Division rivals headed in opposite directions are on tap for tonight when the Green Bay Packers take on the Minnesota Vikings at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Mike McCarthy’s Packers (4-2) entered Week 8 having won three in a row and with a half-game lead on the Lions and Bears in the NFC North. Leslie Frazier’s Vikings (1-5) are alone in the cellar and have been outscored 58-17 in their last two losses. Minnesota also is starting its third quarterback in as many games, as Christian Ponder goes back under center after Matt Cassel started in Weeks 4 and 6 and former Tampa Bay starter Josh Freeman got the nod this past Monday night against the Giants.
The Packers have been hit hard by key injuries on both sides of the ball, but continue to find a way to win. The Vikings have issues on both sides of the ball, but most of their problems start at quarterback. This also represents the last game in the Metrodome between these two long-time division rivals. The Vikings are set to play the 2014 and ’15 seasons at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium while the team's new home is under construction at the Metrodome site in downtown Minneapolis.
3 Things to Watch
Can Peterson Run “All Day” on the Packers?
Regardless of the sad state of Minnesota’s quarterback situation, everyone knows that the Vikings’ offense begins and ends with Adrian Peterson. The reigning NFL MVP enjoyed quite a bit of success against Green Bay last season, rushing for 508 yards in three games, including the Wild Card loss at Lambeau Field. Peterson gained 199 yards on 34 carries in the Vikings’ home win over the Packers in the 2012 regular-season finale, clinching Minnesota’s playoff berth and coming just nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s rushing record in the process. This season, Peterson has 511 yards rushing and five touchdowns through six games. He’s actually ahead of last season’s pace (499 yards through six games), which only reinforces how ridiculously good he was in the second half of 2012. That said, it has been Green Bay’s rushing defense that has been ridiculously good this season. The Packers are third in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing just 79 yards per game, and only one running back has gained more than 50 yards (Alfred Morris, 107) on the ground against them. The Vikings obviously need Peterson to lead the way, but will this year’s Packers defense be as accommodating?
Ponder’s Last Stand?
Ponder suffered a rib injury in the Week 3 loss to Cleveland, which caused him to miss the next game. Matt Cassel took over and led the Vikings to a win over the Steelers in London before throwing two interceptions in a blowout loss at home to the Panthers in Week 6. A few weeks ago, Minnesota signed Tampa Bay cast-off Josh Freeman, who then made his Vikings debut on Monday night against the Giants. Freeman was horrendous, completing 20 of 53 passes for 190 yards and an interception, as the offense scored no points (lone touchdown was on a punt return) and totaled 206 yards in the 23-7 loss. As bad as Freeman played, he would have gotten another start had he not sustained a concussion. That’s all that needs to be said about the team’s confidence in Ponder, who needs to approach this game as his opportunity to show not just the Vikings, but the rest of the teams, that he has what it takes to be a serviceable quarterback in the NFL. Ponder’s numbers this season (59 percent completion rate, 691-2-5) certainly don’t inspire confidence, but he did come up big against the Packers last season when it mattered the most. With the Vikings facing a must-win situation to secure a playoff berth, Ponder threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-34 victory over Green Bay in the 2012 regular-season finale. That game also was played in the Metrodome, so no doubt Ponder would love to repeat that performance tonight. His NFL future may depend on it.
Green Bay’s New Aerial Attack
Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target, wide receiver Randall Cobb, suffered a broken fibula two weeks ago against Baltimore and will be out until the middle of December, at minimum. In that same game, fellow wideout James Jones sprained his knee. Although he escaped serious injury, Jones didn’t play last week and it’s highly doubtful he will be on the field tonight. The Packers also are without tight end Jermichael Finley, who had to be taken off the field on a stretcher last week after taking a big hit. Finley spent several days in the hospital and has been diagnosed with a spinal contusion. He is out indefinitely, which means the Packers could be without three of their four top pass-catchers. Jordy Nelson has assumed the role of No. 1 wide receiver, while Jarrett Boykin filled in quite nicely last week in place of Cobb and Jones. Boykin will need to continue his outstanding production and the Packers also will need contributions from backup tight end Andrew Quarless and perhaps rookie running back Johnathan Franklin to prevent defenses from focusing all their attention on Nelson. The Vikings are a good matchup for a team looking to break in its new aerial attack, as they are 29th in the NFL in passing defense (288.8 ypg). So while some of the names of those catching his passes have changed, Rodgers is hoping the results won’t.
Green Bay Key Player: Eddie Lacy, RB
The Packers’ second-round choice in April’s draft, Lacy got off to a slow start. He rushed for just 41 yards in his first NFL game and then sustained a concussion on his first carry in Week 2. After missing a game, Lacy returned after the team’s bye and has shown why he was so highly touted coming out of Alabama. Lacy has 301 yards rushing in his last three games, all Green Bay wins. Lacy’s success on the ground is even more critical now that the Packers are without wide receiver Randall Cobb (broken leg) and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck injury) for an extended period of time, and could be missing wideout James Jones (sprained knee) tonight as well. Aaron Rodgers has one 300-yard passing game during the team’s current three-game winning streak, as the Packers have relied more on the ground game to eat up the clock and wear down defenses. Minnesota is allowing 102.3 yards rushing per game, which is right around Lacy’s average over the past month. As far as Green Bay is concerned, another “average” performance tonight from its rookie running back wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Minnesota Key Player: Greg Jennings, WR
Even without his obvious ties to tonight’s opponent, Jennings is one of the Vikings who really needs to step up against the Packers. After spending the first seven seasons of his career with the Packers, Jennings was Minnesota’s big free-agent acquisition during the offseason. And if signing a five-year, $45 million contract wasn’t enough; he had no problems taking several shots at his former team and quarterback on his way out of Green Bay. Jennings has wisely backed off or tried to explain those earlier comments this week, but he also knows he can’t take them back completely. The easiest way for him to move past this is to make more noise on the field, and tonight would be as good a game as any for him to finally break out as a Viking. Jennings is tied for second on the team with 24 catches for 327 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers have been more generous against the pass compared to the run, so Jennings and his teammates should get their opportunities to make some plays. While quarterback play has certainly been an issue for the Vikings this season, Jennings can’t use that as an excuse. After all, no one has a better understanding of the quarterback situation for these two teams than him.
Green Bay has been hit hard by injuries, but yet has still found a way to win. The offense is adjusting to its personnel, as rookie running back Eddie Lacy has been able to take some off of the pressure off of Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. The defense has kept things together despite linebacker Clay Matthews’ extended absence and is among the best in the league in stopping the run.
Minnesota is a team in transition, but turmoil is probably the more fitting descriptor. The Vikings have employed a revolving door at quarterback, which not only means the passing game has struggled to find a rhythm or any consistency, but it also allows defenses to focus solely on slowing down Adrian Peterson. Meanwhile the defense is starting to show its age and a few key injuries have exposed this unit’s weaknesses.
Peterson ran wild against the Packers last season, but that was a different defense and it’s Green Bay who has flexed its muscles on the ground lately. Even without three of his top four weapons, Rodgers shows why he’s one of the NFL’s best as he and Lacy combine to dominate the time of possession battle and simply wear out the Vikings defense in the process. Green Bay wins its fourth in a row without really breaking a sweat, closing out its record in the Metrodome at 15-16.
Green Bay 31, Minnesota 17