Two NFC North rivals in prime position to battle for the final wild card spot
The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings started the 2018 NFL season as Super Bowl contenders. The Pack were expected to easily bounce back after losing Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone most of the 2017 campaign. While they struggled, the Vikings came within one win of being a Super Bowl home team, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. This was the duo most thought would fight for the NFC North crown.
Now? They’re simply fighting for their postseason lives.
The Chicago Bears have stolen the division, racing to an 8-3 record on the heels of quality defense. The Packers and Vikings, meanwhile, have gone a combined 7-9 since their 29-29 tie the second week of the season. Neither one has found their footing in a conference where the Rams and Saints have stolen their thunder as trendy Super Bowl picks.
Instead, the battle between these two teams this week, highlighted on "Sunday Night Football" may be for the final NFC Wild Card spot. The Vikings currently have it, sitting at 5-4-1 but have one of the league’s most difficult schedules down the stretch. Games against the Patriots and Seahawks remain (both on the road) along with one more against the Bears.
The Packers, meanwhile, sit at 4-5-1 but their schedule gives them an opening. Games against the Cardinals, Falcons, Jets and Lions could leave them at no worse than 9-6-1 if they’re able to beat the Vikings on the road. Can Rodgers pull off some magic despite working with a depleted receiving corps?
Green Bay at Minnesota
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 25 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Vikings -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Vikings jump-start their run game?
The Vikings’ biggest problem this season continues to be their rushing attack. They’re averaging just 84.7 rushing yards per game, ranked 31st in the NFL and have yet to fully replace the departure of Jerick McKinnon to the 49ers this past offseason.
Latavius Murray, it seems, has taken a step back. After a season-high 155 rushing yards against the Cardinals in Week 6, he’s run for a total of just 161 yards the last four games. It’s no surprise that the Vikings have gone 2-2 over that stretch as too much of the load has been shouldered by quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Second-year player and second-round pick Dalvin Cook has been a disappointment; he’s been hurt much of the year and is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. The third-leading rusher on the team? That would be Cousins (86 yards), a telling stat for an offense once built around future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson.
The Vikings' offensive line should shoulder part of the blame here. Cousins has been sacked 26 times, tied for 10th in the NFL. But expect them to have an opportunity for redemption Sunday. Head coach Mike Zimmer was vocal after the team’s loss to the Bears last week he thinks the team needs to run the ball more. They ran just 14 rushing plays in that game, their lowest total since September in a game where Cousins made 46 pass attempts. They need that to even out going forward.
2. Kirk Cousins vs. Aaron Rodgers, Part II
The Packers know a thing or two about failing to stick with the run. But while the team fails to use Aaron Jones consistently Rodgers is on track for another Pro Bowl season. He’s thrown 19 touchdowns already to just one interception. His 3,073 passing yards ranks fifth in the NFL.
But Rodgers has also been streaky, hamstrung due to some hamstrings. That’s kept Randall Cobb out for five of the last seven games; another of Rodgers’ favorite targets, Geronimo Allison, is on injured reserve with a groin injury. Their absence has left the load to talented young receivers like Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Equanimeous St. Brown; but they play more like deep threats than possession receivers. Guys like Jimmy Graham (two catches the last two weeks, fractured thumb) have to step up for Rodgers to have the right options when it matters.
Cousins, meanwhile has more weapons, including the emergence of Adam Thielen into one of the game’s top five receivers. Thielen’s 131 yards against the Packers were his second-best effort of the season; his 85 receptions overall lead the NFL. Add in another 71 grabs by Stefon Diggs and the Vikings own two of the top six pass catchers in the league.
The problem is Cousins has a habit of stumbling over his own two feet. He’s thrown four interceptions the last three weeks, including two against the Bears’ top-tier defense. Only Russell Wilson has more fumbles this year than Cousins’ eight, leaving him constantly battling to overcome his own mistakes. It’s one thing to throw for 300 yards; it’s another to do it after giving your opponent a pick-six along the way. The Packers' defense has hardly been intimidating, producing just 12 takeaways (tied for 20th in the league). But they picked off Cousins last time and another mistake Sunday night could be the game-changer.
3. Whose kicker will blink first?
The Vikings lost an opportunity to win in Week 2 when Daniel Carlson missed two field goals against the Packers. That included a 35-yarder as overtime ran out to push both teams into an awkward tie.
Carlson’s no longer with the team; he was replaced by former Cowboys veteran Dan Bailey, a solid pickup who’s gone a respectable 14-for-17 since. But the Vikings have also not been in a clutch field goal situation with Bailey, so in that sense he’s still somewhat unproven.
The Packers’ Mason Crosby, meanwhile tied a career high with five field goals in their Week 2 matchup but also missed a 52-yarder that would have won it. That was a precursor of stumbles to come as the 12-year veteran has had his worst year in the league since 2012. Making just 77 percent of his kicks, Crosby was a memorable 1-for-5 against the Lions last month with a series of flubs that easily cost them that game. It’s the difference between the Packers being over and under .500 on the season.
To his credit, the team stuck by Crosby and he’s missed just one kick over the last five games. But perfection is a must this time around in a U.S. Bank Stadium where he likely won’t be haunted by poor weather conditions.
It’s a game both teams have to have. On paper, the Vikings appear to be the more talented squad. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is openly on the hot seat and their middling defense (16th in points allowed) has been catching up with them. They’ve allowed 27 points or more in five of the last six games.
But there’s an x-factor here. Kirk Cousins, despite being known as an elite quarterback is just 4-12 in primetime games. He’s got a habit of throwing that interception at the worst possible time or missing the one play that could have made the difference against top-tier opponents. The Packers’ rejuvenated run game on the other side opens the field for Aaron Rodgers which means the offense could keep the game close. And if it’s a make-or-break drive down the stretch? Cousins needs to prove he’s through with late-game mistakes on a national stage.
I'm not sure we're there yet.
Prediction: Packers 31, Vikings 27
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.