Vikings clash with Panthers in NFC battle
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Minnesota Vikings are trending toward one of the top spots in the NFC, but the Carolina Panthers haven't given up on that thought either.
The teams meet Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium, insisting their focus is on each other and not the big picture with four games remaining in the regular season.
The Vikings (10-2) are contending for a spot that could result in home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"We've got four games left," Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. "My only thoughts are on the Carolina Panthers and trying to get a win this week. All that stuff is nice to talk about, but for us we'll go about our business."
The Vikings are on the verge of wrapping up the outright NFC North title, needing just one more victory to do that.
The Panthers (8-4), who face a divisional leader for the second week in a row, missed their chance to move to the top of the NFC South standings with last week's loss at New Orleans. Still, they could rise to first place with a strong finishing stretch.
"There's still things in our future that can get us on the right track again," Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't interested in discussing how his team stacks up in the standings.
"I think what's most significant is that we have to take one at a time and focus on the opponent," Rivera said. "It doesn't matter what happens anywhere else."
The Vikings are coming off a 14-9 road victory against the Atlanta Falcons, who are one of Carolina's NFC South rivals.
The combination of quarterback Case Keenum and receiver Adam Thielen has been one of the strongest in the NFL this season.
But Minnesota running back Latavius Murray, who has 75 or more rushing yards in each of the past three games, has turned into a consistent option.
"Running the ball is important for us, not just getting yards but play-action," Keenum said. "I think there has been good balance."
The Vikings will be counting on that type of mixture against a Carolina defense that's bound to be anxious to crank up the pressure.
"If they want to not rush, that would be great by me," Keenum said. "We're going to expect them to rush the passer. That's something we have to work on ... and be ready to get the ball out."
Rivera said he's wary of Minnesota's explosiveness, a concern that's probably heightened because the Panthers have been victims of big-yardage plays the past couple of weeks and they might be without linebacker Shaq Thompson (foot injury).
On offense, the Panthers will want to re-establish a ground attack. They've found that the most effective way to make headway overall on offense. That could be the key to cracking the Vikings.
"Our guys take a lot of pride in playing the run," Zimmer said. "They all take a lot of pride in it. It's important to try to make teams one-dimensional."
Newton said too many three-and-outs have hindered the offense and impacted the Panthers in general.
"We have to get our defense more rest time," Newton said.
Rivera said the Panthers are expecting a heavy dose of man coverages from the Minnesota defense.
Zimmer said the Vikings looked faster on special teams last week and that's an area that he has hoped would show strides. The Panthers had several mishaps with the special-teams units last week, so that's an area worth monitoring.
There are several connections between the Vikings and Panthers.
Look for some of the spotlight to fall on Carolina left tackle Matt Kalil, who was a Minnesota first-round draft pick in 2012. He left the Vikings during the past offseason to sign with the Panthers.
It hasn't always been smooth transition, but he drew praise this week.
"He's a guy who fights," Rivera said, noting there are often interesting elements emerging with a player faces his former team. "I think he's learning to develop into our system."
Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn spent the past three seasons with the Vikings before returning to the Panthers prior to this season.
Vikings right offensive tackle Mike Remmers started 42 consecutive games with Carolina before joining Minnesota for this season.
Those storylines aside, both teams understand the importance of the matchup.
The Panthers want to rid the taste of a defeat that might have seemed devastating but doesn't have to be the end-all.
"One game doesn't define you," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
The Vikings see the next few games as providing an avenue to better things.
"These December games are really going to be important as we continue to move forward," Zimmer said.