Panthers are a Bit Weird

The Vikings host the Carolina Panthers this weekend in the midsection of Minnesota’s three-game home stint. The homestand got off to a splotchy start as the Dallas Cowboys skunked the Vikings late in the fourth quarter of the Week 11 matchup. Minnesota trailed at halftime by two scores, quickly erased that deficit – only to cough away the victory late in the second half. And, all of that took place versus an Andy Dalton-led Cowboys team after budding superstar Dak Prescott was lost for the season to injury.

Similar situations befall the Vikings and Panthers. There is a temptation to surmise that the Vikings are a better football team than the Panthers but only a half-game separates the two franchises in the NFC standings. Carolina is 4-7 whereas Minnesota is 4-6.

The teams are not that far apart as the 2020 season goes.

Teddy Bridgewater, if healthy, will lead Carolina into U.S. Bank Stadium for a fan-less affair. The 28-year-old began his career with the Vikings but was jettisoned after the 2017 season for a fresh start. He has since spent time with the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, and is now the undisputed QB1 in Carolina.

The Vikings are favored by four-or-so points. Yet, both teams are comparable in terms of performance to date and remaining-season projections. Both squads are realistically on pace to finish the neighborhood of 7-9 to 9-7.

Carolina is a bit weird to dissect as an opponent and here’s why.

Win over Cardinals, Played KC Tough

In Week 4 (nearly two months ago), the Panthers battered the trendy Arizona Cardinals by a score of 31-21. The term “battered” is applicable because Carolina led 31-14 late in the contest, so most of the final-score differential can be reasonably attributed to garbage time for Arizona. It was the Panthers most impressive showing of the 2020 season and may end up being their magnum opus once the season wraps up in six weeks.

Bridgewater tossed a couple of scores and replacement tailback, Mike Davis, was efficient. The Panthers defense kept Kyler Murray in check while head coach Matt Rhule’s team evened their record to 2-2 after four weeks. After that, the Panthers dropped five of their next seven games – effectively disqualifying the team from meaningful playoff aspirations.

Just under three weeks ago, Teddy Bridgewater and Co. flirted with an upset of the Kansas City Chiefs. Unsurprisingly, Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill squelched that rebellion. The Chiefs took the lead in the fourth quarter and held on for a 33-31 victory. All in all, though, Carolina had the DNA to traded punches with Kansas City. Don’t let that escape your memory bank.

Average Statistics Across the Board

A deep dive into the numbers confirms the Panthers are an average team. They rank 15th in points scored, 21st in points allowed, 21st in rushing yards, 17th in passing yards, 18th in yards allowed, 19th in redzone efficiency, 11th in turnover differential, and 16th in penalty yards.

To be frank, the Panthers doing nothing extraordinary from a statistical standpoint, nor do they grade out as awful in most vital metrics. They’re ho-hum.

These rankings, though, imply that Rhule’s bunch is better than their 4-7 record. To date, their strength-of-schedule is the fifth-toughest in the NFL. The Panthers opponents so far have won 55% of their games. For comparison, the Vikings opponents to date have won 53% of their games. The teams are strength-of-schedule bedfellows for now. Both squads are probably better than their current standing but not enough to move the needle all the way to the postseason barring lengthy, forthcoming winning streaks.

Perhaps Without Best Player in Week 12

The humongous caveat to all of this Panthers analysis is the absence of tailback Christian McCaffrey. Spend some time imagining what this Vikings season would look like without Dalvin Cook. That’s what the Panthers have endured.

McCaffrey should have won the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019, but the league inexplicably awarded the honor to MVP Lamar Jackson. The OPOY award was created to recognize the most prolific offensive player in the business – regardless of his team’s win/loss record. Generally speaking, voters hand the MVP award to a herculean offensive player who also is part of a team with a winning record. NFL talking heads chose to give MVP and OPOY to Lamar Jackson – a travesty of justice on the OPOY side of things.

It’s unclear if McCaffrey will play this weekend against the Vikings. That will probably determine if the Panthers win or lose the game. His substitute, Mike Davis, is a decent running back. But the drop-off there is like starting Mike Boone in the place of Dalvin Cook.