SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 7-5. Vikings are 1-2 at Carolina. They won there in 2011 when Christian Ponder led them to a 24-21 come-from-behind victory during his rookie season. The last time these teams met was Nov. 30, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium, the Vikings' temporary home from 2014-15. In 12-degree weather - the seventh-coldest game in franchise history - the Vikings won 30-13 while becoming the fifth team in NFL history to return two blocked punts for touchdowns in the same game.
KEYS TO THE GAME: If there's a silver lining for the Vikings in the wake of RB Adrian Peterson's knee injury, it's that Minnesota has won its first two games with A.P. rushing for an average of 1.6 yards on 31 carries. The run-blocking has been abysmal as a whole, and shifty Jerick McKinnon (2.7 yards per carry) and bruising Matt Asiata (2.7) will now share the backfield load. QB Sam Bradford was impressive in his first start in a Vikings uniform last week despite often shaky protection. One dynamic McKinnon brings is a versatile threat out of the backfield, and Bradford has the ability to get the ball out of his hands quickly with possession receivers Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph combining for 15 receptions.
The Panthers will have their own committee approach in the backfield with Jonathan Stewart sidelined by a hamstring injury. Fozzy Whittaker rushed for 100 yards in his place last week, but coach Ron Rivera indicated Cameron Artis-Payne is likely to be active and carry the bulk of the load, with Mike Tolbert serving as the short-yardage option. Of course, quarterback Cam Newton also figures heavily into the running game. The Vikings will continue to lean heavily on a defense that has playmakers at all three levels, with Minnesota ranking fifth in total defense and sixth against the run. Carolina racked up 46 points against San Francisco last week and has the ability to keep the pressure on in the running and passing games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Vikings LT T.J. Clemmings vs. Panthers RDE Kony Ealy: Matt Kalil was placed on injured reserve after starting the first 66 games of his NFL career as Minnesota's left tackle. T.J. Clemmings, who started at right tackle last season, will take over on Bradford's blind side. Clemmings started all 17 games including the playoffs as a rookie, but struggled with speed rushers and stunts and was replaced on the right side by free-agent signee Andre Smith.
--Vikings S Harrison Smith vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton: Newton is averaging 5.4 yards per carry and his sheer size concerns the Vikings as much as his arm strength. Smith is Minnesota's most versatile defender and has the ability to play single-high safety or play in the box and rush off the edge. It will be a game of cat-and-mouse as Smith plays somewhat of a rover position.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers CB James Bradberry - Nominated for rookie of the week after a solid performance against the 49ers, Bradberry could see significant snaps against Stefon Diggs, who was named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week.
FAST FACTS: Diggs has a league-high 285 receiving yards this season, the most by a Vikings player in the team's first two games since 1969. ... The Vikings have recovered an NFL-high four fumbles through two games. ... The Panthers have rushed for a league-high 17,954 yards since 2008, with the Vikings second at 17,341 during that time frame. ... Newton has thrown for a touchdown and run for a touchdown in an NFL-record 32 career games.
PREDICTION: Vikings coach Mike Zimmer did an excellent job in refocusing his team in the wake of Teddy Bridgewater's season-ending injury just before the beginning of the season, and Minnesota's defense has been instrumental in a 2-0 start. But losing RB Adrian Peterson and LT Matt Kalil while trying to compete with the reigning NFC champions on the road is too much to ask at this stage.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 26-17.