Prediction: Carolina 31, Vikings 23 The Vikings never have played a game that featured two rookie starting quarterbacks. An interested observer will be Chris Weinke, a St. Paul native. Like Christian Ponder, Weinke played at Florida State. Like Newton, he started his NFL career in Charlotte. This summer, he mentored both QBs during the lockout at the IMG Madden Football Academy in Florida. Today: Newton wins.

That's some turnaround Last season, Carolina's Steve Smith was a disgruntled veteran whose talents were being wasted by a team that went 2-14 and averaged 12 points. Smith's 2010 numbers: 46 catches, 554 yards, two touchdowns. This season, Smith is a once again an exuberant Pro Bowl candidate for an on-the-rise Panthers squad now averaging 24 points. Smith's 2011 stats: 39 grabs, 818 yards, three TDs. Smith said the mood this season in Carolina is "drastically different" and added, "It's so different it's making a 32-year-old guy seem like he can still play."

Ground control will be lacking Adrian Peterson fantasy owners rejoice. He could trample a Carolina defense that's missing its top two players. Linebackers Jon Beason (Achilles' tendon) and Thomas Davis (torn ACL) each suffered season-ending injuries in September. Said coach Ron Rivera: "The biggest impact is [missing] veteran leadership. You're talking about two of our more veteran players, two of our more dynamic football players who make plays. And any time that happens, losing two guys who were on the field for you every snap, now we've gone to linebacker by committee."

Escape routes might exist Thanks mostly to Jared Allen, the Vikings lead the NFL with 21 sacks. They even got to the very nimble Aaron Rodgers four times in last week's home loss. But Sunday, they face a different challenge against Cam Newton. Both Allen and fellow defensive end Brian Robison may have to dial back their aggressiveness a notch to guard against Newton's running ability. "You don't want to leave lanes," coach Leslie Frazier said. "Because even if you have everything covered, he takes off. And now that's an explosive play. It changes your approach."


Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder vs. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton

About Ponder Forget his .449 completion percentage the past two games. Ponder won a lot of folks over last week with his confidence and composure.

About Newton Has 15 TDs this season (eight passing, seven rushing).

Who has the edge? After seven games, Newton has already produced three of the four highest passing outputs in team history. In Steve Smith, he has the kind of big-time receiving weapon that Ponder doesn't. Plus, he'll have the home crowd.