So much for running the ball.
The Green Bay Packers’ offense hunkered down, bunched together and it still didn’t matter in Sunday night’s 20-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in front of 78,412 at Lambeau Field, a defeat that ends the Packers’ four-year reign as the kings of the NFC North and has them going the long way in the playoffs.
Green Bay now will have travel to Washington next weekend as the No. 5 seed in the NFC. It’s not exactly the way coach Mike McCarthy and his staff saw things playing out when they got off to a 6-0 start.
The Packers finally admitted their limitations in the passing game when they heavily leaned on packages with two tight ends and two running backs early on. It helped produce 70 yards on their opening series, but it wasn’t sustainable.
With left tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle) missing his second consecutive game, the Packers made the somewhat surprising decision to start all-pro guard Josh Sitton in his place at left tackle and bring in third-year reserve Lane Taylor at left guard. Sitton struggled in his matchup with Vikings end Everson Griffen.
It was obvious from the start the Packers planned to run the ball, starting the game with two tight ends, two running backs and James Jones as the lone receiver. The grind-it-out approach worked on the first series with the Packers producing their second-longest series of the season by time (8 minutes, 43 seconds) on a 15-play, 70-yard drive.
Only two plays went for more than 10 yards — Eddie Lacy’s 11-yard run and Aaron Rodgers’ 18-yard pass to Richard Rodgers — but the Packers faced only one second or third down from farther than 6 yards away from a fresh set of downs. The series ended on Mason Crosby’s 28-yard field goal.
Green Bay’s defense again did its best to keep the Packers in the game, following the same script from the first meeting with the Vikings in containing Adrian Peterson (11 carries for 30 yards in first half) early and keeping constant pressure on second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
The Packers would’ve held the Vikings to a single field goal in the first half if it wasn’t for their punt-return team biting on a fake on Minnesota’s first series that led an Adam Thielen 41-yard run. The defense didn’t allow another yard on the series, but Blair Walsh still made the 39-yard field goal.
The offense nosedived after the first series with the Vikings selling out against the run. Accordingly, Lacy was held to minus-2 yards the remainder of the half after rushing seven times for 28 yards on the first series.
The Packers still had another chance to score before halftime when they drove all the way to the Vikings’ 39 with 1 minute, 30 seconds left before halftime, but the momentum stopped when Randall Cobb dropped a screen pass on second-and-4.
A failed fourth-down conversion sent Green Bay into halftime down 6-3. The Packers got the ball first after the break, but promptly went three-and-out. Tim Masthay proceeded to shank the 29-yard punt to give Minnesota the ball at its 42.
The Vikings went back to Thielen, who made safety Morgan Burnett miss in the open field on his way to a 26-yard gain off an end-around to get to Green Bay’s 11. Three Peterson runs later, the Vikings took a 13-3 lead.
It appeared the Packers caught a break when Micah Hyde used one hand to pick off Bridgewater on third-and-4, but the offense did nothing with it. Facing a third-and-12 after a Corey Linsley holding call, Griffen beat Sitton off the edge and hit Rodgers’ throwing arm to cause a fumble.
Minnesota cornerback Captain Munnerlyn picked up the ball a few yards downfield and returned it for a 55-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
The Packers finally answered with a touchdown-producing series with Rodgers hitting Richard Rodgers across the middle on a 16-yard touchdown pass to end a 14-play, 80-yard series to cut the deficit to 20-10 with 13:27 left in the fourth quarter.
After the defense forced another stop, Rodgers started to get the passing attack going with deep connections to Davante Adams (17 yards) and James Jones (25 yards). An 11-yard slant to Cobb put the Packers in field-goal range with Crosby hitting a 43-yard field goal to pull Green Bay back within a touchdown.
The Packers were on the verge of giving up a big 71-yard return to Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson before kicker Mason Crosby forced a fumble, which was recovered by Hyde. It rejuvenated the offense with Rodgers hitting Cobb (17 yards) before connecting deep with Jones for a 37-yard gain.
Green Bay charged to the Minnesota 10 after a 13-yard screen pass to fullback John Kuhn, but that’s as far as the Packers would get. A screen to Cobb for no gain, sack and then end-zone interception to Xavier Rhodes that ended the threat.
The Packers’ defense earned another stop, giving the offense the ball back one more time at the Green Bay 42 with 58 seconds left. Rodgers completed a 12-yard pass to Rodgers on fourth-and-10 before a quick out to Adams for 7 with 24 seconds left.
The Packers got off another Hail Mary on fourth-and-2 as time ticked down, but the Vikings batted it down to seal the win.
Sunday’s loss ends a strange year for the Packers against divisional opponents. It marked the first time in franchise history Green Bay has lost all of its home games to division opponents, but swept them on the road.