The NFC Game of the Week for Week 3 has to be the Minnesota Vikings against the Carolina Panthers. While they’re obviously not in the same division, these teams have a strong chance to win their respective divisions and are on the short list of contenders for the Super Bowl.
One of the key storylines to watch heading into the 1:00pm kickoff on Sunday will be how the new running backs for each squad will fair. With Jonathan Stewart set to miss a few weeks with a hamstring injury, Carolina will roll out a timeshare between Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whitaker. Artis-Payne should be featured as the lead back against a strong Minnesota run defense with Mike Tolbert siphoning short-yardage carries. Whitaker carried 16 times for 100 yards, but also fumbled against the Niners in Week 2. Artis-Payne has not dressed yet this season.
On Thursday future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson underwent successful surgery to repair his torn meniscus. He will likely miss three to four months of playing time. Jerick McKinnon steps in as the early down running back with Matt Asiata earning down-and-distance touches. If you feel like you struck gold when you claimed McKinnon on your fantasy waiver wire, you should temper your expectations immediately. The great Peterson racked up only 50 yards on 31 carries in two starts in 2016. McKinnon is no way, shape, or form as dominant as Peterson has shown throughout his career. While he’s a much better receiver than Peterson out of the backfield, I certainly don’t expect McKinnon to post numbers worthy of a start in most fantasy leagues. To make matters worse, McKinnon and friends will be running behind an offensive line that just lost starting left tackle Matt Kalil. The fifth-year pro out of USC was placed on injured reserve this week with a hip injury. Also worth noting, fantasy owners should keep in mind Asiata netted 10 touchdowns in 2014.
Aside from the uncertainty for both teams at the running back position, I am really looking forward to seeing new Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford progress in his mastery of the offense. Bradford earned his first start in a purple uniform last week against the Packers. He led the Vikes to a 17-14 victory by completing 22 of 31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Stefon Diggs connected with Bradford nine times for 182 yards and a touchdown. Sure, the Packers were missing their top cornerback in Sam Shields. But Diggs dominated every member of the Green Bay secondary en route to a monster night. Don’t be mistaken people: Sam Bradford is for real in this offense.
In 2014 against the Panthers, the modern-day Purple People Eaters held Cam Newton in check. He completed just 18 of 35 pass attempts for 194 yards that day. Last week against the Niners Newton passed for 353 yards and four touchdowns, but also threw an interception and coughed up the football once. In fact, Whitaker and Ted Ginn Jr. also lost fumbles last week. Tight end Greg Olsen and wideout Kelvin Benjamin both eclipsed the 100-yard mark and scored in Week 2. The reigning NFL MVP has certainly improved over the last two seasons, but still faces a tall task in moving the offense down the field against a defense that held Aaron Rodgers and Company to just two touchdowns. Minnesota also picked off Rodgers once, forced four fumbles, but only recovered two.
Before Teddy Bridgewater was injured I had the Panthers winning this game. But after seeing Sam Bradford – albeit in limited action – and the prowess of Minnesota’s defense I am throwing my weight behind the road underdogs in what should be a tight game. My final prediction: Bradford leads a game winning drive in the 4th quarter and the Minnesota defense stops Carolina to end the game. Final score: 24-20.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com