Perhaps the NFL schedule makers went to the well one too many times. For the third consecutive season, the Vikings will visit Green Bay during Week 16 or 17 of the regular season. And why not? The last two visits produced high drama games with playoff positions on the line.
On Christmas Eve last year, the Packers eliminated the Vikings from playoff contention while winning their fifth straight in what would eventually be an eight-game run that ended in the NFC title game. In the 2015 season finale (which was actually played Jan. 3, 2016), Minnesota upset the Packers at Lambeau Field to win the NFC North and send Green Bay on the road for Wild Card Weekend. But this time around, only the Vikings have anything at stake.
Green Bay (7–7) was eliminated from the playoff race when Atlanta beat Tampa Bay on Monday night, and reality really set in on Tuesday when the Packers put quarterback Aaron Rodgers back on injured reserve. Minnesota has clinched a playoff spot, but its seed in the NFC playoffs is still to be determined. The Vikings (11–3) could still pass the Eagles (12–2) and claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as they hope to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on their home field. But they also stand just one game ahead of the Rams, Panthers and Saints (all 10–4), so the No. 2 seed (and the bye that comes with it) is not clinched yet.
Minnesota at Green Bay
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Vikings -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Is Case Keenum for real?
There are those who will take everything that happens in this game with a grain of salt given that the Packers may, well, pack it in and run for the bus with their playoff hopes already dashed. But with each passing week, Keenum (right) silences more doubters and looks like a quarterback who could lead a real playoff run for the Vikings. Few would have believed that when he was signed to back up Sam Bradford after starting here and there for the Texans and Rams over the last four seasons. He had never completed even 61 percent of his passes in any season, and last year threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 10 games for Los Angeles. But at age 29, Keenum has been a big part of Minnesota’s success, winning nine of 12 starts while completing 67.9 percent of his throws for 20 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Certainly he has gotten plenty of help from a defense that ranks second in yards and points allowed; but the Vikings are also a top-10 offense in scoring and yards, and they rank ninth in the NFL in both rushing and passing. Keenum deserves much of the credit.
2. Hundley has struggled at home
Packers quarterback Brett Hundley (above, right) was inconsistent during a seven-game stretch as the starter before Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone last week. That wasn’t unexpected; what is unusual, though, is that the second-year passer has been much better on the road. With Rodgers now shut down for the season, Hundley gets two more games to prove he can get the job done if Rodgers gets hurt again next season. Packers fans will feel better about that if he can improve on some ugly numbers at Lambeau so far. In four home starts, Hundley is averaging 131 passing yards with no touchdown passes and five interceptions. It won’t be easy to improve against a Minnesota defense that ranks third against the pass and has allowed only 13 touchdown passes, second in the NFL. When these teams met in October and Hundley took over for the injured Rodgers in the first half, the Vikings sacked him four times and picked him off three times.
3. How will the Packers respond?
Green Bay had not missed the postseason since Rodgers’ first year as a starter in 2008. It had to be a downer for the whole team when head coach Mike McCarthy announced that his star quarterback would not play again this season, literally telling everyone there’s no point risking Rodgers’ health for games that mean nothing. So can we really expect the rest of the team to go all out? They also just watched their star receiver, Davante Adams, get concussed for the second time this season from an illegal hit. This isn’t to suggest the Packers who are playing will just lay down, but it would not be stunning if they were lacking the emotional edge necessary to rise up and upset one of the NFL’s best teams.
This has the feel of one of those games where everyone is just hoping to get out healthy. Certainly the Vikings want to win, because a bye in the playoffs would be huge, so they will be ready to play. But on a night where the temperature is expected to fall into the single digits, everyone may just be happy when this one is over.