Each week, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.
The Packers were in deep trouble heading to Minnesota back in November. Reeling from three straight losses after a 6-0 start – the most recent a stunning home loss to Detroit – they were traveling to face a Vikings team that had won five straight and taken over first place in the NFC North.
How hyped were the Vikings? Coach Mike Zimmer distributed black T-shirts to his players with “NFC North” on the front and “Beat Green Bay!” on the back.
So wouldn’t you know: The Packers played one of their most complete games of the season and beat the Vikings in convincing fashion, 30-13. Eddie Lacy rushed for 100 yards, James Jones (wearing his green hoodie for the first time) caught six passes for 109 yards and Aaron Rodgers threw for two touchdowns.
The circumstances are similar for Sunday’s rematch that will determine the division champion. The Packers are staggering after a 38-8 dismantling by Arizona while the Vikings are fresh off two blowout victories. Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had a dazzling day Dec. 20 against the Bears (17-for-20, 231 yards, four touchdown passes, one rushing TD, passer rating 154.4), Adrian Peterson leads the NFL in rushing (1,418 yards) and their defense is healthy again.
Will Sunday see a changing of the guard in a division the Packers have dominated for the last four seasons? We asked Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect Sunday when they host the Vikings:
So, any “Beat Green Bay” T-shirts this week?
MC: “No, Zimmer said this week is more about preparation and just do your job. No T-shirts. They’re not going to go down that path again.”
What went wrong for the Vikings in that first game, when they were on a roll and the Packers were reeling?
MC: “They had a lot of penalties (eight). I think at one point they had a third-and-38. They’re the type of team, the way they’re built with defense and running and field position, when they commit penalties and they have first-and-20 it takes Adrian Peterson out of the mix and it snowballs from there. Two things that take this team down: turnovers and penalties. And then also when they can’t stop the run on defense. They’ve had trouble stopping the run against the Packers.”
The Vikings seemingly are surging again with two blowout victories after a narrow loss at Arizona. What’s clicking now?
MC: “It’s a similar feeling to that first game: The Packers had lost three straight, the Vikings had won five straight. It’s not as extreme, but the Packers did look pretty awful at Arizona. … The Vikings defense last week had three interceptions (in a 49-17 rout the Giants) and safety Harrison Smith came back and had a pick-6. Defensively, the big news was that three of their best players returned from injuries (Smith, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and linebacker Anthony Barr). Barr is their best defensive player, Smith is their second best and Joseph was just dominating centers before he went out. And Teddy Bridgewater was just really sharp against the Bears.”
What kind of progress have you seen from Bridgewater this season?
MC: “The good thing about him is that he understands his role. He’s not Aaron Rodgers. He’s not going to be a guy that has to carry the team at this point. His interceptions are low, he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes; he gets a lot of pressure, a lot of blitzes and throws the ball away probably more than anybody, which is a good thing based on how they’re built. I think the Seattle game (a 38-7 loss), he got a jump-start out of that, because it was just an awful performance across the board. After that they went to quicker passing, more rollouts and he was more alert and more determined when they went to Arizona. When they shifted into more of a quick-passing, rollout type of deal, that really helped him.”
What will the Vikings’ defense do differently against Aaron Rodgers and Packers’ offense this time?
MC: “How they defend Rodgers depends on how they stop the run. … The first game they had trouble stopping the run on first down and if you’re in second-and-2 or third-and-3 against Rodgers you’re just screwed. If they can stop the run and it’s second-and-9 or third-and-8, then they can do a bunch of different things. One of Zimmer’s strengths is the Double-A gap blitz and there’s a lot of things they can do but it really depends on stopping the run. On first down, they can’t be letting Eddie Lacy get seven or eight yards like they did before.”
How far can this young Vikings team go? Are they ready for a prime-time showdown to decide the division?
MC: “They’re a good team that is capable of playing really well or really crappy. They don’t have that consistency that I guess the Packers used to have or Rodgers had whenever he had some protection.”
How do you see it playing out?
MC: “My instincts tell me it will be similar to last time. The Packers got humiliated and now they’ll be the Packers again and play the way they should and win the game. But if they play like they did against Arizona, anybody would beat them. If the offense line can’t protect (Rodgers) and they stop the run, then yeah … The Vikings have their health back, the three key defensive guys are back, Adrian is looking good and he’s healthy. So if there’s a crack there, they can definitely step through. But they have to stop the run and they have to take advantage of that Packers offensive line. If they don’t stop the run I can just picture Rodgers having a great game and telling everybody how crazy they were for thinking the Packers were dead.”