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5 Vikings-Panthers Storylines: Eyes on Statuses of Cook & McCaffrey

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings (2-3) are scheduled to visit the Panthers (3-2) at noon (CT) Sunday for a Week 6 matchup that could prove to be pivotal down the line.

Minnesota is trying to build off the momentum of its 19-17 walk-off win Sunday against Detroit.

Carolina opened by winning its first three games of 2021 (Jets, Saints and at Texans) before dropping its past two to the Cowboys in Dallas and Eagles at home.

After opening 1-3 for a second consecutive year, Minnesota has a chance to reach the .500 mark and earn a tiebreaker over a potential competitor for a spot in the NFC Playoffs before entering its Week 7 bye.

Vikings uniform combination: White jerseys and white pants

Matchup to watch: Vikings offense versus the Panthers defense on third downs

The Vikings have converted 27 of 69 third downs they've faced, a rate of 39.1 percent that ranks 19th in the NFL.

Minnesota was 5-for-13 (38.5 percent) against Detroit, which entered the Week 5 game ranked second in the NFL in third-down defense. Three of those conversions occurred on Minnesota's first two drives, which yielded a pair of field goals.

Interestingly, the Vikings were able to avoid third down on their lone touchdown drive against the Lions.

Carolina leads the NFL in third-down defense with an allowance of just 25.5 percent (14 conversions on 55 tries). That's 5.1 percentage points better than Detroit.

Sustaining drives is so important, especially on the road, and will be so against a Panthers squad that also leads the NFL in average time of possession at 34 minutes, 51 seconds. Cleveland, which is second at 34:46, held the ball for 35:32 against Minnesota in Week 4.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Panthers.

Here are five Vikings-Panthers storylines to follow in Week 6.

1. How are the RBs?

Two of the NFL's brightest young stars — Vikings RB Dalvin Cook and Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey — have each missed two full games already this season.

Cook has been dealing with an ankle injury he suffered in Week 2 and battled through at Arizona. McCaffrey injured his hamstring in Week 3 at Houston and has been sidelined since.

The members of the 2017 NFL Draft class are dynamic weapons in the running game and as receivers, so defenses have to account for them at all times.

Cook was questionable before not playing Sunday. He had participated in practice on a limited basis Friday. Will Minnesota try to get through another game without him to give him the benefit of a bonus week of rest for a tough stretch after the bye? Or will he be a full-go?

McCaffrey was limited all of last week and listed as doubtful ahead of Carolina's game against Philadelphia.

2. Defense taking shape?

The Vikings defense allowed 30.5 points per game in Weeks 1-2 but bounced back with an average of 16.0 over the course of the next three weeks.

Is that a sign of a defense with so many new pieces taking shape, the difference between playing at home vs. on the road, a function of whom the Vikings have faced, Cleveland missing on some throws that were there, or more?

Could be all of the above, but it's a trend that is beginning to resemble when Minnesota has been at its best under Head Coach Mike Zimmer.

3. Create more downs for Darnold

Minnesota's ability to affect passers in the past three games has been significant.

The Vikings have allowed one touchdown pass in their past three games. Although Russell Wilson posted a passer rating of 111.2, he was affected in Week 3.

Baker Mayfield and Jared Goff did not throw touchdowns against Minnesota and were held to season-low passer ratings of 59.5 and 60.4, respectively.

This week's foe, Sam Darnold, has had ups and downs in his first five games in Carolina. In the past two games, Darnold has thrown five interceptions and been sacked eight times. The Eagles limited him to a passer rating of 44.5 on Sunday.

Darnold faced Minnesota as a rookie with the Jets in 2018 and was limited to a passer rating of 34.4 after completing 17 of 42 passes (40.5 percent) with one touchdown and three interceptions.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.

4. Plan at left tackle?

Vikings practices have limited open windows to media during the regular season, so there hasn't been an opportunity to see what Minnesota has been doing at left tackle with Rashod Hill and Christian Darrisaw.

The players have been rotating with the first team in recent practices, but center Garrett Bradbury explained that's not that out of the norm.

"Not one person takes every single rep because you always — you never know if someone needs a shoelace or something, so everyone's always rotating in there, getting different reps, so it wasn't like that was foreshadowing," Bradbury said Monday. "It was just, that's what the coaches went with, and I thought both of them played really well."

Hill has started all five games, but Darrisaw worked his way into a rotation Sunday after rehabbing a groin injury.

Hill was on the field for Minnesota's game-winning drive; Darrisaw manned the spot during the Vikings touchdown drive against Detroit.

Will the Vikings proceed with Hill as the starter and continue to try to mix in some reps for Darrisaw, or do they think the first-round pick is ready for an even bigger role?

5. Emerge from the doldrums

The scoring drought for the Vikings in second halves has been one of the biggest problems (along with allowing 38 of the 109 points against have occurred inside the 2-minute warnings of first halves).

Minnesota has not scored an offensive touchdown in a second half since Week 1 at Cincinnati.

Aside from the opener, there have been some impressive drives to start games with touchdowns on their first possessions in Weeks 2, 3 and 4, plus a field goal in Week 5.

Minnesota has shown it can score, but it needs to open second halves better than the following (except the Seattle game) to avoid the doldrums setting in:

At Cincinnati: six plays before punting

At Arizona: four plays before punting

Vs. Seattle: 16 plays before kicking a field goal

Vs. Cleveland: three plays before punting

Vs. Detroit: three plays before punting