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The Carolina Panthers are ecstatic to be 2-0 to start the season, and now they welcome star receiver Steve Smith back in the fold. The Minnesota Vikings have already switched quarterbacks in an attempt to turn their season around, and also have their star running back suffering from an injury.
Two teams on the opposite side of the emotional scale meet on Sunday when the Vikings host the Panthers.
After Smith was suspended for the opening two games following his attack on teammate Ken Lucas during training camp, many felt the Panthers would be lucky to split their first two contests. Instead, Carolina pulled off a stunning 26-24 win at San Diego in the season opener by scoring a touchdown on the final play, then rallied to score the final 17 points to beat Chicago 20-17 last Sunday.
They now get to add three-time Pro Bowler Smith back to the passing game.
“I’m excited to have our rocket back,” Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “I’m looking forward to having him back. I know the players are, too. He gives us that explosiveness.”
Smith has three straight 1,000-yard seasons and is regarded as one of the NFL’s top receivers.
“He’s ready to roll,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “Obviously he’s excited to be back and excited that we’re 2-0.”
The Vikings (0-2) had expected to be in the same position, but so far, all they have is a winless record and growing frustrations. They also have a new starter at quarterback, as coach Brad Childress announced Wednesday that Gus Frerotte will take over for Tarvaris Jackson for the rest of the year.
“I’m just not seeing right now the aggressiveness from Tarvaris that I saw throughout the offseason, training camp, the two preseason games that he played in,” Childress said. “And part of it may be experience. I know Gus will give us that. And I know his approach will also lend itself to that.”
Frerotte is a 15-year veteran who Childress hopes can steady the team’s offense, which has failed to muster much of an attack under Jackson in consecutive losses to Green Bay and Indianapolis. The Vikings got only five field goals from Ryan Longwell last Sunday and blew a 15-0 lead in an 18-15 loss to the Colts.
That offense may also be without Adrian Peterson, who was limited in practice on Friday and is questionable for Sunday because of a hamstring injury.
“Sometimes you have to protect the player from himself and err on the side of caution, and sometimes you feel good about what you’ve seen,” Childress said of last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The Panthers’ fast start has raised hopes the team can get back to the playoffs after missing out the last two seasons. The last time the Panthers started 2-0 was 2003, when they advanced to their only Super Bowl.
“It’s just a really good team right now,” said receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who surpassed 10,000 yards receiving against Chicago, his former team. “We want to build on that every week and gain a little more trust.”
A healthy Delhomme and a stout rushing attack have made a big difference for the team. The Panthers missed Delhomme’s leadership after he sustained a season-ending elbow injury in the third game last year, and Carolina can also rely on a two-headed rushing game with DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart.
The pair has combined for 247 yards in the first two games, with Stewart scoring twice in the comeback against the Bears.
“We really think we’re a different team this year,” Panthers tackle Jordan Gross said. “We’ve had two close games, two nail-biters and we were able to win both of them. It just adds onto the belief that we’ve got what it takes to win a few games.”
Perhaps Frerotte can give Minnesota what it takes to start winning games. Peterson has been as good as advertised in his second season, running for 160 yards against the Colts after gaining 103 against the Packers, but the team has struggled to score touchdowns.
“We know it’s still early in the year, but we wanted to start out of the gates quick,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said. “You don’t want to wait until the end of the season and say, ‘Oh if we would have won that game, we would have made the playoffs.’
“We just have to get on a run right now.”
Since 1990, only five teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3, a hole the Vikings don’t want to fall into. But the road ahead is difficult, as the combined record of Minnesota’s next three opponents is 5-1.
This is the eighth meeting between the teams and the seventh time they’ve played at the Metrodome. The Vikings lead the series 4-3, including a 16-13 overtime win two years ago.
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