The season's final quarter begins this week and the Vikings will travel to Carolina for their third consecutive road trip and their third consecutive game against a fellow NFC playoff hopeful. Here are five Vikings-Panthers storylines to watch in the buildup to this week's game.
1. For the Vikings, it's win and they're in
The Vikings won their eighth consecutive game and their fifth straight road contest last week to move to 10-2. And while he was complimentary of his team and expressed his pride in their effort, head coach Mike Zimmer also reminded his players they haven't actually accomplished any of their goals yet. The Vikings can attain the first goal on their list with a win in Carolina on Sunday. A victory over the Panthers would clinch the NFC North title for Minnesota and it would be the second time in three years they become NFC North champions. It would also guarantee the Vikings at least one home playoff game. The Vikings list of goals goes well beyond winning a division title, but you can't attain all of them if you don't get the first one.
2. Do the Vikings have Cam's Kryptonite?
The Vikings face one of the NFL's most dynamic players on Sunday – Cam Newton. He was rookie of the Year in 2011 and MVP the year he guided Carolina to the Super Bowl (2015). He's a three-time Pro Bowler with 203 career passing and rushing touchdowns. But he's not been at his best when facing Zimmer and the Vikings defense. In two games against the Vikings, Newton has completed only 55.7% of his passes (39 of 70) for an average of 228 passing yards per game with one touchdown and four interceptions for a passer rating of just 56.6. Newton has one rushing touchdown and has been sacked 12 times in those games, both losses. Newton has gotten a lot done in his career, but figuring out the Vikings defense is one item still left on his to-do list.
3. Rookie McCaffrey is a new wrinkle for Panthers offense
In the last two games against the Vikings, Carolina is averaging only 11.5 points per game, with just two offensive touchdowns. But for this matchup, the Panthers have a new weapon in their arsenal – rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. An All-American at Stanford, McCaffrey has wasted no time making an impact in the NFL. He's proven to be a true dual threat, with 64 receptions for 501 yards and four touchdowns to go along with his 82 touches for 284 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The Panthers can lineup their rookie running back anywhere in the formation, including as a slot receiver. This is a new dynamic in the Vikings-Panthers matchups, as Carolina running backs have accounted for only 12 receptions and 84 yards through the air in the last two matchups.
4. Teams on the run
It's a passing league and both the Vikings and Panthers have aerial attacks who can strike, but they both also tend to the running game on defense and offense. The Panthers enter Week 13 ranked No. 5 in rushing yards per game (127.8) and No. 4 in rushing yards allowed per game (88.6). The Vikings enter the week ranked No. 6 in rushing offense (122.8 yards per game) and No. 2 in rushing defense (77.7 yards per game allowed). On offense, both teams feature a committee approach at running back, with the Panthers using both McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart along with Newton. The Vikings have a two-back system that features Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray. McKinnon scored on a reception last week, but Murray has shouldered much of the load in terms of carrying the ball. In the last six games, Murray has rushed for 475 yards (third in the NFL) and five touchdowns (third in the NFL). It doesn't take a Ph.D in football to realize that whichever team experiences the most success in the running game – both defensively and offensively – will have an advantage on Sunday.
5. The Captain faces his old mates
It's the third time this storyline has been monitored, but the script is flipped for the Vikings this time around. Captain Munnerlyn will be going against his former team. Munnerlyn was drafted by the Panthers in 2009 but signed with the Vikings in 2014, where he then faced and helped defeat his original team twice. This past offseason, Munnerlyn hit free agency and decided to return to Carolina, which has set the stage for him see his old teammates once again, but this time it's his old Vikings teammates. It stands to reason that Munnerlyn, who plays almost exclusively in the slot, will spend plenty of time locked up with either Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen on Sunday, both of whom he practiced against every day while with the Vikings.