It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips when the Panthers face the Vikings on Sunday. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
GETTING SOME GUYS BACK
As much as anything, the Panthers are trying to create some sense of stability this season without swinging wildly in any particular direction from week to week.
The hope is that will eventually translate into season to season, but for now, they'll work with what they have.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be back on the field this week after he was held out last Sunday against the Lions because of a slight right knee injury. Honestly, it would probably take a restraining order to keep Bridgewater off the field in Minnesota, where his career started and nearly ended because of his 2016 left knee injury.
There were also promising signs with left tackle Russell Okung and right guard John Miller back on the practice field this week. While no one said it out loud, those two being out last week likely played into the decision to give Bridgewater a week to heal, and backup PJ Walker did a good enough job to lead them to the win.
Running back Christian McCaffrey won't be back until after the bye week (and he did more in practice this week as he comes back from his shoulder injury), but the Panthers are getting closer to what they're used to on offense, which can only help.
COUSINS ON A ROLL
The Vikings have committed themselves to quarterback Kirk Cousins, and their fate generally swings with his performance.
Early on this season, when he was turning it over all the time, that put them in a hole they may not be able to dig out from.
But for his part, he's played incredibly well since the bye.
In the four games since their break, Cousins has thrown nine touchdowns and just one interception, has completed 71.0 percent of his passes, averaging 9.9 yards per attempt, and has a passer rating of 128.2.
That's allowed him to put an ugly start behind him, as he held the league lead in interceptions earlier this year (only recently yielding it to Philadelphia's Carson Wentz), but has bounced nicely.
TAKE YOUR TIME TEDDY
This isn't the typical Vikings' defense we're used to seeing, primarily because they lack anything resembling a pass rush.
After losing defensive end Danielle Hunter to a season-ending injury, then flipping trade acquisition Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens in October, the Vikings are making do with a bunch of third-day picks (if that) up front.
Ngakoue had five sacks in his six games there, and there's a good chance he could be the team leader in that category at season's end, as no one else on the roster has more than three at the moment.
SHORTHANDED ON BOTH SIDES
The Panthers will be without cornerback Donte Jackson again this week as they try to let his problematic toe injury heal.
The Vikings could have an equivalent absence on the other side of the ball.
Wide receiver Adam Thielen has been on the reserve/COVID-19 list since Monday, and reports suggested he might not be cleared in time to play this week.
He had a huge game last time out, with eight catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns last week against Dallas. His 11 touchdown receptions are a league-high, as he's become Cousins' go-to target after they traded Stefon Diggs to the Bills this offseason.
Thielen has been especially dangerous in the red zone, with 10 of his touchdowns coming inside the 20-yard line.
The Vikings can still be effective on offense, especially with the way running back Dalvin Cook has performed this year, but being without Thielen would be a major blow.
GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN
The Panthers are on a bit of a roll against teams that employ the franchise's original coach, Dom Capers.
The 70-year-old Capers, who coached the Panthers from 1995-98 and led the expansion team to the NFC Championship Game in its second year, now works as a senior defensive consultant with the Vikings.
The Vikings are his seventh team since he left Charlotte, including long stints as the Texans' head coach (2002-05) and the Packers' defensive coordinator (2009-2017).
The last three times they've seen Capers, the Panthers have won, including last year's game against Jacksonville and the 2015 and 2017 games against the Packers. He had won the previous four meetings with the Panthers (1999 with the Jaguars, 2003 with the Texans, and 2011 and 2014 with the Packers).
The Panthers are 6-9 all-time against the Vikings, with a 3-2 record at home and 3-7 record on the road.