EAGAN, Minn. — There are only four winless teams in the NFL through three weeks. Coincidentally, they all match up in Week 4. Minnesota is visiting Carolina, and Chicago is hosting Denver in the battle between teams seeking their first wins.
For the Vikings, protecting the football is a must against a Panthers defense that has forced only two interceptions and zero fumbles. Carolina is missing several defensive starters, notably cornerback Jaycee Horn and safety Xavier Woods, the latter of whom played for the Vikings in 2021.
The Panthers (0-3) are looking for their first home victory since Dec. 24 against Detroit. Carolina's No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young missed last week's game at Seattle because of an ankle injury but fully participated in Wednesday's practice.
Minnesota is preparing for Young and veteran Andy Dalton, who started last week and threw for 361 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-27 loss.
Kickoff is set for noon (CT).
In a departure from their traditional road uniform, the Vikings will wear purple jerseys on white pants.
1. Avoiding 0-4: *The Vikings have plenty of time to climb out of the hole dug by going winless in their first month. The new 17-game schedule means 82.3 percent of the NFL season remains.
Minnesota still has all of its divisional games to play. After hosting the 49ers in Week 7, the Vikings face Green Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago and Las Vegas. Minnesota's final three games include two games against the Lions and a home matchup with Green Bay*.
"It is very easy to be in a situation where we're 0-3, and there is going to be a lot of noise about what that means long term," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said, "but we've got to find a way to worry about the little things first, and collectively build on those positive little things until it equals the result we need it to equal on Sunday."
Of course, Carolina can make a similar case. The Falcons, Saints, and Buccaneers all lost last week. The NFC South was the only division to have a sub-.500 winner last season.
Still, avoiding an 0-4 start is critical for each team's postseason chances.
2. Preparing for both QBs: *If Dalton plays, it will mark the fourth consecutive season the Vikings have faced the 2011 second-round pick.
The Vikings have won two consecutive games against Dalton. He completed 71.4 percent of his passes for the Saints before Minnesota outlasted New Orleans 28-25 in London last year. Dalton also started for an injured Justin Fields in Week 17 of the 2021 season versus Minnesota and threw the ball 48 times. Chicago lost 31-17.
In 2020, he helped the Cowboys beat Minnesota 31-28. Playing in place of an injured Dak Prescott, Dalton threw the game-winning touchdown with 1:37 remaining.
To prepare for Young, the Vikings can study the rookie's three preseason starts (seven drives) and Week 1 performance versus the Falcons. Carolina lost 24-10 as Young completed 20 of 38 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown.
"I think you've got to prepare for their overall scheme and then you may have a couple of things based on whether it's the veteran and rookie or a combination, you never know," O'Connell said. "But I know Bryce is a tough guy, trying to work his way back. My expectation is we better plan on seeing him and all that he brings, which is a lot from an athletic standpoint. [He is] very accurate, sees the whole field. I spent a lot of time when Bryce was [a draft prospect], just evaluating him and getting to know him. I was a big fan of his, and I expect him to have a really strong year."
3. A Thielen reunion: *Following the Panthersloss to Seattle last week, receiver Adam Thielen was asked for his thoughts on facing his former team.
"Next week kind of feels like a playoff game, to be honest," Thielen said, "just because both teams are fighting and scratching and clawing to find a way to get that first one on the board and change the momentum."
Thielen is set to face the only NFL team he knew before joining Carolina this offseason. The Vikings cut the 33-year-old veteran receiver ahead of free agency, ending a 10-year stint with his hometown team.
In Carolina, Thielen quickly became a team leader. He was voted a captain and has been praised for helping develop a fresh culture under new Head Coach Frank Reich. Thielen had his first 100-yard-plus game as a Panther last week. He grabbed 11 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown.
Expect Thielen to venture toward the Vikings side of the 50-yard line before kickoff. He probably won't have time for all the pre-game hugs and conversations earned by his storybook Vikings career.
Thielen ranks third in Vikings history in receptions (534) and receiving touchdowns (55) and fourth in receiving yards (6,682).
