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5 questions for Vikings-Panthers Week 12 NFC battle

The Vikings welcome Teddy Bridgewater back to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.

The Minnesota Vikings no longer have a margin for error if they want to be a playoff team. With their loss to the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Vikings stand at 4-6 and need a bunch of scenarios to go their way if they are to make an improbable playoff run.

That means that the Vikings will have to either run the table or come as close as possible beginning with Sunday's matchup with the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers are 4-7 but are a team that is showing positive signs despite a rebuild. With Teddy Bridgewater leading the way, it sets up for an intriguing game on Sunday.

Will Justin Jefferson finally see more targets?

Jefferson has been one of the brightest storylines of the year for the Vikings. Through 10 games, Jefferson ranks ninth in receiving yards (848) and has done so by posting the second-highest yards per reception (18.8) in the NFL. Armchair quarterbacks realize that giving him the ball more is a good idea, but he saw just five targets in the Vikings' loss to the Cowboys and has averaged 6.6 per game since joining the starting lineup in Week 3.

This could be the week they get their wish. Adam Theilen has been placed on the COVID-19/reserve list and is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game. If Thielen is out, there should be plenty of opportunities for Jefferson to eat, but it still may not happen.

When Thielen missed six games due to a hamstring injury last year, Stefon Diggs didn't see a bump, recording 6.8 targets per game. While Gary Kubiak is running the show instead of Kevin Stefanski, it's hard to see a situation where Jefferson turns into a target monster. If that changes, however, it could mean good things for the Vikings.

Will the Vikings give Dalvin Cook a "load management" game?

"Load management" games have become all the rage in the NBA with players sitting out to reserve themselves for big moments. While Sunday's game classifies as one of those moments, the Vikings are playing a Carolina team that is sinking toward the bottom of the standings in the NFC.

Another flaw for Carolina has been their ability to stop the run. The Panthers are allowing 4.6 yards per carry on the season, which should pave the way for Cook to have another monster game, but not on as many touches.

With an average of 32.5 touches per game since the bye, Cook is on pace to collect 421 touches on the season. As history has shown, the 400-touch mark is one where running backs decline, but that may not matter to Mike Zimmer, who wants a playoff berth at all costs.

Can the Vikings get pressure on Teddy Bridgewater?

Bridgewater's return is a big storyline for Sunday's game, but so is the ability of the Vikings defensive line to show up. Last week against Dallas, the Vikings only pressured Andy Dalton four times on 34 dropbacks, which resulted in three touchdowns. 

If the Vikings want to come away with a win, they'll have to get a hand in Bridgewater's face. So far this season, Bridgewater has posted a 116.7 passer rating when throwing from a clean pocket. When he's under pressure, that number drops to 45.3, the ninth-lowest rating in the NFL.

There's more to say about Teddy's return, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Will the Vikings fix their special teams?

The special teams have become a disturbing trend over the past three games as key mistakes have cost Minnesota at crucial times. Last week, Kris Boyd was the main antagonist as he lined up wrong on a fake punt, committed a penalty and whiffed on a tackle that sprung CeeDee Lamb for a 20-yard gain that set up the game-winning score.

This happened after the Vikings benched Dan Chisnea and Austin Cutting, but it wasn't enough. The next step may be for more players to be swapped out including K.J. Osborn, who has struggled as the team's punt returner.

Things need to change as the Vikings have seen blocked punts, missed field goals and key mistakes that may have already sunken their playoff ship.

Will Bridgewater have a homecoming party?

Bridgewater will make his first appearance at U.S. Bank Stadium since entering a game in 2017 to a standing ovation.

With the road back from a gruesome leg injury suffered in 2016, the fact Bridgewater is even starting a game is a testament to his work ethic. However, if the Vikings have a say, it's going to be a rough homecoming.

Bridgewater will run the offense, but he has plenty of weapons to help steal the show. 

Against a defense that has allowed 400 or more yards in three of its past four games, the Vikings will have to find a way to bottle up Mike Davis, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson if they want a chance to win. Otherwise, it could be their final stand.

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