Final MNF of the season features a fight for NFC North title
The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, longtime rivals, are set to clash for the NFC North title Monday night, but they're both alive for a larger prize: the conference's top seed. They're two of five teams jockeying for that spot, part of a top-heavy NFC playoff race where each contender could end up with 12 wins or more.
The fact the Packers (11-3) are in this position, one year removed from a 6-9-1 season, is impressive. Buoyed by first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, running back Aaron Jones has provided the type of rushing production rarely seen during the Aaron Rodgers era. It's created a multi-dimensional offense that can beat you any number of ways.
The Vikings (10-4), meanwhile, have won eight of their last 10 games with a resurgent Kirk Cousins under center. One year removed from bowing out of playoff contention in the regular-season finale, they clinched their spot on Saturday night courtesy of the Rams' last-second loss to the 49ers. Both a bid for the top seed (which requires a tie in the San Francisco-Seattle game next week) and the division would remain difficult, but the team's belief in itself and head coach Mike Zimmer is back in full force.
The Vikings also remain the lone undefeated team at home this season (6-0). Can they keep their momentum rolling at U.S. Bank Stadium? Or will the Packers continue their unlikely push to climb back atop the NFC? A win for them Monday night clinches the NFC North and equals the most regular-season wins for one of the NFL's most iconic franchises since 2014.
Green Bay at Minnesota
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 23 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Vikings -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who runs for the Vikings? And how in the world can that measure up to Aaron Jones?
The Vikings were dealt a blow Saturday when Dalvin Cook was ruled out with a left shoulder injury. Cook, whose 1,135 rushing yards rank fourth in the NFC, didn't practice all week after getting hurt in last week's win against the Chargers.
That would leave Alexander Mattison in position to start. Problem is, he's also nowhere near 100 percent. A sprained ankle suffered in Week 14 against the Lions leaves him questionable, putting third-string option Matt Boone in position to start.
To be fair, Boone ran for 56 yards and two scores in the second half last week after Cook's injury. But that was against a Chargers defense that already seemed to have given up. Try taking on a Packers unit that has 23 takeaways, seventh in the NFL, and whose rush defense has improved as of late (less than 100 yards allowed in two of the last three games). One of those success stories was against the Giants' Saquon Barkley; how do you think a second-year player with 32 career carries is going to fare?
It's a huge loss for the Vikings when you consider who is coming at them from the other sideline. Jones has been fantastic for the Packers, tied for the NFL lead with 14 rushing touchdowns (three of which have come in the past two games). He's also the team's third-leading receiver (425 yards) and has proved efficient in the red zone. The Vikings have the fourth-best red zone defense (47.5 percent conversion rate) but Jones will be one of their stiffest challenges of the year.
With that track record, it's notable that it's Cook, not Jones, suiting up for the Pro Bowl this January. With Cook out, Jones will be motivated to show the voters they made a mistake in front of a national audience.
2. Aaron Rodgers vs. Kirk Cousins
Some thought Cousins, snubbed for the Pro Bowl this week, should have earned a spot over Rodgers (8th career selection). His 111.1 passer rating is second in the NFC; 12 of his 25 touchdown passes have come over the last six weeks. Most importantly, a quarterback once considered a turnover machine is on track for the lowest full-season interception total (five) in his NFL career.
The problem for Cousins though could be as simple as the day of the week. He's 0-8 lifetime as a starter in Monday night games for both Washington and Minnesota. It feeds into a narrative that one of the better quarterbacks statistically this decade can’t pull through in clutch moments.
"If we get beat Monday night, it's not going to be because of Kirk Cousins," head coach Mike Zimmer said. "It's going to be because we didn't win as a team... hopefully, he has a great game and hopefully we win, but it's not all on him."
Rodgers doesn't need that type of protection concerning his track record. But the interesting thing about his game in 2019 is that one of the league's best quarterbacks has been more of a game manager than a game-changer. Currently riding the second-longest interception-free streak of his career, Rodgers is on pace to miss the 4,000-yard mark for just the fifth time in 12 NFL seasons as a starter. Three of those times, he was hurt or failed to start the full 16 games.
Where the pass yards have gone down, though offensive efficiency has gone up. A plus-14 turnover margin ranks second in the NFL behind the Patriots; their nine giveaways are second-fewest in the league behind the Saints. A clean game on a night where the Vikings are down one of their two best offensive players may be all Rodgers needs to pull out a victory on the road.
3. Which team's front four can excel?
Another Pro Bowl comparison/snub could be made for the Packers' 1-2 sack machine: the Smiths. Preston and Za'Darius have combined for 21.5 sacks through 14 games but neither one was selected; across the way, defensive end Danielle Hunter (13.5 sacks) got the nod for the Vikings.
Which side breaks through and creates pressure can be the x-factor here; these two defensive fronts don't get talked about enough because both defenses are a bit further down the stats sheet than they'd like.
But the ability for both teams to force turnovers will be a game-changer. Cousins, especially can be prone to fumbles — his 10 total through 14 games are tied for seventh in the league. Cousins has also gotten a bit lucky in that seven of those 10 have been recovered, masking some offensive line deficiencies that could be exposed by the right defensive attack.
The Vikings have had the Packers' number, especially at home. Some of the pressure also is off with their postseason spot secured following the Rams loss on Saturday night. There's still plenty to play for, however, and the Bears await in Week 17.
But the loss of Cook transforms a game that began as evenly matched for both sides. Expect the edge on this line for the Vikings to go down significantly with Cook’s absence — so jump on board quickly. It's not an upset when a team currently in position for a first-round bye beats its top rival to win the division.
Like it or not, get ready for some meaningful NFL playoff games at Lambeau Field during the NFL's 100th anniversary season. Could history write itself any other way?
Prediction: Packers 24, Vikings 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.