4. Oldest QB matchup of the season: *Kirk Cousins (age 35) versus Dalton (turning 36 Oct. 29) will be the oldest matchup of starting quarterbacks thus far in the 2023 season. Both offer an abundance of under-center veteran experience.
Aaron Rodgers (224), Matthew Stafford (194) and Russell Wilson (176) are the only active quarterbacks with more career starts than Dalton (163). Titans QB Ryan Tannehill (146) and new Saint Derek Car (145) are the only other active players with more starts than Cousins (140).
3 Things 'Bout the Panthers
1. They want to run but throw a lot: Last season, the Panthers won five of their final eight games by running the football and playing a bend-but-don't-break defensive style. For example, Carolina rushed for a franchise-record 320 yards in a Week 16 home win against the Lions.
The 2023 Panthers haven't established their running game.The team ranks 15th through three games.
The Panthers have carried the ball 65 times for 298 yards and a touchdown. Quarterbacks have accounted for seven carries and 62 yards in that total.
Carolina has yet to find much consistency across its offensive line. The group was considered a strength entering the season but has struggled with Reich's drop-back passing offense. The Panthers have started three different right guards.
Dalton, whose 58 pass attempts last week were a career-high, finished with 361 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle. He had five completions longer than 20 yards after the Panthers had managed just one in Young's two starts.
2. The defense is battling key injuries: Carolina's defense is going through a lot of changes. New Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero installed a 3-4 scheme during the offseason. But the team is enduring several key injuries at all three levels.
Carolina lost three more starters to injuries in the first half last week: Woods, CJ Henderson and linebacker Frankie Luvu. Panthers linebacker and defensive captain Shaq Thompson broke his fibula in Week 2 and is out for the season.
The team was already without Horn, it's 2021 first-round pick. The standout cornerback suffered a Week 1 hamstring injury and was put on Injured Reserve.
3. So many penalties: The Panthers committed eight false start penalties against the Seahawks, the most by any team since 2011.
Playing in Seattle against the Seahawks fans ("The 12s") impacted the game. Ikem Ekwonu, the team's second-year left tackle, was responsible for half of them, including a couple when he jumped while Dalton changed the play at the line.
Ekwonu blamed the false starts on an overall lack of focus. Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll credited the home crowd.
"One of the most obvious things that happened today was feeling the 12s," Carroll said. "God, what a great impact they had on this game. These guys had eight false starts in this game. And that's not us. We had nothing to do with that. They can't get coordinated because of the noise. What a great factor."
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Panthers.
Vikings passing offense is on a historic pace: Cousins leads the league in passing yards (1,075) and touchdowns (9). The Vikings offense ranks second in the explosive play rate (which measures how often a team has a pass of 16 yards or more or a run of 12-plus yards).
Minnesota has more explosive pass plays than the Miami Dolphins. Cousins' 17 completions of 20 or more yards leads the league. Twelve of those 17 big plays belong to Justin Jefferson.
Can the ground game keep rolling? Minnesota rushed for 130 yards, nearly doubling its season total entering Week 3. Running back Alexander Mattison accounted for 93 rushing yards on 23 carries. He also added 23 yards via five receptions.
Last week, the Seahawks gained a season-high 146 rushing yards against the Panthers. Kenneth Walker III gashed Carolina for 98 yards and two scores.
1 Talking Point
"I think we've got the guys to do it. My expectation is we will, but me standing up here talking about it certainly is not going to do a whole heck of a lot about that. And our players talking about it, we've got to ignore the noise and push forward and do it with a purpose and a mentality that we're going to fix some of the issues that we've had that have contributed to us losing these games, and find a way to continue doing some of the things we're doing well. Do that better and fix some of the problems that we have, and collectively, I think we're going to find the results are out there for us as a team."
– Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell when asked about bouncing back from 0-3 start
In addition to Thielen and Woods, the Panthers also have former Vikings receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette on their roster. Panthers Senior Defensive Assistant Dom Capers held the same role with the Vikings in 2020.
Vikings tight ends coach Brian Angelichio coached Panthers tight ends from 2020-21, and inside linebackers coach Mike Siravo was Carolina's Senior Defensive Assistant last season.
The Vikings are 10-6 all-time against the Panthers and 3-3 when visiting Carolina.