The Vikings (4-6) will continue a three-game homestand by hosting the Panthers (4-7) on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
This is Carolina's first trip to Minnesota since 2014, a game that was played outdoors at the University of Minnesota. That 31-13 victory by the Vikings was in the middle of a three-game homestand. Coincidentally, that was the last time Minnesota hosted opponents in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
Here are five storylines to watch this week, as well as a link below to the game preview by the Vikings PR staff and a list of connections between the teams.
1. Big-name status
Adam Thielen scored his first NFL touchdown against the Panthers when he blocked a punt and returned it 30 yards in the 2014 game. The receiver has since become a two-time Pro Bowler who leads the NFL with 11 receiving touchdowns this season.
Thielen was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday, making his status for the game unclear.
Vikings fullback C.J. Ham was in a similar position last week but cleared last Saturday to play against Dallas in Week 11.
There are plenty of eyes on the status of a couple of Panthers, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (more on him in a moment) and running back Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2019 after finishing his third pro season with the most offensive touches (403), yards from scrimmage (2,392) and rushing/receiving touchdowns (19). The eighth overall pick of 2017 became the third player in NFL history to post 1,000-plus rushing and 1,000-plus receiving yards in one season.
He's only played in three games in 2020 (Weeks 1-2 and 9) but has averaged 124.7 scrimmage yards and totaled six touchdowns in those games.
Mike Davis, who ranks second among NFL running backs with 49 receptions this season, is next in line if McCaffrey is a no-go.
The first injury reports of the week will be released later today.
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Panthers.
2. Teddy returns?
Carolina Head Coach Matt Rhule said Bridgewater is expected to practice this week after missing last week's 20-0 win against Detroit with a knee injury.
Sunday could be Bridgewater's first start against the team that drafted him in the first round in 2014. The quarterback suffered a dislocated knee in a non-contact injury on Aug. 30, 2016, just before his third pro season. The injury created a domino effect across the NFL and tested Bridgewater's will.
He passed the test and was rewarded with three snaps from the victory formation in 2017 when Minnesota clinched the NFC North against Cincinnati.
Bridgewater has a passer rating of 100 or higher in four of five starts on the road this season, his first as Carolina's starter. If he can't go, the Panthers could again turn to P.J. Walker, who won his first NFL start after passing for 258 yards last week. Walker (2013-16) and receiver Robby Anderson (2013-15) played for Rhule at Temple.
Minnesota native Brandon Zylstra is also poised to play against a Vikings squad that he played for in 2018. Former Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly signed with the Panthers in free agency but was added to Injured Reserve on Nov. 13.
3. Still Cooking?
There's been a lot of Dalvin Cook on the Vikings menu.
"The Chef" has recorded 750 scrimmage yards in Minnesota's four games out of its Week 7 bye. That's a team record for a four-game stretch. He is one of three running backs with 100-plus scrimmage yards in six games this season. Cook has scored at least one rushing touchdown in his past 10 home games.
Last week, he accounted for 27 of Minnesota's 29 rush attempts and has totaled 122 touches since Week 8.
Will he be full-bore again, or might the Vikings pepper in a few more touches by other backs? It could depend on the situations in the game.
4. Cleaner and more clutch
The Vikings seemed to emerge from their bye with a reduction of mistakes that had led to a 1-5 start.
Cleaner football enabled a three-game win streak against NFC North foes, but critical miscues in every phase undermined a statistically strong offensive performance against Dallas in a costly 31-28 loss.
The decision was the third this season that the Vikings have lost in the final two minutes of play, joining Week 3 against Tennessee and Week 5 at Seattle.
So many games each week come down to clutch moments — there have been 28 games across the league decided in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime this season — and Minnesota's youth at some key positions has shown up down the stretch.
5. Now or (almost) never
The Vikings are running out of wiggle room if they intend to return to the NFC Playoffs.
Minnesota has not repeated trips to the postseason since 2008-09. This year's squad already has the same number of losses as a year ago with six games remaining.
