There are things you can learn by watching the NFL playoffs, especially in the second weekend, when the teams that sneaked or backed into the postseason have been eliminated and teams with staying power remain.
What we may have learned this weekend was that the Vikings should have identified their logical role model.
It’s not the Patriots. You can’t mimic a franchise built around perhaps the greatest coach ever and perhaps the greatest quarterback ever.
It’s not the Broncos. The Vikings aren’t going to sign a Hall of Fame quarterback near the end of his career again, not any time soon.
It may be the Carolina Panthers, who mirror the Vikings in many ways.
Their coach, Ron Rivera, was a respected defensive coordinator who had to wait a surprising length of time for his first chance to be a head coach. Just like Mike Zimmer.
Their coach looks like a tough guy but treats his players with respect. Like Zimmer.
Their defense features a strong front line and capable secondary but is exceptional because of two free-range linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Harris. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks cover just as much pasture as the Panthers’ outstanding duo.
In what once was called the NFL’s passing era, the Panthers are winning big without great receivers. Their best wideout, Kelvin Benjamin, was injured during the preseason and didn’t play. The Panthers are 16-1 without him. The Panthers are winning with starters like Ted Ginn — the journeyman who drops a remarkable number of passes.
There is a major difference between the teams, a difference that speaks to the most important decisions and developments in the Vikings’ near future.
The Panthers, like the other teams still alive in the playoffs, feature a quarterback who is or was great, and find a way to produce rushing yards with whomever might be available.
The Vikings feature a quarterback who still is developing and the NFL’s leading rusher.
The four quarterbacks remaining: Tom Brady, who might be the greatest ever; Cam Newton, who might be the most valuable player in the NFL this season; Carson Palmer, who might finish second in the MVP voting; and Peyton Manning, who might be the greatest regular-season quarterback in history.
The running backs featured by the four remaining teams: the Patriots’ Stephen Jackson, who was called out of retirement; frequently injured Jonathan Stewart, who is capable but hardly a star; the Cardinals’ David Johnson, a rookie fourth-round draft pick out of Northern Iowa; and the Broncos’ Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, who wound up sharing the job when Anderson couldn’t keep it early this season.
The Patriots are the closest thing to an NFL dynasty over the past 20 years, and they’ve rarely invested heavily in the running back position. They spent a first-round pick on the Gophers’ Laurence Maroney and regretted it, and they sent a second-round pick to the Bengals for Corey Dillon in 2004 and made good use of him. Other than that, they’ve been happy to plug in anybody from Jonas Gray to LeGarrette Blount.
The Vikings’ reliance on Adrian Peterson defies NFL trends. The seven leading rushers in the league this year — and 12 of the top 15 — played for teams that did not make the playoffs. (Nine of the top 15 receivers did not make the playoffs, a sign that reliance on any one skill-position player other than quarterback may not be ideal.)
The last time the NFL’s leading rusher won a Super Bowl: 1998, when Terrell Davis teamed with John Elway.
This season, the Seahawks offense blossomed in the absence of star running back Marshawn Lynch, and struggled on Sunday against Carolina when he returned.
The Panthers look like what the Vikings could be with one caveat: Bridgewater and Newton are not alike. Newton is a powerful runner and thrower. Bridgewater completes an impressive percentage of his passes (64.9 through two seasons) and took a team to the playoffs in his second season despite poor offensive line play.
For the Vikings to do what the Panthers have done — become a dominant team — Bridgewater will have to improve, and Peterson likely will have to become less important to a team that has long relied on him.