Minnesota Vikings: Three match ups to watch against the Panthers

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 25: Everson Griffen
CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 25: Everson Griffen /

The Minnesota Vikings head to Bank of America Stadium to take on the Carolina Panthers. What matchups are there to keep an eye on in the Week 14 showdown?

The 10-2 Minnesota Vikings carry an eight-game win streak into Charlotte, NC on Sunday when they face the 8-4 Carolina Panthers in a big mid-day showdown between playoff destined teams.

With the NFC North all but wrapped up, the Vikings still look to win their division with a victory over the Panthers, but also keep themselves in position to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Something that could indeed happen, even if they make the Super Bowl, which takes place at U.S. Bank Stadium.

That being said, Carolina has much to play for themselves. While they sit in pretty good position at 8-4, they are far from a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. Not to mention, they are in the thick of the NFC South race, especially after the Atlanta Falcons took down the New Orleans Saints on Thursday.

In turn, Cam Newton and the Panthers look to break through against arguably the hottest team in the league in order to stay deep in the playoff and NFC South hunt. Of course, Case Keenum and the Vikings will have plenty to say about that though. With that, let’s take a look at three key matchups that could be game-changers in this big-time showdown.

1. Everson Griffen vs. Matt Kalil

The first matchup is between former teammates, players that use to go against one another on a regular basis in practice. After five seasons with the Vikings though, left tackle Matt Kalil faces Everson Griffen for the first time in game action. Something that most Vikings fans are quite excited about.

After exemplifying high levels of inconsistency with the Vikings, he’s shown much of the same with the Panthers. Currently, he’s rated as the no. 63 tackle by Pro Football Focus with a 45.7 rating, while he also is among league leaders in penalties (6) and sacks allowed (6). Basically, he’s been as mistake prone as ever.

Of course, this bodes well for Griffen, who has established himself among the elite class of defensive ends. On the year, Griffen already has 12 sacks, good enough for fourth-best in the NFL. He also ranks as the ninth-best edge rusher by Pro Football Focus with a 90.2 rating, so Kalil better bring his A-game against the Vikings captain.

In the end, if Kalil continues struggling, this could become a field day for Griffen and prevent Newton from having much success against an already tough Vikings defense.

2. Adam Thielen vs. Captain Munnerlyn

Another intriguing battle that isn’t getting the spotlight of Kalil vs. Griffen is former Vikings nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn taking on Adam Thielen in the slot. In three seasons with Minnesota, Munnerlyn established himself as one of the top slot corners in the NFL, but decided to take his talents back to Charlotte for the team he got his NFL start with.

Thus far, he hasn’t had the level of success he was having with the Vikings as he currently ranks 90th among cornerbacks with a 47.5 rating. Additionally, he hasn’t played nearly as many plays with the Panthers, considering outside linebacker Shaq Thompson plays a big role in the nickel.

Even so, Thompson looks like a good bet to miss Sunday’s game against the Vikings, making a potential Thielen vs. Munnerlyn matchup a realistic possibility. Not to mention, Munnerlyn could also see Stefon Diggs occasionally in the slot. In other words, the formers Viking has his biggest test of the season in front of him.

By now, everyone knows how important Thielen is to the offense. Specifically, he’s already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark with 1,056 yards, the first time a Vikings receiver has done so since 2009. He’s also an equally good run blocker for a unit that ranks sixth overall in rushing. So, if he has another big day, the Vikings are in good shape to come out with another victory.

3. Vikings linebackers vs. Christian McCaffrey

Finally, this matchup is the most important one for the Vikings to win. The Panthers rookie is the epitome of an all-around running back, but he’s arguably been at his best in the passing game. On the season, he has 64 catches for 501 yards to go along with four of his six total touchdowns. Essentially, he’s another wideout from the running back position and there’s an argument he’s the Panthers’ top receiver right now.

Fortunately, Minnesota has had success against runners with great pass-catching ability. In particular, they’ve largely shut down the likes of Le’Veon Bell, Duke Johnson, Tevin Coleman, and Chris Thompson from being huge players in the passing game. Yet, Christian McCaffrey may be superior to all of them outside of Bell, who wasn’t quite at 100 percent when he played the Vikings in Week 2.

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Nevertheless, the Vikings have a linebacker group with good speed and range to defend dynamic runners out of the backfield. Headed by Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, Mike Zimmer likely assigns one to zero in on McCaffrey throughout the game, although there’s a good bet both see time covering the back.

With Xavier Rhodes taking care of no. 1 receiver Devin Funchess, the Vikings linebackers have to make sure they win their matchup against McCaffrey. Outside of Funchess and McCaffrey, Carolina doesn’t have many weapons for Newton to throw the ball to unless tight end Greg Olsen shows he’s indeed fully recovered from a leg injury. Ultimately, containing one of the game’s top rookies is going to go along ways towards shutting down the Panthers offense and getting the W.

Next: Can the Vikings run the table the rest of the way?

After assessing the matchups, the Vikings seem to have the upper hand and consequently, I think it’s too much for the Panthers to overcome. In a tight game, Minnesota comes away with the 14-10 win over Carolina. Catch the game Sunday on CBS on with Jim Nantz and Tony Romo calling the game starting at noon. Skol Vikes!