3 things to watch: Packers vs. Vikings

Weston Hodkiewicz
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On the run

Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27) runs the ball against Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis November 22, 2015.

Jordy Nelson is running through individual drills at practice with relative ease, but the reality is the Pro Bowl receiver won’t be throwing on his No. 87 jersey this season. The Green Bay Packers’ 26th-ranked passing offense has been in flux with Nelson and his surgically reconstructed knee on injured reserve. Everyone seems to agree the offense’s best chances at postseason success will come through its 10th-ranked running game. The prototype for a balanced approach was achieved in the Packers' 30-13 win over Minnesota in November. The Packers dominated in all three phases behind mistake-free football and Eddie Lacy’s first 100-yard game of the season. You can’t always run 30 times per game, but it’s also no coincidence the Packers’ two most decisive victories in the second half of the season came when they ran the ball. The key is holding onto the football, though. Lacy and backup James Starks have combined for nine fumbles (four lost) so far this season. Starks’ fumble after halftime in Sunday’s 38-8 loss to Arizona led to him not seeing another offensive snap the rest of the game. Even through his struggles, Lacy remains quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ greatest weapon. The third-year running back has produced 416 of his 724 rushing yards this season in Green Bay’s last three games. That number likely would have been even more impressive if Lacy wasn’t benched against Detroit last month for blowing curfew. Regardless, the Packers are looking to duplicate their previous production against the Vikings. “I think if you ask any offensive lineman, they’re going to want to run the ball,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “If you ask any quarterback, he’s going to want to throw the ball. That’s just the way it is. No matter what the play call is, we need to go out and execute it the best we can. If we’re throwing it, we have to give Aaron the time. If we’re running it, we have to create lanes for Eddie and James, and get that ground game going.”

Stopping Peterson

The Packers had one of their best showings against Adrian Peterson in November, holding the future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back to a mere 45 yards on 13 carries. The performance was sandwiched between Peterson rushing for 203 yards against Oakland on Nov. 15 and then 158 yards versus Atlanta on Nov. 29. The 30-year-old running back picked up right where he left off after his 15-game suspension in 2014. He leads the NFL with 1,418 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He remains the linchpin for everything the Vikings do on offense. When the Packers shut him down, it allowed their edge rushers to get after second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sacked six times. Bridgewater, gifted with a strong temperament, has played better as the season has progressed, but he has natural limitations in his arm talent and overall athleticism. With a couple exceptions, it usually has come down to Peterson’s performance whether the Vikings’ offense succeeds. The Packers have defended the run better than their No. 21 ranking suggests, but they’ve been prone to giving up explosive gains. Linebacker Clay Matthews (six tackles, two for a loss) was critical in the Packers containing Peterson, but so was a defensive line that coach Mike McCarthy considers one of the team’s strengths. Two of their key run-stuffers, B.J. Raji (concussion) and Letroy Guion (foot), are banged up, though. It could be all hands on deck for Green Bay depending on whether Raji is cleared in time for the game. “Any time you play Adrian, you really have to be conscious and disciplined and not take chances,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “Obviously, when he gets going, he’s hard to stop. We had a couple plays (last time) where we were not so much undisciplined – just you think you can go make a play and he has the ability and the vision to see that and he cuts it back.”

Finding a way

It hasn’t been pretty and rarely have there been style points, but the Packers actually have played well when their back has been against the wall this season. In November, they answered the bell against the Vikings, who were leading the NFC North by a game at the time. Two weeks later, Aaron Rodgers connected with Richard Rodgers on a 61-yard touchdown off a Hail Mary that completed an improbable 27-23 comeback win over Detroit. It seems like every time you count out McCarthy and his team, they find a way to rally back. It’s not exactly the blueprint for success in the win-or-go-home playoffs, but it might be enough for the Packers to capture their fifth consecutive division title. Rodgers is the NFL’s reigning MVP for a few more weeks. While statistically this will go down as one of his worst seasons as the starting quarterback, you also can’t write off his success against the Vikings. He has a 116.5 passer rating in 15 games against Minnesota, throwing for 3,704 yards, 33 touchdowns and four interceptions. The Packers have won 10 of their last 11 meetings with the Vikings. “I know what we’re capable of, and I think we have the opportunity to put it together for two halves and just haven’t done it,” Rodgers said. “This was a playoff-style game for us, and we obviously played terrible (against Arizona) … but we’ve won a lot of games here. When you play long enough, you’re going to be on the wrong side of it sometimes. But I have confidence in those guys and myself that when it matters for all the marbles, we’re going to show up.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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