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NFL Preview - Minnesota (11-2) at Carolina (5-8)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Minnesota Vikings have an opportunity to redeem themselves after an uncharacteristically poor performance in their last primetime appearance. Atonement will probably be the furthest thing on the team's mind, however, when the NFC North front-runners enter Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium this Sunday to face the disappointing Carolina Panthers.
Minnesota's most recent venture into Sunday Night Football wasn't a pleasant experience, as the Vikings were outplayed by a motivated Arizona Cardinals club and dealt only their second loss of the season, a 30-17 setback back in Week 13.
The veteran Vikings were able to bounce back nicely this past Sunday, however, by delivering a convincing 30-10 triumph over AFC North leader Cincinnati at the Metrodome. A stifling defense held the Bengals to just 210 total yards and a mere 91 through the air, while workhorse running back Adrian Peterson churned out 97 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
The win secured a postseason berth for Minnesota, now 11-2 on the season, and the Vikes can wrap up a second straight NFC North crown by downing the Panthers or if rival Green Bay falls to Pittsburgh on Sunday. A victory over Carolina combined with a Philadelphia loss to San Francisco over the weekend would clinch Minnesota a first-round bye in the upcoming conference playoffs.
There will be no postseason football for the Panthers, a team which captured the 2008 NFC South title with a 12-4 regular-season mark a year ago. Injuries and erratic play at a number of key positions -- particularly at quarterback -- have ensured Carolina a non-winning record in 2009 and yielded questions about the job security of the long-running regime of head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.
The Panthers were officially eliminated from the playoff fray with last week's 20-10 loss at New England, the team's third defeat in its last four games. Young quarterback Matt Moore, making a second straight start in place of the ailing and turnover-prone Jake Delhomme, completed just 15-of-30 throws for 197 yards, 41 of which came on a first-quarter touchdown delivery to top wide receiver Steve Smith.
Moore is expected to be back under center for Sunday's tilt, with Delhomme still bothered by a broken finger on his throwing hand sustained in Carolina's 17-6 loss to the New York Jets on November 29.
Fox is hoping a return home can boost his sagging team's fortunes, as the Panthers are 11-3 in regular-season games at Bank of America Stadium since the start of the 2008 campaign.
The Vikings have been a tough out on the road, however, having posted wins in seven of their last nine trips to visiting venues dating back to last season.
The Vikings lead the all-time series with the Panthers, 5-3, and have won the last two head-to-head meetings, including a 20-10 home win in Week 3 of last season. The Panthers' most recent win in the series came in 2005, when they were 38-13 winners in a game that marks the only matchup between the teams to played in Charlotte. That tilt is best remembered for the serious knee injury suffered by then-quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
Fox is 2-2 in his career against the Vikings, while the Vikings' Brad Childress is 2-0 against both Fox and Carolina as a head man.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
A productive and efficient offense has helped carry Minnesota to the NFC's second-best record in 2009, with the team ranking second in scoring (29.9 ppg) and sixth in total yards (379.0) while committing only 14 turnovers, the second-fewest in the NFL. Peterson's (1200 rushing yards, 14 TD, 34 receptions) powerful running has complemented Brett Favre's (3341 passing yards, 27 TD, 6 INT) precise operation of Childress' West Coast scheme, while wide receiver Sidney Rice (67 receptions, 1075 yards, 5 TD) has emerged as a breakout star in his third pro season. Favre is enjoying one of the statistically-best seasons of his storied 19-year career, although the 40- year-old may be showing signs of slowing down some with his recent efforts. Two of his six interceptions this season came in the Arizona game, and the three-time league MVP was a pedestrian 17-of-30 for 192 yards against the Bengals last week. It didn't help that Favre was without electrifying rookie Percy Harvin (48 receptions, 8 total TD) last week, and the versatile first- round pick will likely again be inactive on Sunday due to recurring migraine headaches. The Vikings still don't lack weapons in the passing game, with speedy wideout Bernard Berrian (47 receptions, 4 TD) lined up opposite Rice and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (42 receptions, 9 TD) a capable pass-catcher who often shines within the red zone.
