Sunday's game between the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings is the most confusing game to figure out in the Panthers 2013 schedule. Both teams should have been trending upwards in 2013, but neither has -- all while boasting solid running and ineffective passing games en route to a 1-3 start.
The similarities don't stop there. Both teams have a lone victory against a zero-win team, and overall strength of schedule is almost on parity with Carolina playing teams with a combined record of 9-11, while Minnesota faced a combined 9-10.
Think this game looks mighty even? So does Las Vegas, where the betting community are giving the Vikings just a 1.5 point edge at home.
It's entirely stupid to say "the team that scores the most points will win," but I'm saying it anyway. The Vikings can score in bunches, but give up a lot of yards and points -- whereas the Panthers can't score a touchdown to save their life, while being stingy on defense.
Embrace the madness. Let's break this game down.
Carolina keeps spinning the Rubik's cube of Cam Newton in an attempt to line up a side and made things work. It's a puzzle that has woefully eluded the team so far, while wide receivers have dropped passes and Mike Shula's spotty play calling still hasn't allowed Cam to be Cam, outside of the team's win over New York.
There will be a big chip on the team's shoulder this week as they look to move past last week's woeful loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The issue is offensive line play, or rather lack of healthy offensive linemen. This week they face a team with a lot of defensive line talent -- starting with Jared Allen. At this point everyone knows Allen's exploits, but surrounding him is a solid group of pass rushers. Minnesota may not have the one-two punch of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, but they have more talented depth and better pass rush rotations.
Making the switch from Christian Ponder to Matt Cassel was a sage one for Minnesota. Kudos to the team for understanding Ponder is a bust and moving forward.
Cassel wasn't electric in London against the Steelers, but he didn't need to be. This is a team with enough defensive talent and the league's best running back where all it needs is a game manager -- not someone to reinvent the wheel. One has to wonder if the Vikings couldn't easily be the Kansas City Chiefs right now had Ponder not thrown five interceptions in three games, all of which were lost by an average of four points.
The Vikings have an underrated receiving corps that has been overlooked due to the team's quarterback play. Jerome Simpson, Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarelle Patterson form a great three-man unit, while Kyle Rudolph has become one of the better young tight ends in the NFL.
It's not about talent, it's about who use their talent better -- which is unquestionably Minnesota. They pass for more yards, have a more complete receiving corps and the switch to Cassel could be the perfect catalyst while the team waits for Josh Freeman to be ready.
On the surface it's tempting to hand this to the Vikings, but it's a curious case where a sum of parts could equal more than the whole.
Minnesota has Adrian Peterson, their ace, the best running back in the NFL -- but he's still just one player. Peterson is on pace for 1,684 yards, which astonishingly has become ho-hum. The issue is that after Peterson the Vikings have nothing. There's no good back to spell him with, no change of pace, it's all-AP all the time and that's enough to be better than most teams.
The Panthers' defensive front was built to stop running backs. Marshawn Lynch was held to 43 yards on 17 carries, C.J. Spiller was decidedly mediocre outside of one big run, while neither the Giants nor Cardinals did anything special. This team doesn't have a lot of strengths, but run stopping is one of them.
Flip to the offensive side of the ball and running is just about the only thing this Panthers' offense does well. DeAngelo Williams is back on pace to be a 1,000 yard running back and unlike Minnesota the Panthers can turn to both Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton to held shoulder some of the rushing burden.
It comes down to a simple equation: Minnesota is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, Carolina is at 4.4 -- but the Vikings allow 0.6 more yards per carry than Carolina, which negates this benefit. There's no question they have the bigger gun, but the Panthers have more guns.
What a funny nonsensical game this has turned into. The big issue is that neither the Panthers nor Vikings have a clearly defined identity, which is a death knell to successful football. This might not mean that either team has a good season, but it could make for a thoroughly entertaining game.
This is one of those situations where everything on paper tells me the Vikings should win, especially in light of the Panthers' weaknesses on the offensive line -- but Carolina has too much to play for here. This is essentially a throwaway game, but the repercussions for the Panthers with a loss are vast. Minnesota has a backup plan with a loss, turn to Josh Freeman, while Carolina would pull out the gas can and burn this sucker to the ground.