The one-point losses to the Titans and Seahawks, who are both 7-3 entering Week 12, loom much larger in the Win-Loss columns. The Vikings are currently in ninth place in the NFC standings (the top seven teams will make the playoffs for the first time this season), so there's still a chance at a late-season run, but there's also little room for error.
Vikings C Garrett Bradbury (Charlotte) and T Olisaemeka Udoh (Fayetteville) grew up in North Carolina. G Dakota Dozier is from West Columbia, South Carolina.
Panthers WR Brandon Zylstra attended New London-Spicer High School before playing collegiately at Concordia-Moorhead.
Panthers RB Rodney Smith played at the University of Minnesota.
Vikings WR Adam Thielen teamed with Panthers G Chris Reed at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
Carolina QB Teddy Bridgewater (2014-17), DE Stephen Weatherly (2016-19) [IR] and WR Brandon Zylstra (2018) played for Minnesota.
Vikings Senior Defensive Assistant Dom Capers was the first head coach in Panthers history. Capers led Carolina from 1995-98.
Vikings Senior Defensive Assistant Dom Capers coached Panthers Defensive Passing Game Coordinator Jason Simmons with the Texans and then worked with him in Green Bay. Capers' time with the Packers also overlapped for two seasons with Panthers tight ends coach Brian Angelichio.
Minnesota Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf was in Cleveland during part of Carolina wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson's playing career. Maalouf also worked with Panthers Senior Offensive Assistant/RBs coach Jeff Nixon in Miami. Jackson also played in Cleveland when Minnesota running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu and Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson were with the Browns.
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins overlapped with Panthers quarterbacks coach Jake Peetz for one season in Washington.
Minnesota Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line coach Rick Dennison, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, tight ends coach Brian Pariani, assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher and punter Britton Colquitt overlapped with Carolina T Russell Okung, G Michael Schofield and C Matt Paradis in Denver.
Colquitt and Panthers S Juston Burris teamed together for two seasons with the Browns.
Vikings RB Ameer Abdullah and Panthers LB Tahir Whitehead were Lions teammates.
Minnesota QB Sean Mannion and Carolina WR Pharoh Cooper are former Rams.
Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule coached Vikings DT James Lynch (2017-19) and CB Harrison Hand (2017-18) at Baylor. Rhule, who was the head coach at Temple from 2013-16 and Baylor from 2017-19, built his staff with numerous assistant coaches from either or both schools. The list includes Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow, linebackers coach Mike Siravo, assistant special teams coach Ed Foley, cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper, assistant defensive line coach Frank Okam, Senior Offensive Assistant/RBs coach Jeff Nixon, receivers coach Frisman Jackson, assistant quarterbacks coach Matt Lombardi, coaching assistants Cedric Whitaker, E.J. Barthel and Grant Udinski, as well as assistant to the head coach Matthew Delgado.
Vikings WR Justin Jefferson played at LSU with Panthers Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady serving as the Tigers passing game coordinator and with Carolina coaching assistant DJ Mangas as an offensive analyst in 2019.
Minnesota LB Hardy Nickerson played one season at Illinois, overlapping with Carolina defensive line coach Mike Phair.
Vikings TE Irv Smith, Jr., overlapped at Alabama with Panthers quarterbacks coach Jake Peetz in 2018.
Minnesota Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf was at Rutgers when Barthel was a player. Maalouf also overlapped with Foley at Fordham.
Vikings DE D.J. Wonnum at South Carolina with Panthers P Joseph Charlton and G Dennis Daley
Hand at Temple in 2019 with Carolina LB Sam Franklin and TE Colin Thompson
Vikings DT Jalyn Holmes and Panthers WR Curtis Samuel at Ohio State
Jefferson at LSU with Carolina CB Donte Jackson
Minnesota C Garrett Bradbury and Carolina S Juston Burris at N.C. State
Vikings RB Dalvin Cook and Panthers DE Brian Burns at Florida State
Minnesota LB Ryan Connelly and Carolina LB Chris Orr at Wisconsin
Vikings K Dan Bailey and Panthers T Russell Okung at Oklahoma State
Minnesota WR Dan Chisena and Carolina DE Yetur Gross-Matos at Penn State