Look for Peterson and trusty backup Chester Taylor (291 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 2 total TD) to get plenty of work against a struggling Carolina defense that's an unwanted 26th overall versus the run (137.3 ypg) and has surrendered over 150 rushing yards in four of the past five weeks, including 185 to the Patriots last Sunday. A season-ending ACL tear to standout weakside linebacker Thomas Davis in early November was a crippling blow to the front seven, while accomplished middle linebacker Jon Beason (118 yards, 2 sacks, 3 INT) hasn't gotten much help from an interior line that's also been hit hard by injuries. The Panthers have been much more formidable against the pass, with cornerbacks Chris Gamble (48 tackles, 4 INT, 9 PD) and Richard Marshall (67 tackles, 3 INT) providing sound coverage to a unit that stands sixth in the NFL in yards allowed through the air (192.4 ypg), while four-time Pro Bowl end Julius Peppers (35 tackles, 8.5 sacks) is a premier disruptor and pass rusher. Marshall may miss Sunday's tilt, however, after spraining an ankle in the New England game, but strongside linebacker Na'il Diggs (26 tackles) and starting end Tyler Brayton (37 tackles, 4 sacks) appear ready to return from injuries that caused them to sit out against the Patriots.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina will once again try to ease the burden on Moore (421 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT), who has just five career NFL starts to his credit, by unleashing a dangerous ground game centered around the excellent backfield duo of DeAngelo Williams (1104 rushing yards, 7 TD, 28 receptions) and Jonathan Stewart (693 rushing yards, 7 TD, 14 receptions). The inside-outside tandem averages over 145 yards per game combined and has helped give the Panthers the NFL's fourth- ranked rushing offense. The two won't have one of the team's best blockers to run behind on Sunday, though, as mammoth right tackle Jeff Otah had to be placed on injured reserve on Tuesday after injuring his knee last weekend. His loss also weakens the Panthers in protection, an already vulnerable area due to the season-ending broken leg All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross incurred last month. The Panthers' problems at the quarterback spot have often neutralized the dynamic abilities of Smith (51 receptions, 5 TD), an elite game-breaking wide receiver, as has the team's troubles in finding a pass-catching threat to help free the four-time Pro Bowler up. Carolina's second-leading receiver has been the aging Muhsin Muhammad (41 receptions), with young tight end Dante Rosario (25 receptions, 2 TD) serving as an occasional third option.
Minnesota may be able to counter the Panthers' strong rushing attack with a sturdy defense that's yielded a scant 86.9 yards per game (4th overall) on the season, although the team did endure a significant loss up front when valuable middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (83 tackles, 2 sacks) broke his leg against the Cardinals two weeks back. The Vikings still possess two terrific tackles in the combo of Kevin Williams (28 tackles, 6 sacks) and Pat Williams (43 tackles, 2 sacks), who have been to seven Pro Bowls between them, and a pair of quality outside linebackers in Chad Greenway (76 tackles, 2 INT) and Ben Leber (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Minnesota also excels at getting after the quarterback, with relentless end Jared Allen (40 tackles, 12.5 sacks) and counterpart Ray Edwards (42 tackles, 6.5 sacks) heading up a contingent that tops the NFL with 41 sacks. The Vikings have been suspect at times in the secondary, but hard-hitting cornerback Antoine Winfield's (39 tackles, 1 INT) long-awaited return from a foot sprain has helped solidify things. The veteran cover man made an immediate impact upon coming back last week, amassing nine tackles and forcing a fumble against Cincinnati. Rookie safety Jamarca Sanford (21 tackles), starting in place of concussed regular Tyrell Johnson (48 tackles, 1 INT), also had nine stops and could be in line for an increased role down the stretch.
Peterson owners surely haven't sat their franchise fantasy back at any point of this season, and they're certainly not going to during the playoff season in a matchup with a notoriously soft run defense. Favre's season track record says give the ironman the go-ahead as well, but optimism should be tempered due to Carolina's toughness versus the pass and his slight dropoff in the last two weeks. Harvin has to be sat and probably won't play, but both Rice and Shiancoe are solid choices with Berrian more of a risky proposition among the Minnesota receivers. Start the Vikings' defense, which gets a low-scoring team with a relatively inexperienced quarterback playing behind a patchwork front line. For the Panthers, DeAngelo Williams is good enough to get his points regardless of the opponent and should be in all lineups this week. Give a thumbs-down to Stewart, though, as he could be limited by a toe injury in addition to a difficult test from the Vikings' front seven. Smith is worth using despite his team's heavy emphasis on the run, but Moore and any other Carolina receiver are not.
With Green Bay and Philadelphia keeping the heat on with their respective winning streaks, the Vikings know they can't afford a letdown here even with a division title and first-round bye squarely in their sights. Minnesota matches up very well with the battered Panthers, with a defense fully capable of shutting down their opponent's vital ground game and a running back well- equipped to continuously move the chains on Carolina's shaky stop unit. Add in the fact that the Panthers will be minus both their starting offensive tackles -- a scary proposition against the league's leader in sacks -- and another tough night in what's been a season of hard times could await the reigning NFC South champs.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 23, Panthers 9
12/17 21:06:05 ET
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