Both the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers have reason to feel they should be better than 1-3 through their first four games of the season. One of those teams will get to stoke its flickering playoff hopes Sunday at Mall of America Field, while the other will fall even further out of the picture.
The Vikings have yet to announce whether Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel will start, and it might not be long before Josh Freeman takes over the quarterback job. But while the quarterback position might be the most intriguing question facing the Vikings at the moment, it probably isn't the most pressing one. That would be in the secondary, where the Vikings are hoping Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford return from injuries to help a team that's given up an average of 326 passing yards a game and allowed decisive touchdowns on a pair of last-minute drives.
That could be good news for a Panthers team that's so far had more problems on offense than defense. Carolina has scored just 74 points, turning the ball over nine times and throwing for more than 220 yards just once this season. Third-year quarterback Cam Newton -- who came into the league with Ponder in 2011 -- has continued to struggle. Even though the Panthers have allowed the third-fewest points in the league, outscoring opponents through four games, they are trying to keep their season alive, just like the Vikings are.
ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Panthers reporter David Newton broke down this week's matchup:
Ben Goessling: David, I have a feeling the Panthers are as steamed about their record through four games as the Vikings are. Both of these teams lost in the waning seconds in Week 2, and neither has gotten good enough quarterback play to help their playoff aspirations after late-season surges in 2012. At first glance, though, this matchup would seem to favor the Panthers, who have done an excellent job of stopping the run and might force the Vikings to lean on their passing game more than they'd like to at home. How do you think this defense matches up against Adrian Peterson, and how much trouble can it give whomever starts for the Vikings at quarterback?
David Newton: This matchup definitely seems to favor the Carolina defense that has played well enough to win every game. Yeah, Arizona scored 22 points. But that's a bit misleading since two came on a safety late in the third quarter and the last came on a real short field with just over two minutes left after Cam Newton's fourth turnover. The Panthers actually improved from 10th to third in total defense, holding Arizona to 250 total yards. Stopping Adrian Peterson will be the challenge, but Carolina has done a good job all season of making opponents pass with a stout front seven that is allowing only 92.3 yards a game. The key in my opinion will be how much pressure the front four can put on whomever the Vikings play at quarterback. Arizona went with three-step drops and quick passes to somewhat negate that and frustrate pass-rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. But what has made Carolina successful against the rush and the pass is that it has been able to stop both without using a lot of blitz packages that sometimes opens big holes for big-time backs like Peterson.
While we're on defense, the Vikings haven't really faced a quarterback that can run and throw like Newton this year, and they are ranked 30th on defense. How do you see that matchup?
Goessling: I don't particularly like it for the Vikings. They probably struggled the most in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, when they were facing a team with a dynamic passing game and a shifty running back (Reggie Bush) who did a lot of his damage thanks to missed tackles on the first and second levels of the Vikings' defense. The Vikings also haven't faced much of the read-option in the last two years, and when they did see it -- particularly against Robert Griffin III last year -- they struggled with it. I could see Cam Newton giving the Vikings problems with his feet, and Ben Roethlisberger also showed how you can burn the Vikings' young secondary by keeping plays alive. If Newton can avoid turnovers (and the Vikings have caused 12 of them this season), he could direct the Panthers' offense to a big day.
Here's the question the Vikings are probably asking themselves, though: How erratic will Newton be? He's part of that 2011 quarterback class (like Ponder) that has struggled quite a bit in the NFL, and as you mentioned, his turnovers cost the Panthers against Arizona. Will he be able to take advantage of the Vikings defense, or will they have their chances to create a few takeaways off of him?
Newton: Let me clarify first. Newton's turnovers in the fourth quarter did lead to the widening of the margin at Arizona, but he played well early and the Panthers would have been -- should have been -- up by two scores at halftime if Steve Smith hadn't dropped a 4-yard touchdown pass and Brandon LaFell a first-down pass at the Arizona 15. But Newton has been inconsistent with his throws, particularly if pressured. When given time like he had against the Giants he was able to pick apart the defense. Teams that have pressured Newton, particularly with five-man fronts, have forced him into mistakes. Looking at the numbers, it appears the Vikings haven't done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. That to me is where this game will be won or lost for Minnesota.
While we're on quarterbacks, what's been wrong with Ponder this year? And if Josh Freeman is the answer, why not go ahead and give him a shot this week?
Goessling: Ponder's issues have been the same ones we've seen from him during his entire run in Minnesota. It just seems like he's apprehensive about pulling the trigger unless he's got a perfect throwing lane or a receiver who's a step clear of his defender. That throws off his timing, or he gives up and takes off, when a more confident quarterback might be able to hit a receiver for a 15-yard gain in tight coverage. Essentially, he's just not confident enough to make the tough throws, and his interceptions have come when he's flinched and either thrown a pass too early or failed to put enough on the ball. That might be why the Vikings seem ready to move on -- Ponder's issues are about more than his physical attributes, and that's a hard thing to fix.
As for Freeman, the Vikings want to give him time to learn the offense, and while I'm guessing we'll see him in a week or two, particularly if the Vikings lose, my hunch is Matt Cassel will get a chance to build on his Week 4 win this Sunday.
To wrap this up, what do you think is the biggest key to a Panthers victory?
Newton: I almost laugh when you say key to victory because this team simply doesn't know how to win -- at least on a consistent basis when it matters. This is the third straight 1-3 start and they haven't had a winning record since 2008. But as coach Ron Rivera keeps saying, they are close. But they were close last week and blew countless opportunities to take command in the first half and wound up looking dismal. It seems almost every week it's a breakdown in another area, or multiple areas. If I had to pick one key, though, it would be for the offensive line to give Newton protection. When he has time, the Panthers score points. If they score points, the defense will take care of itself.
How about for the Vikings?
Goessling: I agree that getting to Newton is a big part of the equation; they need to force him into turnovers and keep him from putting their defense on its heels. This is a team that plays its best when it gets an early lead, can run Adrian Peterson and turn its defensive line loose. If the Vikings do that, they might be able to cover up their issues in the secondary and sneak out with a victory.