QB Teddy Bridgewater's return for Panthers comes against former team; Christian McCaffrey not expected to play

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will return for Sunday's game at Minnesota, marking his first start against his former team since he suffered a horrific left knee injury during the Vikings' 2016 training camp.

"For me, it's just another opportunity to do what I love to do,'' Bridgewater said on Wednesday. "Can't make these games bigger than what they are. I'm aware of the storyline and the buildup. But it's the most important game because it's the next game.''

Christian McCaffrey returned to practice Wednesday after missing the past two games with a shoulder injury, but coach Matt Rhule doesn't expect his star running back to play against the Vikings.

Bridgewater was a full participant in practice and McCaffrey was limited.

Rhule said he didn't notice any difference in Bridgewater's demeanor preparing to face the team that made him a first-round pick in 2014 out of Louisville.

"I don't sense he's looking at it differently,'' Rhule said. "He's excited to get back out there and play. He's our starting quarterback. He's our leader. P.J. [Walker] came in and did a good job, got us a win, but Teddy's our guy.

"We expect him to play well and everyone to play well around him.''

Bridgewater missed Sunday's game against Detroit with a sprained right knee despite being clearing medically to play. Walker led Carolina (4-7) to a 20-0 victory in his first NFL start.

While Bridgewater wanted to play against the Lions, he understood Rhule's decision to sit him.

"At the end of the day the coaching staff, the organization, did what's best for me,'' he said. "I'm feeling good. ... I was just happy for P.J. to get out there."

Bridgewater missed all of the 2016 season and most of the 2017 season after suffering the career-threatening right knee injury that required nearly 16 months of rehab.

He spent the 2018 and '19 seasons at New Orleans before signing a three-year, $63 million deal with the Panthers this past offseason.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said it was "really hard'' to move on from Bridgewater. He said it came down to advice from the medical staff, which was unsure Bridgewater would come back fully from the torn ACL and dislocated knee that occurred during a non-contact drill.

"At that point in time, the odds of guys having a long career and playing with the things he had was not very good,'' Zimmer said. "I'm happy for Teddy. No. 1, he deserves everything he gets.

"I talked to him before the season and told him I'm going to wish you luck in 15 games. We have a lot of respect for each other.''

McCaffrey has missed eight of the past nine games. He missed six straight with a high ankle sprain, then suffered the shoulder injury late in his return against Kansas City.

With a bye next week, he is expected to be ready for a Dec. 13 game against Denver.

"He got out there [today],'' Rhule said. "He moved around. He's making progress. As soon as he's full go we'll put him out there.''