After the Vikings’ fifth game last season, they were the only unbeaten team in the league. And, enjoying a five-game winning streak (which would be short-lived). They had also already beaten the Green Bay Packers—in the first-ever regular season game at U.S. Bank Stadium. For Vikings fans it was a great moment, as they would not have to endure the eternal ribbing from Packers fans for that would-be indelible blemish.
Well similar—but even greater—stakes are in play when the Packers meet the Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis.
Once again, this season, the Packers have the opportunity to put a permanent stain on the psyche of the Vikings faithful. That being the sight of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on the floor of U.S. Bank Stadium in early February. The fear of such a feat is not top of mind for every Vikings fan, but rest assured that in their darkest moments, it haunts their dreams.
And this week, the Vikings can do something to prevent that nightmare. They can (must) strike a nail in the coffin of a Packers Super Bowl season by beating their neighbors to the east in the first of their two annual games. The Packers were the preseason favorite of some observers to be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. Now he Vikings must do their part in making sure that doesn’t happen. (You see, that’s what we are left with here in Minnesota: hoping to be spoilers). And the season only just recently turned the quarter pole.
As we mentioned earlier, things changed after the Vikings’ fifth game last season. It had a lot to do with injuries to the offensive line. Similarly, this season, the injuries have been mounting for the Purple. But they are taking place in the unit that plays behind the o-line: the offensive backfield.
After putting up one of the best performances of his career in the season-opening game against the New Orleans Saints, Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (who was 27-of-32 for 346 yards and three touchdown passes) suffered a non-contact injury (a bone bruise to his left knee) and missed the next three games (in which the Vikings went 1-2 with backup Case Keenum).
Bradford returned to action against the Chicago Bears on Monday and re-aggravated the knee injury, giving way to Keenum shortly before halftime.
To add to those quarterback woes, promising rookie Dalvin Cook suffered a season-ending torn ACL two weeks ago. Cook had been the exact addition the Vikings offense needed to transform its bottom-feeding side (the worst rushing team in 2016) to one that has hovered in the top 10 this season (dropping to 11th in the wake of Cook injury).
Cook was the NFL’s third-leading rusher after four games (and he only played in three-and-a-half). His name was being mentioned in Rookie of the Year conversations before the injury. His loss is detrimental to the Vikings offense, despite some depth at the position—Latavius Murray coming off ankle surgery—and Jerick McKinnon.
(For what it’s worth, the Packers have also had their share of injuries—and I will let Shaun Ranft bemoan those personnel losses in his rival piece this week. But suffice it to say that until quarterback Aaron Rodgers goes down, we are talking bruised apples to smashed oranges.)
The Vikings passing game, however, is (was) in great shape with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen hauling in passes from whomever is throwing them. Each member of this dynamic duo has been ranked top-five for most of the season—with Diggs holding the top spot in receiving yards until he suffered a groin injury on Monday night (he dropped to fifth with Thielen in sixth place).
Regardless, the pair is near the top of the league in many receiving categories. And they will certainly command a lot of attention from the Packers secondary—part of a defense that has been playing well this season and is ranked sixth in the league with 199.8 passing yards allowed per game.
But the Vikings defense is where this team continues to make its hay. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense was a top-10 unit last season and they’re there again this season, ranking 7th in yards allowed (309.2) and 8th in points allowed with 18.6 per game. But the Vikings defense can throw away all the stats from previous games when the Packers come to town. Once again, they must narrow their focus to one point: stopping Rodgers.
Rodgers had another one of his typical heroic games down in Dallas last weekend, putting his injury-riddled team on his back and leading them to a last-minute, come-from-behind win with his arm and legs. Rodgers has done that to the Vikings in the past as well. Simply, it is paramount for the Purple to limit his effectiveness.
Rodgers got a new offensive weapon recently, as rookie Aaron Jones has taken over at running back for the injured Ty Montgomery. And wouldn’t you know it—the Packers running game has improved as a result. (Let’s see, the Vikings lose their rookie running back for the season and their running game suffers. Meanwhile, the Packers lose a converted wide receiver to a rib injury and their running game improves. I am not generally a vulgar writer, but I want to scream WTF?!)
In two games, Jones has given the Packers the running threat that they have lacked during much of Rodgers’ tenure. Moreover, it gives the Vikings something else to deal with when Green Bay has the ball. The Vikings rushing defense has greatly improved this season, however currently ranking 7th—giving up just 90 yards per game. But giving Rodgers another tool in his belt is trouble for any defense.
The Vikings beat the Bears 20-17 on Monday (adding to their league-leading total of most games allowing under 20 points since 2015—which is now 23). Yet it was done in typical heart attack fashion for the Purple faithful. They had a 3-2 lead at halftime that rookie Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky wrestled into a 17-17 tie late in the game. The Vikings came up with a late interception by Harrison Smith to set them up for the winning field goal.
But such a gift pick is not going to come from the experienced arm of Rodgers on Sunday, so that win doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the land of “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck.”
What it comes down to is another stalwart performance from the Vikings defense on Rodgers, while keeping an eye (and some good tackling arms) on the “other” Aaron. The Vikings offense—which we are fairly certain will be led by Keenum—will need to keep pace with the sixth-best scoring team in the league. Needless to say, that will be difficult.
But being back home in U.S. Bank Stadium gives them a chance. Emotions are always high for this rivalry, so expect “The Vault” to be rocking when the Vikings eke out a W.
Final Score: Minnesota 24, Green Bay 23