NFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers

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Longtime divisional rivals set to face each other in playoffs for only the second time

<p> NFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers</p>

The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers will face off for the second time in less than a week when their NFC Wild Card showdown kicks off on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. The Vikings (10-6) beat the Packers (11-5) last Sunday 37-34 in Minneapolis to secure their playoff berth, while costing the NFC North champions a first-round bye in the process. Even though these teams have played each other 104 times, this marks just the second postseason matchup. Minnesota beat Green Bay 31-17 in an NFC Wild Card game at Lambeau Field on Jan. 9, 2005. In that game, Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw four touchdown passes (two to Randy Moss), while future Hall of Famer Brett Favre tossed four interceptions in what was, at the time, just the Packers’ second home playoff loss in franchise history.

When the Minnesota Vikings have the ball:
Minnesota’s offense can be summed up in two words: Adrian Peterson. All the running back did this season is become just the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards, as he ended his spectacular campaign just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season record. Peterson, who is just over a year removed from a devastating knee injury, posted a career-best 2,097 yards rushing, including 199 in last Sunday’s playoff-clinching win against Green Bay. In two games against the Packers, Peterson has piled up 409 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns. Peterson’s record-setting season is the main reason why the Vikings finished 20th in the league in total offense with 336.6 yards per game. They ended up second-to-last in passing offense (171.9 ypg), although second-year starting quarterback Christian Ponder did post some of his best numbers in last week’s win over Green Bay. Ponder completed 16-of-28 passes for 234 yards and a season-high three touchdowns in the Vikings’ 37-34 victory. It marked the first time since Week 8 that Ponder threw for more than 221 yards in a game. Ponder’s development has been hurt by the loss of wide receiver Percy Harvin, who went on injured reserve in early November after suffering a ligament tear in his ankle. Ponder’s favorite target since Harvin’s injury has been tight end Kyle Rudolph, who finished second to Harvin in receptions and yards, and leads the team with nine touchdown catches. Even with a lack of production from the passing game, the Vikings finished 14th in the league in scoring at 23.7 points per game, thanks in large part to the leg of Blair Walsh. The rookie kicker connected on all 10 of his field goal attempts from 50 yards and out and missed just three of 38 tries overall, earning him a Pro Bowl invite. If not for the 23 turnovers committed by the Vikings, including 12 interceptions thrown by Ponder, Walsh probably would own instead of share the record for most field goals made by a rookie kicker.

Green Bay’s defense finished 11th in the league in both yards (336.8) and points (21.0) allowed. The Packers were 17th against the run (118.5 ypg) and 11th against the pass (218.3 ypg). To be fair, the Packers did face five of the league’s top rushers in Peterson (twice), Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson and Frank Gore. Of this quintet, Peterson by far (409 yards in two games) did the most damage with Gore being the only other one to rush for more than 100 yards. The Packers produced the fourth-most sacks of any team with 47 and the defense picked off 18 passes. The unit also should get a boost with the return of All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson, who has missed the team’s past nine games after breaking his collarbone in Week 7.

When the Green Bay Packers have the ball:
Green Bay’s offense finished 13th in the league in total offense, which is more impressive when you take into consideration the ineffectiveness of its running game. The Packers averaged 359.4 yards per game in the regular season, with more than 70 percent of that courtesy of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the passing game (253.1 ypg, ninth). The Packers averaged 27.1 points per game, good for fifth overall, as Rodgers tossed 39 touchdown passes, which were second only to Drew Brees’ 43. The reigning MVP finished as the league’s top-rated passer (108.0) and threw just eight interceptions despite being sacked a league-high 51 times. Rodgers also is the team’s second-leading rusher with just 259 yards, which says all you need to know about the Packers’ inconsistent ground game. As a team, the Packers averaged 106.4 yards rushing (20th in NFL) and had a total of nine rushing touchdowns during the regular season, two of those by Rodgers. Contrast that to wide receiver James Jones, who led the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions. Rodgers has other targets to throw to, including wideouts Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and tight end Jermichael Finley. Jennings and Nelson both missed time during the regular season due to injuries and Cobb was held out of last week’s loss to Minnesota because of an ankle injury, but all three should be in there tonight with Nelson (knee) appearing to be the biggest question mark. Even though he missed the regular-season finale, Cobb has already broken the Packers’ single-season record for all-purpose yards, while Jennings and Nelson combined for 11 catches, 207 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings last Sunday. The Packers turned the ball over just 16 times in 16 games during the regular season, tying them for the second-fewest turnovers in the NFC.

Minnesota’s defense finished in the middle of the league in both total (350.0 ypg, 16th) and scoring (21.8 ppg, tied for 14th) defense. The Vikings were 11th against the run (105.8 ypg), compared to 24th (244.3 ypg) against the pass. Then again, facing Aaron Rodgers (twice), Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will do that to your pass defense statistics. The Vikings ended up right behind the Packers in sacks with 44 (tied with Houston for fifth in NFL), led by Pro Bowl reserve Jared Allen’s 12. The defense also has produced 22 turnovers, including 12 fumbles.

Key Factor:
Believe it or not, even though Minnesota and Green Bay have played each other 104 times, this will be just the second time they will have met in the postseason. While this may technically serve as the rubber match of this season’s meetings, the stakes are completely different than they were for last week’s regular-season finale. The Vikings needed that victory more than the Packers, who had already secured a playoff berth by winning the NFC North. Green Bay did have a chance to earn a coveted first-round bye, but this is a veteran team with plenty of postseason experience under its belt. The same can’t be said for the Vikings, who were last in the playoffs in 2009. Even though the Vikings have Comeback Player of the Year and MVP contender Adrian Peterson in their backfield, there is no comparison when it comes to the quarterback position. The Packers have the reigning MVP leading their offense, while the Vikings will look to the league’s 21st-rated passer during the regular season, who will be starting his first career NFL playoff game. And it will take place on the road, on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. On top of that, the Packers also will welcome the return of defensive leader Charles Woodson to the secondary and should have its full complement of offensive weapons as well. It’s been a good run for the Vikings, but the Packers are still the class of the NFC North.

Prediction: Packers 34, Vikings 23

Related:

AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals vs. Houston Texans

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