The Vikings can clinch the NFC North Division with a win over the 8-4 Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Let’s let those words sink in for a few seconds . . .. Okay, that’s enough. Head coach Mike Zimmer says that stuff about divisions and home playoff games and Super Bowls and such are for all us writers to worry about. They have to focus on the Panthers and getting another road win. Well, sometimes all this other happy horse(bleep) coincides what is being thought about in the Vikings locker room. But we won’t name, names.
So, we are going to say it again: the Vikings can clinch the NFC North Division with a win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Who would have thought at the beginning of the season? Who would have thought that during the first series of the second half in the first Detroit game when Dalvin Cook went down with a season ending injury—and Sam Bradford was still on sidelines with a mysterious knee ailment? (Certainly not Cook, who was taking part in interviewing Everson Griffen with the rest of the media on Wednesday.)
But it is real. Beat the Panthers and the Vikings have at the worst a four-game lead with three to play. They have other things to continue winning for, but we aren’t supposed to focus on those. So, we will be focusing on how the Vikings will defeat the Carolina Panthers and punching their ticket to the postseason.
The Vikings beat the Panthers 22-10 last season, and while that game has little impact on this one, there perhaps are some things to be gleaned from it. In fact, the Vikings have beat the Panthers the last two times the teams have met (including 31-13 in 2014), and head coach Mike Zimmer was asked why he thought the Vikings have had success versus the very talented and very mobile quarterback Cam Newton.
“I’ve got good players,” Zimmer said. “They played those games well. Each game is different, though. Every time you play someone it’s a different deal. [Newton] is a very, very talented athlete. They’re doing a few different things with him now. He’s got a very strong arm. Competitive. They’re good on third downs. They use him a lot in the running game, so it makes it difficult.”
One of the keys to 2016 Vikings victory was the fact that the Vikings defense got to Newton. They hit him 12 times in the game, sacking him eight times. The Panthers offense was never really able to get in a rhythm and the Vikings rolled. It is not a secret that to beat the Panthers, you need to get to Newton, and Vikings defense end Griffen plans to do it again.
“You’ve got to rush him well,” Griffen said. “You’ve got to know where he is going to be. You’ve got to rush him well; you’ve got to get him on the ground. He’s hard to get on the ground. You got to find out where he’s at and wrap him up—he’s a big guy.”
Newton likes to run, sometimes out of necessity and other times by design. When a quarterback is looking to run, the defense has to be wary of it, but the bottom line, according to Griffen, is that you have to hit him.
“You got to be disciplined in your gaps,” Griffen said. “You have to get off and escape the blocks, and when he runs by design, you have to hit him like a running back, not a quarterback, because he is not protected then. You hit him, no cheap shots, you just hit him like he’s a running back. You just hit him.”
Getting to Newton will have a familiar ring to it for Griffen, as he will be going up his old college and Vikings teammate, Matt Kalil.
“I’ve known Matt Kalil since 2006. We went to USC together, so I have known Matt for 10, 11 years,” Griffen said. “It’s going to be a fun opportunity to go up against my pal. It’s going to be fun, we’re going to compete. It’s going to be a good day. He’s a friend of mine and he’s been playing really good. So, the thing is to be able to set him up and compete against him for the whole game.”
The Panthers have another new wrinkle on offense in rookie running back Christian McCaffery, who lines up all over on offensive formation and can cause problems for a defensive coordinator. Zimmer is aware.
“Yes, it’s hard. It’s hard,” Zimmer said on game planning for McCaffrey. “They put him in a lot of different places and move him around. He’s a good player. Sometimes he’s a back, sometimes he’s a receiver. It makes it difficult.”
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings have their work cut out for them, as the Panthers have a top-10 defense themselves (the Vikings are currently number two in scoring and yardage). The Panthers are getting the band back together on defense, welcoming back former players Julius Peppers and nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn (the former Viking who said he turned down more money in Minnesota to return home to Carolina). They have helped the Panthers to reach the rank of sixth in yards per game allowed (297.6) and T-10 in points allowed at 19.8.
“Most of the times they are stopping the run or affecting the quarterback,” Zimmer said in assessing the Carolina defense. “They’re very high on blitz percentage on first, second, and third downs, so they pressure the quarterback. [Luke] Kuechly and [Thomas] Davis they run around, their two inside tackles are hard to move off the ball and the ends are very good pass rushers. They use [Kurt] Coleman down in the box quite a bit and these two corners get up and challenge you. They give you a lot different looks. Stature-wise they are a little bit like our defense; 4-3 base that does a good job with the pressures and the things that they do. If they get the run stopped, then they can really try to affect the quarterback.”
The Vikings have been effective in running the ball to set up their passing game, and they will have to continue to do so. They may again be without the services of Mike Remmers, the former Panther right tackle who came to Minnesota in free agency. Remmers has been hampered by a concussion and more recently a lower back injury (both causing him to miss the past five games), but Rashod Hill has been filling in well. Remmers did not participate in Wednesday practice, but you can be sure he wants to suit up against his old team on Sunday.
As does the whole team. With the division on the line, the Vikings are going to be excited get on the field and take care of business, and check the NFC North title off their list. There are other checks they hope to mark off, but we aren’t focusing on that now.