Each Thursday, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.
When the Green Bay Packers burst out of the starting gate with a 6-0 record, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they would roll to their fifth consecutive NFC North title. But the Minnesota Vikings had other ideas.
Two teams going in opposite directions will converge Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. While the Packers have lost their last three games, the Vikings (7-2) are riding a five-game winning streak behind a resurgent Adrian Peterson and head coach Mike Zimmer’s relentless defense. Minnesota leads the NFC North by a game and can take control of the division race by beating Green Bay.
Peterson, coming back from an NFL suspension that cost him most of the 2014 season, leads the NFL with 961 rushing yards. At age 30, Peterson looked as dominant as ever last Sunday at Oakland, steam-rolling the Raiders for 203 yards and a touchdown in a convincing 30-14 Vikings victory.
Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has displayed the poise of a veteran, rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs is providing a deep threat and a blitz-happy defense is making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
We asked beat writer Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect from the Vikings:
What has fueled Minnesota’s five-game winning streak?
MC: “They’re playing extraordinarily complementary football right now. Teddy Bridgewater actually is 5-0 in games he’s thrown for less than 200 yards. It starts with the defense and the running game. Adrian leads the league in rushing. … But Bridgewater isn’t turning the ball over, he’s been pretty smart with the ball. When needed, he has hit some balls he had to hit to win games. … He has stepped up. But the defense – they’re No. 2 in scoring (17.1 points per game); they were last in scoring defense in (previous head coach) Leslie Frazier’s last year. Zimmer really has brought it around, it’s very creative and he’s got really good athletes at all three levels. … So it’s been solid defense, running and very good special teams, and Teddy’s not making a lot of mistakes.”
How has Bridgewater progressed and is he capable of taking the Vikings deep into the postseason?
MC: “Bridgewater doesn’t panic, he’s very poised. … He can run but he doesn’t choose to much. They’ve shown they can hit some balls deep down the field. Stefon Diggs, since he was activated in Week 4, might lead the league in 20-yard catches. … Teddy’s got his head screwed on right. Everything that (Browns quarterback) Johnny Manziel is, this guy’s not.”
Adrian Peterson looked to be all the way back against Oakland, rushing for 200 yards. Is he as dangerous as ever, and has he been able to put last season’s suspension behind him?
MC: “Oh yeah, it's just like he’s 25 years old. When he hurt his knee in Washington at the end of the 2011 season, we all did stories about how nobody’s ever done this or that after a knee injury. And he comes back and runs for 2,000 yards and wins MVP. So you’d think people would learn, don’t put him in the 30-year-old box or the been-outta-here, might-be-rusty box, he’s just his own guy. … He’s looking really good. He’s got three straight games with 100 yards, and 200 against the Raiders. Yeah, he’s back.”
How will the Vikings’ defense go after Aaron Rodgers, who has burned them in the past?
MC: “Last year they had trouble stopping the run in the game at Green Bay and (former quarterback) Christian Ponder threw the game away in the second quarter (in a 42-10 Packers victory). But they’re stopping the run pretty consistently this year, and Linval Joseph, the nose tackle, is having an all-pro year, he’s just dominating up front. So if they can stop the run, they’ll at least make Rodgers work more than he’s had to work in recent years.”
The Vikings haven’t beaten a team that has a winning record. Does their schedule get tougher the rest of the way?
MC: “The thought was the Rams game (a 21-18 Vikings overtime victory Nov. 8) would be the start of the tougher part of the schedule. But (Nick) Foles wasn’t much of a quarterback and they stopped (running back Robert) Gurley. Then last week, they had to go out to play the Raiders (a 30-14 Vikings victory), but the Vikings are a lot better coached than the Raiders. But this obviously will be their toughest game, I don’t care how many the Packers have lost in a row. That might make it even more of a dangerous game because the Packers aren’t going to stay down for long.”
How pumped are the Vikings for this game?
MC: “There hasn’t been this much excitement for the team since ’09 with Brett Favre. … On Monday, Zimmer made T-shirts that said “NFC North” on the front and “Beat Green Bay” on the back, and that obviously became the storyline. And Zimmer was like, ‘Yeah, it was me. It’s a T-shirt, guys, it’s not that big a deal.’ But he also said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to have to pull out any magic wands’ to make them understand this is a big week.’”