Three short weeks ago, it appeared as if Green Bay was headed for a Super Bowl collision with New England. The mighty Packers were stout on defense and were receiving tremendous performances from QB Aaron Rodgers. Sunday, the Pack staggers into Minneapolis searching for answers and wondering if it’s possible to regain the momentum it had generated during the season’s first six weeks.
If you think Green Bay’s stumble is surprising, consider the success of the Vikings, whose five-game winning streak is the third longest in the NFL, and whose first-place status in the NFC North is one of the season’s biggest shocks. Minnesota hasn’t been overpowering, but it has a solid balance on offense and has been playing sticky D that doesn’t allow rivals to get too comfortable. It may be premature to anoint the Vikes one of the NFC favorites, but a win over Green Bay will certainly make more people believe in the Purple.
Green Bay at Minnesota
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Pick 'em
Three Things to Watch
1. Purely Offensive
Through six games, Rodgers appeared to be on his way to an MVP award and one of the best seasons in his impressive career. Since then, he has lost some of his trademark accuracy and has been under siege behind a shaky offensive line. Rodgers completed just 57.4 percent of his 61 passes in last week’s embarrassing home loss to the Lions — Green Bay’s first at Lambeau to Detroit in 24 years — and appeared to have timing issues with his wideouts. The Packers’ three-game losing streak isn’t all Rodgers’ problem. The Green Bay ground game has been abysmal, and James Starks managed just 42 yards on 15 carries against Detroit. The receivers aren’t getting much separation from defensive backs, and the offensive line is struggling with pass and run blocking.
2. On a Roll
These aren’t the Bud Grant Vikings of the late ‘60s and ’70s, but Minnesota is playing the kind of steady, winning football its fans used to enjoy when Fran Tarkenton was under center, and the Purple People Eaters were terrorizing enemy attacks. The Vikes are playing ball control with Adrian Peterson, who leads the league in rushing by a wide margin, and backing up his efforts with steady play (64.2 percent completion rate, six interceptions) by QB Teddy Bridgewater. Peterson ran for 203 yards in last week’s 30-14 win at Oakland, his fourth consecutive 100-yard-plus game and the sixth 200-yard game of his career, which ties O.J. Simpson for most all-time. Minnesota isn’t overwhelming, but it is in first place, and that’s a big deal in an NFC that lacks an abundance of standout teams.
3. In No Rush
Through the first six games of the season, Green Bay had sacked enemy passers 23 times. Over the past three, no Packer has brought an opposing quarterback to the ground. Even though the Pack brought more pressure last week against Detroit, it still couldn’t register a sack of Matthew Stafford. That’s remarkable, given the fact that Stafford had been dumped 22 times in the first eight games. The Packers still have plenty of pop in the pass-rush department, thanks to Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, but they must get more pressure on Bridgewater Sunday to have a chance.
It’s tempting to think that there is no way the Packers can lose a fourth straight game, not with Rodgers at the helm. But this is a team that has looked lethargic the past three weeks and simply doesn’t seem to have enough playmakers to win a big one on the road. If the line doesn’t get more productive, the Green Bay offense will have to rely solely on Rodgers, and he doesn’t have the weapons outside to carve up defenses that are no longer respecting his receivers’ ability to get deep.
The Vikings play old-fashioned football, with frequent doses of Peterson that help minimize the difficult situations in which Bridgewater finds himself. This is not a team with great weapons on the outside — Minnesota has just seven TD catches — but with Peterson able to gain yards on first and second downs, it doesn’t have to go downfield too often. Minnesota wants to control the clock and play solid defense. Expect to see plenty of that this Sunday.
Prediction: Packers 23, Vikings 20
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.