As the Vikings get off the team buses today at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte, they know that with a win over the Carolina Panthers this afternoon, they will secure an NFC North division championship for the second time and three years and take yet another massive step to securing a first-round bye. However, they face an 8-4 Panthers team that trails the Saints by a game for first place in the NFC South, and will provide a stiff test on both sides of the ball.
In terms of a division title, the Vikings can clinch the crown by winning one more game or else losses by Detroit or Green Bay. The Lions travel to Tampa Bay today while Green Bay, who could get Aaron Rodgers back soon from his collar bone injury, head to Cleveland.
From a first-round bye perspective, the Vikings and Eagles both sit at 10-2, with the Vikings (for now) holding the edge via a tiebreaker, with the Saints and Rams both a game behind at 9-3. The Vikings, of course, hold victories over both of those teams. The Eagles playing the Rams today in Los Angeles, so very likely one of those two teams will pick up another loss by day's end.
Shifting the focus back to the task at hand for the Vikings, in order to fly home with a victory, keeping Panthers QB Cam Newton in check is high on the team's to-do list. Newton has struggled against the Vikings since Mike Zimmer came to town, as he's thrown one touchdown pass, four interceptions, and been sacked 12 times in a pair of Panther losses.
This year, Cam has seen some changes with his skill position players. Perhaps most notably is the addition of RB Christian McCaffrey, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He hasn't made a major impact on the ground, averaging less than seven carries per game, but he leads the team in catches with 64. The Vikings linebacker duo of Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have done a great job all season of limiting opposing running backs coming out of the backfield, but McCaffrey might be their toughest task of the season.
One player who may have been the team's top pass-catcher if not for injury is TE Greg Olson, who missed much of the year with a foot injury. He was a full participant in practice all week and will pose a downfield threat this afternoon.
Coming into this season, Kelvin Benjamin was thought to be maybe the team's best skill position player, but he was traded to Buffalo early in the season. Also gone is rookie WR Curtis Samuel, a second-round pick with high-end talent. His season ended due to ankle surgery last month.
As a team, the Panthers are fifth in the NFL in rushing offense, with veteran Jonathan Stewart and of course Newton himself more than capable of running the ball effectively. Newton leads the team with five rushing touchdowns and averages almost six yards per carry, and poses a much different type of challenge than many of the pocket passers the team has faced over the last several weeks.
One matchup that fans will be sure to keep an eye on up front will be Panthers LT Matt Kalil, who of course played the first five years of his career in Minnesota, going against Everon Griffen, who was his teammate both in Minnesota and at USC.
On the other side of the ball, Zimmer noted this week than the Panthers have a high blitz percentage on first, second and third down, so Case Keenum can expect five-plus pass-rushers coming at him maybe more than in other games this season.
Carolina's defense ranks sixth in the NFL in total defense and are sound against both the run (4th at 88.6 yards per game) and pass (7th at 209 yards per game), so from afar would appear to have real no weaknesses. Their linebacker duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis is one of the best one-two punches in the NFL, and should be disruptive in both the running and passing games.
Zimmer also sang the praises of their defensive tackles, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, with those two obviously contributing big-time to their ability to stuff the run. The Vikings were able to move the ball on the ground last week on the road against a Falcons team that also presents a talented front-seven. Establishing the run could go a long way to limiting the effectiveness of Carolina's blitzes, so hopefully the due of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon can find some running room.
Another familiar face to Vikings fans will be CB Captain Munnerlyn, who will join his other defensive backs in an effort to put the clamps on Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Both teams are relatively healthy for this time of season. For the Vikings, TE David Morgan (concussion) and T Mike Remmers (low back) are both out, while C Pat Elflein is questionable after being limited in practice all week due to a shoulder injury.
Carolina, meanwhile, will be without LB Shaq Thompson, who has been ruled out with a foot injury. C Ryan Kalil has been dealing with a neck injury and was limited in practice all week, and is expected to return to the lineup for the first time since Week 7. WR Devin Funchess popped up on the injury report on Friday with a shoulder injury that held him out of practice, but he's expected to start for the Panthers.
Stay with vikings.com and the Vikings App all day for complete game coverage, including live postgame press conferences from Charlotte.