Teddy Bridgewater returns to U.S. Bank Stadium with an offense that could strike a crippling blow to the Vikings' playoff chances. The Vikings likely will have to reconfigure their offense without Adam Thielen, but if they can do it, the will be able to make enough plays vs. the Panthers defense to win in a shootout.
THREE BIG STORY LINES
Vikings try to rebound
A three-game win streak against NFC North opponents had Vikings fans heading into a three-game homestand optimistic about a run that could put the team back in the playoff race — until a stunning loss to the Cowboys put the Vikings back at 4-6. The Vikings badly need wins over Carolina and Jacksonville before a Dec. 13 game at Tampa Bay.
Teddy Bridgewater's first game in Minnesota as a starting QB since his knee injury has commanded attention, and a strong day from the quarterback they'd once planned to be the face of their franchise could put the Vikings' postseason hopes on life support.
Revamped Vikings air attack
Thielen remains on the COVID-19 reserve list, meaning the Vikings might be without the NFL's leader in receiving touchdowns. They will definitely be without tight end Irv Smith Jr. That could mean a start for Chad Beebe and more opportunities for Kyle Rudolph and Bisi Johnson, with Justin Jefferson probably getting the most attention.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Vikings WR Justin Jefferson vs. Panthers CB Rasul Douglas
Jefferson figures to be a big focus of the Vikings' passing game with Thielen on the COVID-19 reserve list. The 6-foot-2 Douglas, who has given up only one TD pass this season, will likely try to be physical with Jefferson. But given that Douglas ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash coming out of college, Jefferson might have chances to beat him with speed.
Vikings RT Brian O'Neill vs. Panthers DE Brian Burns
The Panthers will move Burns to a number of different spots in their defense, but the 2019 first-round pick spends a fair amount of time on the left side of the Panthers defense, where he'd match up against O'Neill. Burns has six sacks this season, and is tied for fourth in the league in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
3:13 The Panthers' average length of drive this season, the best in the league.
THE VIKINGS WILL WIN IF …
They are able to sustain Dalvin Cook's workload, find enough complements for Jefferson in the passing game with Thielen likely out and keep Bridgewater from stressing their secondary with a capable group of receivers that includes Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel.
THE PANTHERS WILL WIN IF …
Bridgewater is able to throw on the Vikings secondary, Mike Davis continues to provide a solid presence in the run game with Christian McCaffrey out and the defense can clamp down on the Vikings' top options to make Cousins — who's only targeted two players more than 30 times — work through his progressions.
Goessling's prediction: Vikings 34, Panthers 30