Panthers need win against Vikings to go from pretender to contender

NEW ORLEANS -- The Carolina Panthers have had three opportunities to make a major statement this season.

They are 1-2 in those games.

They beat New England 33-30 in Week 4 before the Patriots got right defensively. They lost 28-23 to Philadelphia in a Week 6 Thursday night game at home and 31-21 to New Orleans on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

This week they get a fourth chance against the Minnesota Vikings (10-2), who are tied with the Eagles for the top seed in the NFC.

Mistakes were the common denominator in the two losses. The Eagles turned two Cam Newton interceptions in Carolina territory into touchdowns.

A 72-yard run by New Orleans running back Mark Ingram against an eight-man front designed to stop the run led to one Saints touchdown and a muffed snap by Carolina punter Michael Palardy led to another.

New Orleans (9-3), which swept the Panthers (8-4) by a combined 65-34, now is in control of the NFC South. The only team that seemingly can derail the Saints is Atlanta, which has two games left against its division rival, the first on Thursday.

So the Panthers basically need to become Atlanta fans -- and then beat the Falcons (7-5) in their regular-season finale to have a legitimate chance to win the division.

But in order to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender, as Carolina players believe they are, they have to win the big games.

A win against the Vikings would be a step in the right direction.

“Are we upset about this loss?’’ Newton asked. “Yes, as we should be. But there’s still things in our future that can get us on the right track again.’’

A win against Minnesota would make a statement. The Vikings have won eight straight since a Week 4 loss to Detroit, a team Carolina beat on the road.

They beat New Orleans 29-19 in the opener and Atlanta 14-9 on Sunday.

They are a legitimate contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Right now the Panthers are pretenders. They aren’t consistent enough offensively to outscore teams every week. The defense, despite ranking second in the NFL coming into Sunday, has given up a combined 58 points in the past two games.

When both sides of the ball are playing sound, as several players reminded, the Panthers are hard to beat.

But Super Bowl contenders win when both sides aren’t playing sound, and this team is far from a Super Bowl contender.

“This stretch moving forward, we just have to catch fire in a good way, and I believe we will,’’ Newton said.

Newton has to catch fire. He has failed to top 200 yards passing in four of the past five games. In those four games he has only three touchdown passes.

That’s not winning football, particularly when the running game outside of Newton is struggling.

The good news for Carolina is Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen expects to return for Minnesota. His surgically repaired foot was too sore -- it also wasn’t worth the risk of a setback on the New Orleans turf -- to play on Sunday.

He can help bring consistency to the offense right away.

There’s also a chance Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will be back against the Vikings. He has been inactive for all but two games this season with a neck injury.

Newton is taking the optimistic angle. He likes that the Panthers have three straight games at home against Minnesota, Green Bay and Tampa Bay. He hasn’t ruled out seeing the Saints again and having another chance to make a statement.

That, of course, would have to be in the playoffs.

“That’s a good team,’’ Newton said. “If everything pans out right, we may see that team again. We just have to move forward, be optimistic of our opportunities, knowing the world doesn’t stop just because the Panthers lost [Sunday].’’