Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones goes over Minnesota Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson for a touchdown pass in the first quarter of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
NFC playoff picture
1. Atlanta Falcons 11-1
At Panthers (3-9)
At Lions (4-8)
2. San Francisco 49ers 8-3-1
At Patriots (9-3)
At Seahawks (7-5)
3. Green Bay Packers 8-4
At Bears (8-4)
At Vikings (6-6)
4. New York Giants 7-4
At Redskins (5-6)
At Falcons (11-1)
At Ravens (9-3)
5. Chicago Bears 8-4
At Vikings (6-6)
At Cardinals (4-8)
At Lions (4-8)
6. Seattle Seahawks 7-5
At Bills (5-7)
7. Cowboys 6-6
At Bengals (7-5)
At Redskins (5-6)
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-6
At Saints (5-7)
At Falcons (11-1)
9. Minnesota Vikings 6-6
At Rams (5-6-1)
At Texans (11-1)
There’s no shortage of factors that helped the Green Bay Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
But at its most basic, it might have been this:
When the Packers’ quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, felt pressure in the pocket, he either scrambled for a few yards, put a throw on the money or threw the ball away. He didn’t make one game-changing mistake.
When the Vikings’ second-year quarterback, Christian Ponder, faced similar pressure, he made two huge errors that were the difference in the game. On one, he gave away a scoring chance by throwing across his body while on the run into the end zone, where safety Morgan Burnett in effect took points off the board with a leaping catch of a ball that floated a little too much. And on the second, with the Vikings again well into Packers territory, Ponder threw into double coverage just as he was hit, and Burnett again intercepted a ball that didn’t have quite enough zip.
So on a day when the nine-point-underdog Vikings easily could have won behind the mind-blowing running of Adrian Peterson, the Packers instead pounded out a 23-14 win at Lambeau Field.
“Any time you put any quarterback under pressure and make him scramble, get him on the move, the chances are he’s going to make a mistake,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Our guy doesn’t. Our guy’s special, though. Our guy is a special player right now, Ponder is still a young guy. He definitely has tools, but he’s still a young guy. He’s going to get it. A couple years from now, you’ll probably see a different quarterback.”
And just like that, the Packers are tied for first place in the NFC North Division with one quarter of the season remaining. They picked up a game on the Chicago Bears with help from the same Seattle Seahawks who defeated the Packers on the infamous Monday night replacement ref Hail Mary play in Week 2. On Sunday, the Seahawks knocked off the Bears in overtime at Soldier Field, which leaves the Packers and Bears tied at 8-4. The Packers won their first meeting with the Bears, and the second is at Chicago on Dec. 16.
“I can’t say there are many Seahawk fans in the locker room,” Rodgers said, “but we appreciate the help.”
The Vikings had a great chance to upset the Packers on the road, mainly because Peterson has come back from knee-reconstruction surgery to be one of the dominant players in the NFL.
Even without injured receiver Percy Harvin (ankle), the Vikings’ other game-changing talent on offense, Peterson gouged the Packers for 210 yards on 21 carries, a 10.0-yard average per rush. His 82-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, when he ran through tackles by Burnett just past the line of scrimmage and safety M.D. Jennings along the sideline, stunned the Packers and Lambeau crowd, and put the Vikings up 14-10 heading into the half even though the Packers had controlled most of the first 30 minutes.
“He might be the best back I’ve ever seen, period,” said Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, a 12-year pro. “He’s that good. If you break down anywhere on defense, he finds it. It’s amazing. The one player (errs), he always finds it. Then he hits the hole so hard, he runs so hard — he’s a great running back. Great running back.”
Peterson also made the plays that put the Vikings in scoring position just before Burnett’s two game-turning interceptions. The first was a 48-yard run on the first play of the third quarter that set up Minnesota at the Packers’ 12.
The second was a 23-yard burst through the left side of the line to the Packers’ 40. That ended up being Peterson’s last touch of the game, because after Burnett’s second interception, the Packers burned 11 minutes off the clock with a long drive to a field goal that left the Vikings playing hurry-up offense for the final 4 minutes of the game.
But Ponder’s two bad decisions kept at least six Vikings points off the board, and maybe as many as 14.
“It’s hard to overcome turnovers on the road,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “We don’t have that margin of error on our team right now. Hopefully (Ponder) and the rest of our team will learn that lesson.”
The Packers’ 11-minute drive, in the meantime, was where Rodgers helped make the difference.
Playing with an offensive line that for a little more than half the game featured undrafted rookie Don Barclay at right tackle after T.J. Lang had to leave because of an ankle injury, the Packers ran the ball as effectively as they have all season. Halfbacks James Starks (15 carries for 66 yards) and Alex Green (12 for 58) combined for 27 carries for 124 yards (4.6-yard average), and the Packers’ 152 yards rushing overall was their second-highest total of the season.
After Burnett’s second interception, which came on the final play of the third quarter, the Packers’ lead was only 20-14. They then ground out an 11-minute, 18-play drive capped by a 31-yard Mason Crosby field goal that gave them a two-score (nine-point) lead to put away the game. The Packers knocked out 25 of the 77 net yards on runs by Starks and Green. But Rodgers also converted the first four third downs to keep the drive alive: an 8-yard pass to Greg Jennings; a 3-yard scramble on a third-and-2; a 7-yard completion to tight end Jermichael Finley; and a scramble and throw on the run for a 33-yard completion to Randall Cobb.
So while Rodgers didn’t have one of his great games — his passer rating was 98.0 — the difference between him and Ponder was huge.
Rodgers’ lone interception came on a gadget play when he underthrew a bomb into double coverage that was intercepted at the Vikings’ 6, a play that cost the Packers decent field position but at least had the effect of a good punt. Rodgers’ 8.2-yard average on 35 pass attempts also are the numbers of a team that can make plays down the field. On the other hand, Ponder, without Harvin as a second threat, completed less than half his passes (12-for-25) for a pop-gun offense average of 4.76 yards per attempt.
“We’re always in the game because we have a quarterback who really takes care of the ball,” Williams said, “and we always have a chance to win at the end of the day. That’s something he’s been doing for years. He sat down for (three) years behind Brett (Favre), picked up the good things and left the bad things behind. He’s been great.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.