I know that all Carolina Panthers fans are caught up in their team’s playoff possibilities, but consider for a moment Sunday’s opponent – the Minnesota Vikings.
Minnesota could have the sort of dream playoff scenario that literally no NFL team has had before. The Vikings could actually play the Super Bowl in their home stadium after playing two playoff games in the same place to get there.
At 10-2, Minnesota is in the thick of the race for the No. 1 NFC playoff slot. If the Vikings get that, they would be only two home playoff victories away from history. Regardless, the Super Bowl will be hosted at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018. No NFL team has played on its home field in a Super Bowl before, although the possibility exists every year because of the way the NFL puts its biggest game at neutral sites.
▪ This game begins a three-game homestand for the Panthers. Linebacker Luke Kuechly said “we have to win them all,” referring to a stretch that also includes home games against Green Bay Dec. 17 and Tampa Bay Dec. 24. As cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said this week: “If we defend our dirt, we’re in the playoffs.”
It’s worth noting that for awhile the Panthers were the best in the NFL in defending their “dirt.” At one point, they won 14 home games in a row (including the playoffs) in a span that occurred from late in the 2014 season to early in 2016. Then that streak was stopped, though, by these very Vikings – who sacked Cam Newton eight times last season on the way to a 22-10 victory.
▪ Someone on a radio show asked me what tight end Greg Olsen would need to do to make this a “successful” return, assuming he can stay healthy and play a whole game against Minnesota. I would not expect Olsen to have anything approaching a 100-yard day against the Vikings’ stout defense, but what I would consider successful would be if he made three catches that resulted in first downs.
First downs were at a premium for Carolina (8-4) a week ago against New Orleans. The Panthers once went three-and-out on four consecutive series against the Saints, which helped wreck their chances to win. You can most feel Olsen’s absence on third downs, and his presence will be a big thing for Cam Newton.
▪ Prediction time. I misfired on my pick of a Carolina upset last week at New Orleans, dropping me to a disappointing 7-5 record. I believe the Panthers match up a little better vs. Minnesota as compared to New Orleans, but the Vikings defense is just so darn good. My pick: Minnesota 17, Carolina 13.