Five fearless predictions for Sunday’s Carolina Panthers game against the Minnesota Vikings (1 p.m., FOX):
1. Panthers will bottle up Vikings’ ground game.
Minnesota had the league’s worst rushing attack at 47.5 yards through the first two weeks – and that was with Adrian Peterson. It does not figure to improve with the backfield committee of Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata and just-acquired Ronnie Hillman. The Panthers did a much better job stopping the run against San Francisco after getting gashed at Denver.
2. As a result, Carolina will get pressure on Sam Bradford.
The Panthers managed only four total sacks against Trevor Siemian (Denver) and Blaine Gabbert (San Francisco), both of whom were getting the ball out quickly. But Carolina should be able to make the Vikings one-dimensional, allowing the front four to rush with more abandon. Minnesota left tackle Matt Kalil underwent hip surgery this week. If Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy can’t get pressure against T.J. Clemmings, Kalil’s replacement, that does not bode well for the Panthers’ pass rush.
3. Panthers will not dig covering Stefon Diggs.
Diggs started the season with back-to-back, 100-yard receiving games and has made Bradford’s transition from Philly much smoother. Diggs is not huge (6-foot, 191), but he is quick, explosive and lines up all over the formation. Containing Diggs will require a group effort, especially when he works the middle of the field. The corners will be tested, as will nickel back Robert McClain.
4. Incoming: Mortar kicks.
The NFL is a copycat league. So you can be sure Vikings coach Mike Zimmer saw the Panthers struggle mightily with San Francisco’s short kickoffs last week, and prepared accordingly. Carolina eventually adjusted, but not before Ted Ginn Jr.’s muffed kick at the 2. The Panthers allowed two blocked punts for touchdowns the last time they played Minnesota. They can’t afford another special teams letdown.
5. It won’t be a running back who fills the Jonathan Stewart void.
Like Minnesota, the Panthers will be without their starting RB after Stewart injured his hamstring last week. Unlike the Vikings, the Panthers’ quarterback can make plays with his feet. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula referred to Cam Newton as “that other guy” this week when discussing the ball-carrying options absent Stewart. Shula didn’t have to run Newton last week against the 49ers. But he will Sunday – and that will be the difference. CAROLINA 24, MINNESOTA 20.
Vikings at Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Sunday, 1 p.m.