When: Noon Sunday, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
TV (radio):Ch. 9 (100.3-FM)
Line:Vikings by 2 1/2

The Vikings' last game before the bye week begins a stretch of five straight matchups against winning teams. But with Christian McCaffrey out and the Panthers' line vulnerable to the Vikings' pass rush, this is as good an opportunity as any in the stretch for Minnesota to get its first road win of the year. The Vikings will harass Sam Darnold and get to 3-3.

THREE STORY LINES

.500 before the bye?
The Vikings are beginning their toughest stretch of the season, facing six teams with a combined record of 27-9 over the next seven weeks. Sunday's matchup might be the last time they will be favored for several weeks, though. If they're able to beat a Carolina team that started 3-1 before losing to Philadelphia last week, they would head into their bye week at 3-3, with their first road win of the year and some confidence before a Halloween night matchup with the Cowboys.

Cook-McCaffrey matchup won't happen
Running back Dalvin Cook is on track to return from a sprained ankle on Sunday, after he was a full participant in practice on Thursday and Friday. He will not see his counterpart from the draft class of 2017; the Panthers placed McCaffrey on injured reserve Saturday with a hamstring injury, meaning he will miss at least the next three games. The Panthers could try to get things going with Chuba Hubbard, while Cook faces a Carolina run defense ranked second in the league.

Which Darnold will show up?
When Carolina won three straight to start the season, they got efficient play from Darnold, the former No. 3 pick in the draft playing his first year with the Panthers. In the past two weeks, though, Darnold has thrown five interceptions, including three last week in a surprising loss to the Eagles. The Vikings picked off Darnold three times in their win over the Jets three years ago; they'll try to reprise their success against him on Sunday.

TWO KEY MATCHUPS

Vikings DE Everson Griffen vs. Panthers T Cam Erving
Griffen had two sacks last week and figures to start at right defensive end again after playing 49 snaps against the Lions. He'll play mostly in passing situations, but he could have an opportunity to pressure Darnold when he's matched up against Erving, the former first-round pick who's allowed 14 pressures this season.

Vikings WR Justin Jefferson vs. Panthers CB Donte Jackson
Jefferson will see plenty of Jackson with first-round pick Jaycee Horn out with a broken foot. Jackson, a teammate of Jefferson's at LSU for one season, has been beat deep only once this season, but the Vikings could look to take advantage of one-on-one matchups if they can pick up the Panthers' blitzes and get the ball to Jefferson downfield.

ONE STAT THAT MATTERS

1: Quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards against the Panthers since the start of the 2020 season. Patrick Mahomes threw for 372 yards in a win over Carolina last November. This season, no QB has thrown for more than 258 against Carolina.

THE VIKINGS WILL WIN IF …

They can get Cook back to a full workload, command the game on the ground and neutralize the Panthers' blitzes by building off their run game. Carolina blitzes more than almost any team in the league, and will likely try to come after Kirk Cousins. The Vikings need to use their ground game to keep Carolina's pass rush at bay, and take advantage of the mismatches they could have with Griffen and Danielle Hunter against the Panthers' line.

THE PANTHERS WILL WIN IF …

They can get Darnold enough time to test the Vikings' secondary downfield, especially with deep threats like Robby Anderson, and play effectively enough in press coverage to keep Cousins from finding Jefferson and Adam Thielen when the Panthers send blitzes after the Vikings' quarterback.

Prediction: Vikings 20, Panthers 16