protect his embattled signal caller, deflected things toward the banged-up offensive line, which has surrendered 15 sacks and will be missing left guard Amini Silatolu, who is out for the rest of the season Monday due to a torn right ACL. The group was already shorthanded after losing right guard Garry Williams in Week 1.
The Vikings defense has forced 12 turnovers through first 4 games, which ranks fourth in the NFL. Two players Newton will have to watch out for our ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison.
Allen is coming off his 2 1/2-sack performance against Pittsburgh, while Robison, is fresh off signing a four-year extension worth up to $28 million.
The Vikings are flirting with disaster by igniting this QB controversy but something had to be done because there was no evidence things were going to turn around with Ponder.
The thought process is that Cassel is enough of a professional to steward things in the now before giving the keys to Freeman, an enormous talent dumped in Minnesota's lap by Schiano's my-way-or-the-highway approach.
Carolina could definitely take advantage of the strange circumstances and get things going against the Vikings porous pass defense but the more likely outcome is that Minnesota gets it done on its home field.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 24, Panthers 17
10/10 14:07:28 ET