The Minnesota Vikings are fighting for their playoff lives — and jobs — and they'll need to take down a bitter rival in prime time to keep them afloat.
The good news heading into the Vikings' "Sunday Night Football" game in Green Bay: they've already beaten the Packers this season. The bad news: they'll have to do it again without their starting quarterback.
The Vikings and Packers engaged in a shootout in their Week 11 matchup — Minnesota had the ball last and won on a field goal. It took 34 points, tying their season-high to that point, to win, and it may take a similar effort to win Sunday night.
Despite never sitting above .500 this season, the Vikings are the first team out of the playoffs in the NFC at 7-8. They're just one game back of the 49ers and Eagles, and Minnesota has the tiebreaker over the latter.
If they don't make the playoffs, though, it seems unlikely that all three of head coach Mike Zimmer, general manager Rick Spielman, and quarterback Kirk Cousins will return for the 2022 season. This team has underachieved all season, and changes will be afoot.
Cousins won't have a chance to save the Vikings' season — at least not this week. The signal-caller tested positive for COVID-19 and will be out at least five days, although the fact that he reported symptoms means he may be out even longer.
The Packers (12-3) have a chance to keep their rivals out of the postseason, but more importantly, they need a win to hang onto the NFC's No. 1 seed. The Packers are just a game up on Dallas, who owns the tiebreaker, and the Rams and Buccaneers also loom just a game back at 11-4.
Sunday Night Football: Minnesota (7-8) at Green Bay (12-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 2 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -13
Three Things to Watch
1. What will the Vikings' passing attack look like without Cousins and Adam Thielen?
With Cousins on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, Sean Mannion (who just came off of the list himself) is expected to get the start for Minnesota on Sunday. The 29-year-old has two career starts (both losses) and has not appeared in a game since 2019. He's a career 60.8 percent passer with just 5.2 yards per attempt, which is lower than all 32 qualified passers this season.
Making matters worse is the fact that Thielen, the Vikings' No. 2 wideout, is out for the season after aggravating an ankle injury that caused him to miss two earlier games. Losing Thielen is a blow, but perhaps the bigger problem is that all of the Vikings' complementary players will have to step up into bigger roles, and they're not very deep.
Justin Jefferson (149) has more than twice as many targets as any other healthy Minnesota player. Tight end Tyler Conklin (74) and wideout K.J. Osborn (73) have been solid as third and fourth options, but no other receiver has even 15 targets this season.
Without Thielen in Weeks 14 and 15, Cousins was a combined 26-for-55 for 303 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Mannion may be lucky to put up those numbers, and that won't come close to cutting it against the Packers, especially if Minnesota's porous defense means it will probably have to win another shootout.
And just as the Vikings took a major hit, the Packers are expected to return star cornerback Jaire Alexander, who has been out since Week 4 with a shoulder injury. The Packers' secondary is already fifth in net yards allowed per attempt (5.7) and should only be getting better.
2. Will Green Bay's turnover fortune continue?
The Packers are 3-0 since their bye, but they've actually been out-gained 1,109-1,096. Much of their success can be attributed to forcing seven turnovers while not giving a single one away.
The Packers have paced the NFL with a plus-16 turnover differential, so strong play over a few weeks is no surprise, but the Vikings are close behind at sixth in the league (+9). It's going to be hard to continue to play mistake-free ball.
The Vikings have forced a turnover in 10 of their last 11 games, including nine over their last four games. The Vikings have had quite a bit of fumble luck this season — their 62.9 percent recovery rate is second in the league — but it seems unlikely that there will be another turnover-free game, like the one six weeks ago.
Of course, the Packers will likely have more turnover luck facing Mannion than Cousins. Mannion has three interceptions in 74 career passes, giving him a 4.1 percent interception rate that is higher than the worst qualified passer this season (Justin Fields, 3.7 percent).
3. Can the Packers slow down Dalvin Cook again?
When available, Cook has been one of the top running backs in the league. This season, he's third in rushing with 97 yards per game and also is in the top 10 in yards per carry (4.7). However, he's never played a full season and has missed two games this year with an ankle injury, one more with a shoulder injury, and last week after testing positive for COVID-19.
Thanks to updated CDC and NFL guidelines, Cook is eligible to return faster than initially thought. And that could present a major problem for the Packers, who rank 31st in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.8).
Green Bay was able to mostly bottle Cook up the last time these teams faced off, as he picked up just 86 yards and a score on 22 totes. And facing Mannion will likely allow them to dedicate an extra defender in the box to stop him. But it's worth noting that Cook has also gone over 150 yards in his two previous games at Lambeau Field.
There is a question of how effective Cook will be coming off of his illness. Some players like Ezekiel Elliott were not their usual selves after testing positive for COVID-19 last season. But if the Vikings score first — as they've done in 10 of their 15 games — or go up by a touchdown — as they did in their first 11 games — expect them to try to exploit the Packers' suspect run defense.
It's often said that it's better to be lucky than good. And this season, the Packers have both been luckier and just better than the Vikings. At home, Green Bay shouldn't have too much trouble in this one, although the mismatch in the running game should be enough for Minnesota to keep it close, provided the Vikings don't fall behind too much early on.