The Panthers kick off against the Minnesota Vikings at 1 p.m. on WFMY News 2. Here are some top things to watch during the game:
1. Tight ends making their marks
After sitting his two-time All-Pro to protect his surgically-repaired foot from the New Orleans turf, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday that Olsen will not be held to a “pitch count” on Sunday. That’s tremendous news for Carolina, whose offense has been starving for the services of their top pass-catching weapon.
The Vikings, conversely, has a stud of their at the same spot in Kyle Rudolph—who’s heating up just in time for the holiday season. Rudolph the red-hot tight end has a shiny stat line of late, with three touchdowns and an average of 11.0 yards per reception in his last two games.
Making an impact may not come easy for either, however, as both defenses have held down opposing tight ends relatively well in 2017. When it comes to this particular position, Minnesota has given up only three scores through 13 weeks, tied for the third-fewest, while Carolina has relinquished a league-best 407 receiving yards.
2. Matt Kalil vs. Everson Griffen
In an official trade of sorts this past spring, the Panthers and Vikings swapped a pair of starting, and polarizing, offensive tackles. Well, kinda sorta.
New Minnesota right tackle Mike Remmers, in an otherwise solid campaign for the fifth-year veteran, will miss his fifth straight game with a lower back injury. Matt Kalil, on the other hand, has basically been Matt Kalil.
The fourth overall pick by Minnesota back in 2012 will face his former employer in a matchup where he claims he’ll be a “different guy” compared to what they saw the five seasons prior. Nothing was much different from Week 12 where Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan beat him like a rug.
Regardless, he’ll certainly have to show up against a dominant Vikings defense that currently allows the second-fewest total yards per game (289.1). Kalil will have his hands full with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Everson Griffen, who has gone for 5.0 sacks at Carolina’s expense between their two meetings in 2014 and 2016.
3. What about the other Kalil?
Speaking of the Kalil clan, 2017 will be the NFL’s first “Kalil Bowl” where both brothers are playing for the same side. And, luckily for quarterback Cam Newton, Ryan is expected to start.
The return of Carolina’s starting center should prove quite valuable if the lingering neck injury is no longer a serious issue. Between the pressure he just faced against the Saints and the eight sacks he absorbed from the Vikings defense last year, Newton might be doing cartwheels during Sunday’s warmups in addition to his weekly handshakes.
If Kalil does indeed hit the field, it’ll be his first action since playing in 15 snaps versus the Chicago Bears in Week 7.
4. The top 1-2 punch in the game?
Vikings are traditionally known for traveling by sea. But a breakout campaign of sorts from career backup Case Keenum has these Vikings moving through the air.
Much of his surprising success can be attributed to duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, perhaps the top 1-2 punch at receiver the game now has to offer. Thielen, who many Panthers fans were introduced to in 2014 when he blocked and returned a punt off the foot of Brad Nortman for a touchdown, ranks fourth amongst all pass catchers in receiving yards with 1,056. Diggs, meanwhile, remains a constant threat despite having not reached in the end zone in nearly a month.
What could work in Carolina’s favor is Minnesota’s struggles on third-and-long situations. The Vikings have converted an NFL-low 18 percent of their third-and-seven or longer chances. Panther turned Viking turned Panther Captain Munnerlyn figures to play a key role from the slot, especially with linebacker Shaq Thompson being ruled out with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
5. It's crunch time
“We’ve got four games left and if we don’t take advantage, our season’s gonna end,” Greg Olsen said on Thursday. “The time is now.”
Unfortunately for the Panthers, that is not hyperbole.
Even with three of their final four games coming at home, Carolina doesn’t have the easiest of stretches ahead. In addition to Minnesota, their two divisional clashes—one with Tampa Bay and one in Atlanta—along a possible Week 15 matchup with a returning Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers may not prove to be cakewalks.
While the Falcons’ win over the Saints on Thursday night moved the Panthers within a game of the NFC South’s top spot, it also moved the defending conference champions within a game of their No. 6 seed. So yes, it’s crunch time.