Early division battle could set the tone for NFC North race
Winners of the past seven NFC North titles meet in Week 2 when the Minnesota Vikings make their annual pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers.
Starting the season with two home games is a luxury, but starting the season with two straight division games can be a challenge. And challenge is exactly how the season has started for the Packers (1-0). While I correctly predicted that Green Bay would win its opener against the Chicago Bears last week, the Packers had to overcome an unexpected 20-point deficit in order to do so. They also nearly lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the game (was replaced by DeShone Kizer for the end of the first half but returned) after he sprained his knee in the second quarter thanks to a sack by Bears defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris. They successfully defended their home field but left the game with some bumps and bruises.
The Minnesota Vikings (1-0) also started the year at home and showcased their dominant defense in a 24-16 victory over Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers. Every defensive player that took the field for Minnesota registered a tackle, while quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 244 yards and two touchdowns and finished the game with a 95.1 passer rating. The Vikings were firing on all cylinders in their opener, while the Bears nearly upset the Packers, and now there’s concern about Rodgers’ health. Prepare for another hard hitting game within the NFL’s “Black and Blue” division.
The Packers lead this all-time series 60-53-2, but they’ve lost four of the last six meetings with Minnesota, including two of the last three at Lambeau. And this game got more interesting with Rodgers not being at 100 percent.
Minnesota at Green Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 16 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The effectiveness of Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers may be listed as “day-to-day” and was held out of Wednesday’s practice, but the Vikings are preparing as if he’ll play anyway. Rodgers himself has said he will line up under center on Sunday. But since 2011, Rodgers completes less than 60-percent of his passes when he has at least two seconds to throw the ball when he’s limited to just throwing from the pocket. He was successful in being a pocket passer against Chicago, but the Vikings have a tougher and more accomplished defense. Rodgers ability to throw on the run and escape the pass rush is the biggest advantage that the Packers offense has; take that away and they will have to adjust a good portion of their game plan. If the Vikings were able to limit a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo to just 15 completions, they’ll definitely look to take advantage of a less-than-healthy Aaron Rodgers.
2. The Vikings are once again shaping themselves to be among the league’s best defenses
Aside from taking away most of Garoppolo’s throwing lanes the Vikings also sacked him three times, hit him nine times, pressured him 26 times, deflected nine of his passes, intercepted three of his passes, and held the 49ers to 90 rushing yards. Those numbers combined with Rodgers’ knee injury will force the Packers to adjust their game plan. The offensive line will have to adjust its protections to keep Rodgers upright, head coach Mike McCarthy will have to employ an extra blocker more than he usually does, and deep passes could be hard to come by.
3. Minnesota has the momentum in its recent matchups with Green Bay
Vikings are 4-2 in their last six games against the Packers and have outscored them 114-105 in the process. Minnesota won both meetings last year, the first time they’ve swept the season against Green Bay since 2009. The Packers were held scoreless in the most recent game (Week 16 last season), and the Vikings held Green Bay between 10 and 14 points in the other three wins. The most recent game between that turned into a shootout between these two teams was the Packers' Week 16 victory in 2016 (38-25). But there won’t be a ton of offense on Sunday.
Despite winning 17 of their last 26 home games, the Packers have their work cut out for them this week. The combination of Aaron Rodgers' health, Minnesota’s strong defense, the upgrade at opposing quarterback (Kirk Cousins instead of the Bears' Mitchell Trubisky), and Minnesota’s recent success against the Packers is quite the load to carry. It’ll be another tight defensive battle (the Packers defense can hold their own as they held the Bears to six second half points and sacked Trubisky four times last week), but Minnesota wins another close game at Lambeau.
Prediction: Vikings 21, Packers 20
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.