Vikings face Panthers eyeing NFC North crown

Minnesota and Carolina each won division titles last season and

have elite running backs and defensive ends.

The similarities end at quarterback. Gambles in the offseason by

both clubs are largely responsible for the Vikings (11-2) being on

the verge of clinching the NFC North when they visit the bumbling

Panthers (5-8) on Sunday night.

Brett Favre vs. the combination of Jake Delhomme and Matt Moore?

No contest.

“A great piece of the puzzle,” Vikings coach Brad Childress

said of his relentless offseason pursuit of the 40-year-old

Favre.

It’s been just puzzling for the Panthers, who made no attempt to

woo Favre despite Delhomme six-turnover meltdown in January’s

playoff loss to Arizona. Instead, Delhomme was given a lucrative

contract extension – only to commit five more turnovers in a

season-opening loss to Philadelphia.

Delhomme was up to 18 interceptions when he broke a finger on

his throwing hand Nov. 29 against the New York Jets. The

inexperienced Moore has guided Carolina to only two touchdowns in

two games.

So as Favre posts gaudy numbers and combines with running back

Adrian Peterson and defensive end Jared Allen to put the Vikings on

the verge of consecutive division crowns for the first time since

the glory days of the 1970s, the Panthers are downtrodden and

beaten up, leaving John Fox’s future uncertain.

Running back DeAngelo Williams is posting big numbers and

defensive end Julius Peppers has shown flashes of brilliance, but

horrible QB play has doomed Carolina in a miserable season.

“You consider everything at any position, whatever you can do,

whether it fits in to your salary cap situation,” Fox said when

asked why the team didn’t pursue Favre. “There are just a lot of

different things by a lot of different teams. But you consider

everything.”

While Fox evades questions and tries to deal with a makeshift

lineup minus 10 players on injured reserve, the Vikings roll into

Charlotte with plenty on the line.

Favre bounced back from an ugly performance in a blowout loss to

Arizona with a solid effort in a rout of Cincinnati last week. With

Favre sitting at 27 touchdown passes and just six interceptions,

the Vikings are one victory away from the NFC North crown. They

could have it wrapped up before they hit the field Sunday night if

Green Bay loses to Pittsburgh.

Minnesota can also clinch a first-round playoff bye with a

victory and a Philadelphia loss to San Francisco.

“We’re not that far away from the Sunday night football game

that we played poorly,” Childress said, warning of a letdown

similar to the Cardinals loss. “Every game in the National

Football League stands on its own. I don’t have any illusions about

the Carolina Panthers. We’ve played them the last couple of years

and I know how John has put that thing together down there.”

Only it’s fallen apart, with injuries another culprit.

Right tackle Jeff Otah became the latest casualty when he tore

cartilage in his left knee in last week’s loss at New England. With

left tackle Jordan Gross also out for the season, the Panthers will

have inexperienced Mackenzy Bernadeau at left guard and Geoff

Schwartz at right tackle in his first NFL start.

Throw in Moore, expected to start his third straight game ahead

of Delhomme, and an ineffective receiving corps after Steve Smith,

and it could be a productive evening for the Allen-led Vikings’

defense.

“Obviously, if the starters are out you want to take advantage

of that,” said Allen, second in the NFL with 12 1/2 sacks. “Our

game plan is very simple, it doesn’t change week to week. We want

to stop the run, get after the quarterback, be successful on first

and second downs, and create turnovers.”

Favre and Peterson found a happy medium in the 30-10 rout of the

Bengals. Despite being without receiver Percy Harvin (migraines),

Favre threw 30 times for 192 yards, one touchdown and one

interception. Peterson carried 26 times for 97 yards and two

scores.

That’ll likely pose problems for the Panthers, who could have

their 14th different defensive starting lineup in 14 games with

cornerback Richard Marshall hobbled by a sore ankle.

“You don’t have to be dominant in the pass game, but if you are

doing just enough of each …” Favre said. “Play-actions, you

don’t have to rush for 200 yards for a play-action to work. You

don’t have to be overpowering the run game for a bootleg to work.

It’s all about timing, the threat of that run, and being good at

both, being able to make one look like the other.”

It’s a kind of balance the Panthers have come nowhere near

achieving. While DeAngelo Williams has rushed for 1,104 yards

despite missing a game with an injury, the Panthers QBs have

combined for nine touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

And Moore vs. Favre hardly invokes great QB duels.

“I can’t be over there thinking about No. 4,” Moore said of

Favre. “He’s going to go out there and sling it. I know our

defense is going to be ready and hopefully we can go out there the

same on offense and run it and throw it around.”