NFL Preview - Carolina (3-7-1) at Minnesota (4-7) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Life isn't always fair.
At 3-7-1 on the season the Carolina Panthers are just one-half game out of first place in the dreadful NFC South. Conversely the Minnesota Vikings are a tick better at 4-7 and all but dead and buried in the tough NFC North.
The Panthers will arrive in the Twin Cities well rested and coming off an always advantageous late bye week, something made even more sweet when the rest of the NFC South -- New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay -- lost in Week 12 while Cam Newton and Co. were watching.
Currently the Saints and Falcons are tied atop the division at 4-7 with the Bucs bringing up the rear behind the Panthers at 2-9.
Carolina is a step behind Atlanta because of a 19-17 Week 11 home loss to the Falcons in which Matt Bryant connected on four field goals, including a 44- yarder late in the fourth quarter to lift Atlanta.
Newton struggled for much of the game, but did have two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and finished the game 23-for-37 for 292 yards with two interceptions for the Panthers, who have lost five straight overall after tying a game against Cincinnati in Week 6.
"We've just got to play better, as a team, as a group and take that challenge personally," said Newton. "I know I'm better than how I'm playing. We just have to get things going."
Newton's second touchdown pass of the fourth quarter had given the Panthers a 17-16 lead with 6:20 to play.
The Falcons' Matt Ryan, though, was able to get his team into scoring position, thanks in part to three receptions by Harry Douglas for 29 yards. Bryant booted the 44-yarder in with 2:08 to play for a 19-17 lead.
The Panthers were able to get into field goal range on their ensuing touch, thanks in part to catches of 15 yards and 17 yards from Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin, respectively. Graham Gano, though, missed a 46-yarder just to the left with 1:22 to play.
"This was a tough one to swallow," said Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. "I talked to the players about this and told them we're still in the middle of it, believe it or not, but we've got to start taking care of our own end first."
In Minnesota, things haven't gone as expected this season under first-year coach Mike Zimmer.
The Vikings were planning to lean on MVP candidate Adrian Peterson running behind veteran Matt Cassel at quarterback with second-year stud Cordarrelle Patterson serving as an over the top threat outside the numbers.
Instead Peterson's personal issues have taken him out of the equation, Cassel broke his foot early in the season and Patterson has not developed, leaving Zimmer relying on rookies Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick McKinnon at quarterback and running back respectively, as well as first-year receiver Charles Johnson.
Despite that Minnesota has remained very competitive and gave Green Bay, perhaps the NFC's best team, all it could handle in Week 12 before eventually succumbing 24-21.
Bridgewater went 21-for-37 for 210 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against the Packers. McKinnon ran it 15 times for 54 yards and Johnson had three catches for 52 yards and a score, along with a two-point conversion.
"I'm proud of the way the guys fought today," said Bridgewater. "We fell short and didn't make enough plays to win this game, but the effort was there. We just have to continue to get better each week and be a consistent football team."
The Vikings lead their all-time series with Carolina 6-5 but the Panthers have won two of the past three, including a 35-10 blowout last season when Newton threw for 242 yards and accounted for four TDs (three passing, one rushing).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Besides the obvious issue of not having Peterson, many of the Vikings' offensive issues stem from the poor play of the offensive line, particularly the left side where left tackle Matt Kalil is having a disastrous year and left guard Charlie Johnson has only been a bit better.
Kalil, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft who was a Pro Bowl player as a rookie, refused to comment after he was called for three penalties in the Vikings' loss to the Packers.
"Honestly, it was hard for me to see," Zimmer said. "The times when I watched him, (Kalil) seemed to be doing okay, but my eyes are looking at their coverage and the blitzes that they're doing and Teddy (Bridgewater)."
After the contest, however, Kalil was videotaped knocking a hat off a fan who had criticized his play.
"I usually shrug off that stuff," Kalil said. "Fans like to talk and say some things, but that's just something that I could have been a bigger man and walked away from. But it really wasn't that big of a deal. (The fan) just caught me when I had a short fuse that day."
Meanwhile the strength of the group, the right side, is now entirely gone after right tackle Phil Loadholt tore his pec against Green Bay last weekend. The big Oklahoma product joins right guard Brandon Fusco, who also tore a pec earlier this season, on the sidelines.
"The incident (Sunday) with the media thing and the fan, obviously a lot of frustration, losing a game like that, losing Phil in the game to injury and stuff like that," Kalil said. "So obviously I was a little upset, but I hope you guys didn't take anything personally. It was just one of those days, so I apologize for that."
All of that means Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner will be scaling back things even further with significant playing time for all three tight ends -- Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford -- with the intent on getting extra help for both Kalil and Mike Harris, a waiver pickup before the season who will replace Loadholt.
Making matters worse is that McKinnon, a raw but explosive runner is doubtful with a balky back injured while lifting weights. Matt Asiata is set to return after missing a game with a concussion but he's nothing more than a short- yardage back. Second-year man Joe Banyard and the recently acquired Ben Tate are the Vikings' other options in the backfield.
The Carolina defense isn't what it was in 2013 when the team finished 12-4 and won the NFC South, allowing 374.0 yards per game, good for 25th in football. The group, however, is well set up to handle a Vikings' attack which rarely stretches the field and, when it does, isn't all that effective because Bridgewater lacks accuracy down the football field.
Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the NFL with 436 tackles since entering the league in 2012, should be able to handle Minnesota's run game and when the Vikings' offense gets one-dimensional, things can get ugly. Minnesota comes in ranked 30th overall on offense with only the NFL's two one- win teams, Jacksonville and Oakland worse.
On the offensive side, the Panthers will certainly be helped by the extra rest because Newton clearly wasn't right physically before the bye.
Carolina has had its own issues with the offensive line, however, with yet another change looming for Sunday with Mike Remmers, a former deep reserve with the Vikings, in line to replace the injured Nate Chandler at right tackle. It will be the sixth different group the Panthers have used up front in six games.
The Vikings are much improved defensively from the group that was torched by Cam in 2013 (12th overall) but the unit still struggles at times with situational football and bigger receivers, something that could signal a big day for 6-foot-5 rookie wideout Benjamin, who has 52 catches for 768 yards and leads all freshman with eight TD catches.
"It's not about accepting anything. It's just realizing you have to be better," Newton said. "You can't get down on yourself because you're not getting the results. If anything you just got to keep going back to the lab and working on your craft and your product, and make that art shinier."
The Panthers were likely sitting at home last week amazed that they are still in the NFC South race and the fact that this game actually means something for them, along with the Vikings' dismal offensive line, should be the difference here.
"We control our own destiny, but this destiny is no easy catch," Newton said. "We have to be men about this. We have to be professionals about this and we've got to set the standard for ourselves to play at. And anything less than that is unacceptable."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Panthers 21, Vikings 17