The key to a Vikings victory at Carolina this weekend could lie with Minnesota's defense and its ability to rattle Panthers QB Sam Darnold.
Originally the No. 3 overall draft pick by the Jets in 2018, Darnold was traded to the Panthers this offseason. Through his first five games in Carolina Blue, the 24-year-old has the same number of interceptions (six) as he does passing touchdowns.
Darnold threw three interceptions last week against the Eagles, and ESPN's Courtney Cronin believes he may match that number of picks against Minnesota Sunday. Cronin wrote:
Darnold will notch his seventh career game with three interceptions, which will be the most by any quarterback since he entered the NFL in 2018. The Vikings pass rush ranks second with 3.4 sacks per game, and we saw how Darnold reverted back to his Jets form (i.e., holding onto the ball too long, making poor decisions) in Week 5 when he took blow after blow while facing pressure on 43 [percent] of his dropbacks. What Minnesota does up front will yield a big day on the backend of the defense in the form of multiple interceptions by the secondary.
Cronin's expectations of Darnold against the Vikings defense influenced her score prediction: Vikings 24, Panthers 21.
ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton also highlighted Minnesota's pass rush in this "what to watch for" note.
Keep an eye on Carolina's offensive line. It has given up eight sacks and 19 quarterback hits the past two weeks, a big reason for a two-game losing streak. The Vikings rank second in the NFL in sacks with 17, so they can get after the QB. The Panthers likely will have back the left side of their line (tackle Cameron Erving and guard Pat Elflein), but even with them, teams were getting pressure on Sam Darnold.
Despite his concerns about the Panthers o-line, though, Newton projected a narrow win for Carolina: Panthers 27, Vikings 24.
PFF: Vikings & Panthers 'both need this game'
This Sunday's game at Carolina is the Vikings final before the bye, and their schedule doesn't get any easier coming out of the break.
Neither does the Panthers, which is why analytics site Pro Football Focus emphasized that both Carolina and Minnesota will be desperate for a win. PFF's Ben Linsey wrote:
The Panthers and the Vikings are in the same cluster of teams competing for Wild Card spots in the NFC. Per PFF's simulations, the Panthers have the eighth-best chance of making the postseason in the NFC (31 percent), while the Vikings follow closely behind at 26 percent. And both teams face an uphill climb the rest of the way.
Carolina and Minnesota have two of the three hardest schedules in the league for the remainder of the year, making this a sneaky important game that could have playoff implications come the end of the season.
Linsey also highlighted a “matchup to watch" in which he echoed Cronin's sentiments on ESPN: "QB Sam Darnold vs. [Vikings Head Coach] Mike Zimmer's defense."
The past two weeks have re-set expectations for Darnold following his hot start to the season. He ranked as PFF's 11__th__-highest-graded quarterback during Carolina's 3-0 start, but the team's two losses have been accompanied by a 46.7 PFF grade from Darnold (last among qualifying quarterbacks).
Things don't get any easier against Minnesota. The Vikings rank third in expected points added (EPA) allowed per pass play through five weeks despite legitimate concerns about their secondary and ability to generate a pass rush coming into the season. Darnold can't afford to add to the five turnover-worthy plays he's produced over the past two weeks.