Shaky quarterback play has been at the root of the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers' problems thus far.
Their Week 6 matchup Sunday in Minnesota could mark the final game before Josh Freeman takes over for the Vikings, while Carolina is counting on Cam Newton to turn things around.
While Minnesota's quarterback situation remains an issue, the team knows it will have star running back Adrian Peterson for this matchup despite Friday's tragic death of his two-year-old son.
Peterson's son had been in critical condition at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls since Wednesday with severe head injuries. Joseph Patterson, 27, was charged with aggravated assault and aggravated battery in the child's death.
Peterson declined to talk about the case after practice Friday, but said he was certain he'll play Sunday.
``I'll be ready to roll, focused,' Peterson said. ``I will be playing Sunday, without a doubt.'
Peterson is second in the NFL with 421 yards rushing and first in the league with five touchdowns.
Freeman practiced with Minnesota (1-3) for the first time Wednesday since signing with the club Sunday. But coach Leslie Frazier ruled out any possibility that Freeman would start this week's game as he tries to digest a different offensive system.
Frazier will again give the start to Matt Cassel, who took first-team reps in practice. Cassel completed 16 of 25 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns in his first game for Minnesota, a 34-27 victory over Pittsburgh in London on Sept. 29.
"One thing you can expect in the NFL: expect the unexpected," Cassel said. "Because every week it changes. You never know what's going to happen. I learned that over time. This is my ninth year now."
Allowing Cassel that opportunity was a rib injury suffered by Christian Ponder, who is still limited in practice. Even if healthy, Ponder may have started his last game for the Vikings after throwing two TDs compared to five interceptions with a 65.9 passer rating in three contests this year.
Selected 12th overall by the Vikings in 2011, Ponder has one year remaining on his contract.
"On the surface, he'd question that," Frazier said. "He's human. I'm sure he has at times, but he just has to continue to work and work as hard as he can. And I think things will work out fine for Christian in the long term."
The Panthers (1-3) are enduring their third slow start in as many years with Newton at the helm after going 1-5 and 1-6 the previous two seasons. Their 22-6 loss at Arizona last week marked the first time since Nov. 13, 2011, that they failed to score a TD.
Newton was just 21 of 39 with three interceptions.
His 78.4 rating on the season is the lowest of his career and he's also found the end zone just once on the ground after totaling 22 rushing scores over the last two years.
Carolina ranks 27th in scoring (18.5 ppg) and 24th in total offense (329.0 ypg).
Newton also shouldered some of the blame for the team's second-half flops, as Carolina held a halftime lead in each of its losses.
"I think it's more on my behalf that I have to focus in and hone in on my skills and say 'Look, let me focus more in the second half and get the job done,'" said Newton, who was 22 of 35 for 290 yards and three touchdowns while also running six times for 53 yards in a 24-21 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 30, 2011.
Coach Ron Rivera pointed to shortcomings at other positions, particularly along the offensive line, which has surrendered 15 sacks, including seven to the Cardinals. He ruled left guard Amini Silatolu out for the rest of the season Monday due to a torn right ACL. The unit was already shorthanded after losing right guard Garry Williams for the year in Week 1.
"Teams are going to blitz us because they've had success blitzing us," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We have to pick up the stuff we've seen them do and then the stuff we've haven't seen them do we have to adjust on the fly. We're going to see a lot of different looks and we have to do a better job of picking them up."
One player trying to get to Newton on Sunday will be defensive end Brian Robison, who signed a four-year extension Wednesday that could be worth up to $28 million.
Steve Smith has caught 37 passes for 625 yards and four TDs in six career games against Minnesota, including a career-best 201-yard performance in a 38-13 victory on Oct. 30, 2005.
The Vikings have scored a first-quarter touchdown in eight straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL, while the Panthers' streak of holding their last eight opponents scoreless in the first quarter is also the league's longest.
Minnesota has won its last six home games immediately following a bye and is 5-2 against Carolina at the Metrodome.
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