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Early Look: Vikings at Panthers

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer preaches a week-to-week approach with his team, often saying that his team always needs to be focused on the task at hand.

The mindset has worked out well for Minnesota so far as the Vikings are 2-0 after wins over Tennessee and Green Bay.

While there are still 14 games left in the regular season, early wins can be a boost is helping the push toward the playoffs. The Vikings are one of eight teams who sit at 2-0 (New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston, Denver, the New York Giants and Philadelphia are the others).

The Vikings will have to be at their best this Sunday as they travel to Carolina to face the defending NFC champions.

The Panthers are 1-1, and went 15-1 in the regular season in 2015.

Here's an early look at the matchup:

Passing

Vikings quarterback Kyle Rudolph made his Minnesota debut Sunday night against Green Bay, completing 22 of 31 passes for 286 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Bradford, acquired from Philadelphia in a trade earlier this month, set a franchise record for most passing yards in a player's first game with the Vikings.

Bradford wasn't afraid to look for the deep ball against the Packers, as he completed a pair of 40-plus yard passes to Stefon Diggs to help open up the offense. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Bradford is expected to be the starter going forward.

Carolina will counter with a former No. 1 pick of its own in Cam Newton, the top selection in 2011. Newton was the league MVP in 2015 after throwing for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns against 10 interceptions for a career-best passer rating of 99.4. He also rushed for 636 yards and another 10 scores.

Newton is coming off a strong game against San Francisco in which he threw for 353 yards and four touchdowns while leading the Panthers offense to a 46-point outburst.

Rushing

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson left Sunday's game against Green Bay with a torn meniscus. His status for this week's game is unknown. Before the injury, Peterson had 12 carries for 19 yards against the NFL's top-ranked run defense.

If Peterson is unable to play, the Vikings will likely rely on running backs Jerick McKinnon and Nick Easton. The duo performed well when given significant playing time in 2014, combining for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns.

Carolina is expected to be without its leading rusher from a year ago. Jonathan Stewart is battling a hamstring injury. Stewart ran for 989 yards and six touchdowns in 2015. Fozzy Whittaker rushed 16 times for 100 yards and added three receptions for 31 yards against the 49ers last week.

Newton has rushed 17 times for 91 yards and a touchdown so far this season.

Both teams are known for running the ball effectively. The Panthers finished second in the league in 2015 with 142.6 rushing yards per game, while the Vikings were fourth at 138.2 rushing yards per game.

Receiving

Vikings second-year wide receiver Stefon Diggs leads the NFL in receiving yards through the first two weeks of the season. The former fifth-round pick has 285 yards after catching nine balls for 182 yards and a touchdown Sunday against Green Bay. Diggs became the first Minnesota player to record 180-plus receiving yards and a touchdown in a game since Randy Moss in 1998.

Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph has also had a strong start to the season with seven catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Adam Thielen has recorded eight catches for 95 yards. 

The Panthers have a pair of pass-catching threats at their disposal. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin missed all of last season with an ACL injury but has flourished so far in 2016 with 13 catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-foot-5 Benjamin was a first-round pick in 2014.

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen is also one of Newton's favorite targets. The veteran has 12 catches for 195 yards and a touchdown so far this season. Olsen has 6,487 career receiving yards and 50 career touchdown catches.

Defense

Dating back to last season and including the Wild Card game, the Vikings have limited their past six opponents to 17 or fewer points. Minnesota enters Week 3 ranked fifth in total yards allowed, sixth in rushing yards allowed and 10th in passing yards allowed.

The Vikings lead the NFL with four fumble recoveries with two at Tennessee and two against Green Bay. Minnesota is tied for fourth in the league with seven sacks. Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter have each recorded a sack in both games.

Almost any discussion of the Panthers defense starts with linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has 21 tackles (14 solo), one TFL, an interception and a pass defended. Kuechly had four interceptions, including a pick-six, in 2015. He is joined by 12-year veteran Thomas Davis and second-year pro Shaq Thompson.

The Panthers have an active front four and an opportunistic secondary. Davis, James Bradberry and Bene' Benwikere also have interceptions this season. Carolina ranks seventh in the NFL in total yards allowed, is tied for 17th in rush yards allowed and is seventh in pass yards allowed.

Special teams

Kevin McDermott is 5-for-7 in field goals, with one of the misses a 56-yard attempt at Tennessee, and 3-for-4 on extra points.

Cordarrelle Patterson is leading the NFL with 41 yards per kickoff return (three for 163), nearly double the 23.2 the Vikings are allowing on opponent kickoff returns. 

Kevin McDermott tied a franchise record with five punts downed inside an opponent's 20-yard line against the Packers.

Graham Gano is 6-for-7 on field goals and 6-for-7 on extra points this season.

Ted Ginn, Jr. is averaging 19.9 yards on seven kickoff returns, which is a little more than the 16.5 average allowed on four kickoff returns by opponents. 

Andy Lee, who is new to Carolina this season, is averaging 53.6 yards on seven punts, and the Panthers have netted 44.1 on those kicks. Lee uncorked a 76-yarder in the season opener at Denver. Lee had an 81-yard punt as a rookie with the 49ers in 2004 and an 82-yarder in 2008.**

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

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Over the Years

Minnesota leads Carolina 7-5 in the overall series. After winning their first three games against the Panthers, the Vikings have alternated wins and losses over the past four games of the series.

Carolina became an expansion franchise in 1995 and played the Vikings that same season. Minnesota won 14-12 behind a pair of touchdown catches from Cris Carter.

View exclusive images shot by the team photographer from the 12th game of 2014 as the Vikings took on the Panthers at TCF Bank Stadium.

Last Meeting: Vikings 31, Panthers 13, Nov. 30, 2014, in Minneapolis

The Vikings special teams were superb on this 12-degree Fahrenheit day. Minnesota blocked two punts and returned both for touchdowns.

Minnesota got on the board in the first quarter with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Stefon Diggs to Rudolph. Adam Thielen then blocked and returned a punt 30 yards later in the quarter to put the Vikings up 14-0.

Jasper Brinkley later blocked another punt that Everson Griffen returned 43 yards for a score and a 21-3 lead. Bridgewater added a 17-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings, and Blair Walsh made a 39-yard field goal to complete the scoring for the Vikings.

Minnesota kept Newton in check for the most part in the game, holding him to 194 passing yards and a touchdown, along with 49 rushing yards.

After losing to the Vikings, Carolina rattled off an 18-game regular-season win streak that ended in Week 15 of last season.

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