Preview: Vikings can clinch division with win over Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Case Keenum’s improbable season has the Minnesota Vikings thinking playoffs.

Keenum entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 2012, one year after Cam Newton made a splash as the No. 1 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers.

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While the two quarterbacks have taken dramatically different paths, it is Keenum who has the Vikings positioned to win the NFC North — and perhaps even earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Vikings (10-2) can clinch their second division title — and first with Keenum at the helm — in three years by beating Newton’s Panthers (8-4) on the road Sunday. Minnesota can also clinch if Green Bay and Detroit lose or tie.

Keenum’s success doesn’t surprise Panthers wide receiver Russell Shepard, who regularly works out with the fifth-year quarterback in the offseason.

“The Vikings called him last-minute,” Shepard said of Keenan signing with the Vikings last offseason. “They wanted him, kind of in his mind from what he was telling me, as a camp body, an extra guy, knowing the injuries at quarterback with Teddy (Bridgewater) still being hurt. Just to see him take off, man, it’s one of those crazy stories.”

Keenum is 8-2 as the Vikings starter since taking over for the injured Sam Bradford, after struggling in his previous 26 starts with the Rams and Texans.

Shepard said it makes for a great story.

“We’re like the misfits, like the rug rats,” said Shepard of undrafted players, of which he is one.

“In this league, in life in general, everybody wants to see the underdog succeed. Everybody wants to see the guy that nobody expected to be that guy.”

ACROSS FROM KALIL: Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen has sacked Carolina’s Cam Newton five times in two games, including three of Minnesota’s eight sacks in the 22-10 victory in Charlotte on Sept. 25, 2016. This time, he’ll be lined up across former teammate Matt Kalil, who spent the past five seasons with the Vikings.

Griffen and Kalil were also college teammates at Southern Cal, so their friendship dates back almost a decade.

“I’m going to watch my tape. I’m going to study him. I’m going to know him better than I know my phone number,” said Griffen, whose 42 sacks since becoming a full-time starter in 2014 are the third-most in the NFL in that span.

“I’m just going to go out there and rush him. Set him up, use what I use, use my God’s gifts, which is my speed. He knows that. I’m just excited to go up against him. It’s going to be fun. I haven’t seen him in a while so it’s going to be a fun game.”

Kalil has struggled at times in his transition to Carolina. He had two penalties last week against the Saints for 25 yards, but was playing after receiving an IV before the game because of the flu.

REMEMBER REMMERS?: The Vikings spent big in free agency to find two new starting tackles, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, a major overhaul of the offensive line including the drafting of center Pat Elflein and the jettisoning of left guard Alex Boone that has paid off big time.

Remmers was a starter on the Panthers team that reached the Super Bowl two seasons ago. He has not played in more than a month, however, first because of a concussion and then because of a lower back injury. Remmers was held out of practice on Wednesday, putting his availability again in question. Rashod Hill has capably filled his spot.

OLSEN’S RETURN: Panthers tight end Greg Olsen appears ready to go against the Vikings, his first extensive action since Week 2. Olsen missed eight games on injured reserve with a broken foot. He returned two weeks ago against the Jets, but played about a quarter before leaving with soreness. He did not play last week against the Saints on a turf field.

“I’m crossing my fingers that he’s back,” Newton said.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he believes playing on a grass field will help Olsen’s foot.

GETTING STOPS: The Vikings are the NFL’s best at getting off the field on third down. They limited the Falcons to one of 10 conversions on third down last week after Atlanta had gone 27 for 41 over its previous three games.

Minnesota is allowing opposing offenses to convert just 27 percent (40 for 148) of third down chances.

That success has been matched on the other side of the ball, too. The Vikings offense is first in the league in third down conversions, at 46 percent (74 of 161).

HOME SWEET HOME: The Panthers are looking to make a playoff push as well. Their next three games are at home with Green Bay and Tampa Bay to follow the Vikings this week.

MINNESOTA (10-2) at CAROLINA (8-4)

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS

OPENING LINE — Vikings by 1

RECORD VS. SPREAD — Minnesota 9-4, Carolina 8-4

SERIES RECORD — Vikings lead 8-5

LAST MEETING — Vikings beat Panthers 22-10, Sept. 25, 2016

LAST WEEK — Vikings beat Falcons 14-9; Panthers lost to Saints 31-21

AP PRO32 RANKING — Vikings No. 2, Panthers No. 8

VIKINGS OFFENSE — OVERALL (5), RUSH (6), PASS (13)

VIKINGS DEFENSE — OVERALL (2), RUSH (2), PASS (10)

PANTHERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (t-18), RUSH (5), PASS (24)

PANTHERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (6), RUSH (4), PASS (7)

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Vikings QB Case Keenum has passed for 1,101 yards with 10 TDs and three INTs in last four road games. … RT Mike Remmers played last season for Carolina and started in Super Bowl in February 2016. … RB Latavius Murray has 323 yards rushing and four TDs in last four games. … TE Kyle Rudolph had seven catches for 70 yards and TD in last meeting with Carolina. He has 18 TD catches since 2015, tied for third most among NFL tight ends. … RB Jerick McKinnon has 421 yards from scrimmage and three TDs in past five road games. … WR Adam Thielen has 74 catches for 1,056 yards and six TDs. … DE Everson Griffen has 12 sacks. Griffen had three sacks in last game vs. Carolina. … DE Danielle Hunter has three sacks and forced fumble in past four games. … Vikings have best third-down defense in NFL, allowing opponents to convert 27.2 percent. … Panthers have been outscored 75-58 in fourth quarter. … QB Cam Newton has four TD passes and no INTs in last two home games. Completion percentage has dropped to 60.5 percent. … RB Christian McCaffrey is fifth among NFL rookies in all-purpose yards (1,005). … WR Devin Funchess averaging 86.5 yards per game with three TD catches since team traded WR Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo. … DE Mario Addison has five sacks in last six games and 16 sacks in last 19 games. … LB Thomas Davis has 34 tackles, three sacks in past four games vs. Vikings. … Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn played last season for Vikings. … Panthers only have four INTs, none by their cornerbacks. … K Graham Gano has better percentage on field goal attempts (23 of 24) than extra points (24 of 26). Fantasy Tip: Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart has 292 yards from scrimmage and two TDs in last three games vs. Minnesota.