8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Green Bay -3, Over/Under: 43.5
On the final week of the 2015 Regular Season, the NFC North will be decided as the Green Bay Packers host the Minnesota Vikings from the FROZEN TUNDRA OF LAMBEAU FIELD, on Sunday Night Football. With both teams in all likelihood in the postseason (barring some outstanding circumstances), tonight’s contest is all about seeding, with the winner securing the Third Seed in the NFC, which would mean a date with the Sixth Seed, which could very well be the Seattle Seahawks. However, there is a scenario in which these teams could meet again next week. The loser will in all probability end up with the Fifth Seed, which would have them traveling to the Nation’s Capital to meet the NFC East Champion Washington Redskins, which in some minds appears to be an easier matchup. Of course the main difference here, is that the winner will get the luxury of an all-important home game in the First Round of the Playoffs. So with that said, let’s take a look at the Vikings’ prospects heading into tonight’s clash. Minnesota (10-5, 2nd in NFC North) currently lies in second place in the division thanks to a 30-13 loss at home to Green Bay back on November 15th, which served in many ways as a return to earth moment for the team, which was riding a five-game winning streak at the time. Basically, everything that had being working for them, suddenly betrayed them; the running game vanished (94 yards on just 18 carries), while the typically disciplined group committed eight penalties (110 yards lost) and a turnover. Worse, the Offensive Line was under siege all day, relinquishing six sacks to Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, for another forty-eight yards lost. Sustaining drives also proved to be an arduous task, for Zimmer’s charges were only able to convert on 5-of-13 attempts (38.5%) on Third Down, while failing on both opportunities on Fourth Down. To his credit, the sophomore passer completed 25-of-37 attempts (67.6%) for 296 yards and a touchdown, while also picking up another forty-three yards with his legs. However, the big takeaway from that loss was how the Packers managed to get the Vikings out of their gameplan, which usually involves a heavy dose of one Adrian Peterson; the league’s leading rusher never really got the opportunity to get going, carrying the ball just fourteen times for forty-five yards and a touchdown, but was also credited with a costly fumble.
For Minnesota to avoid a repeat of that debacle, their going to need to get better play out of the five big guys up front. A Tailback like Peterson is capable of making a lot of average Offensive Lines look pretty good, but even during their stellar midseason stretch, it became very apparent that this unit was playing on borrowed time. I.E. it was just a matter of time before somebody exposed them, which was precisely what the Packers did on that Mid-November afternoon. Injuries have definitely played a role here, with massive Right Tackle Phil Loadholt (Achilles) on Injured Reserve, while fellow Tackle Matt Kalil (Leg) along with Center Jonathan Sullivan (Back) both listed as Questionable for tonight’s meeting. With as many as three starters in question of missing this matchup, Zimmer and his Staff are in an unenviable position of having to put together a makeshift Line at such a critical juncture of the campaign. But don’t worry about Peterson, for he’ll be just fine; closing in on his third career Rushing Title, the six-time Pro Bowler has rushed for 1,418 yards (4.6 y/c) and ten touchdowns on 308 carries, which is all the more impressive considering his growing age (30) and the fact that he’s been nursing an ailing ankle over the last few weeks. However, you wouldn’t know it after watching him shred the Giants’ beleaguered defense last Sunday Night, as the three-time First Team All Pro cut through New York’s defenders for 104 yards and a score on twenty-two carries in a 49-17 blowout victory. If his teammates up front can avoid the lapses in protection which caused so many long down and distance plays in their previous meeting with Green Bay, then Peterson could likely be in for a big night; the future Hall of Famer has racked up 1,693 yards and a dozen touchdowns in fifteen career regular season meetings with the division rivals, his highest yardage total against any team in the league. But with that said, the chaos up front could spell trouble for Bridgewater, who has had his share of ups and downs in his second season as the starting Quarterback. Despite showing marked improvement in a number of areas, the youngster has earned a number of critics due to his predilection to check the ball down, rarely stretching the field with his arm; the 32nd Overall Pick in the 2014 Draft has averaged just 6.04 net yards per attempt, ranking twenty-sixth among starting Quarterbacks, which is indicative of quite a few things. First, veteran Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner is not asking him to throw the ball deep, designing a wealth of short to intermediate plays to counter the next feature, which has been poor pass protection. Through fifteen starts, Bridgewater has been sacked forty-one times, fifth-most in the league, for 299 yards lost, the second-highest total in the league, which adversely effects both play-calling and the time needed to let deep plays generate. Furthermore, he’s been sacked on 8.7% of his drop-bacs, the seventh-highest percentage among his contemporaries. One would think that with such a strong rushing attack (137.3 yards per game), he would have plenty of opportunities to take his shots downfield, let alone take advantage of play-action, but that just hasn’t been the case for this kid. With both Tackles succumbing to injury, opposing edge rushers have had a field day against the Vikings, forcing Turner to eschew the five and seven-step drops that he would like call, in necessity of the quick three-step variety that have thus far littered the gameplan. But hey, Vikings’ fans, there is cause for optimism! Over the last two games, the former Louisville Cardinal has shown growth, connecting on 71.1% of his passes for 399 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, averaging a solid 8.9 yards per attempt in the process. People seem to forget that he’s only making his twenty-eighth start. Some folks simply have no patience these days…
Meanwhile, feelings haven’t exactly been any warmer in Green Bay (10-5, 1st in NFC North), who after sprinting out of the gate to a torrid 6-0 start have only managed to win four of their following nine games since. It’s been a disappointing campaign for a team coming off a 12-4 season, which ended in a very narrow loss to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, particularly given their reasonable Super Bowl expectations. After all, with two-time MVP Quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the peak of his powers, coupled with an emerging defense, and one of the most consistent organizations in the background, the Packers were indeed a prime candidate to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLX in Santa Clara, California come February. And though they still very well could meet that fate, the road has been unbelievably difficult, paved with a plethora of potholes and roadblocks throughout. Injuries have been an ever-present problem this season, beginning way back in the Preseason, when Pro Bowl Receiver Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the team’s first exhibition game. While in the grand scheme of things it initially appeared to be only a minor issue, the loss of his ninety-eight catches, 1,519 yards, and thirteen touchdowns has loomed larger as the season has progressed. Fellow Wideout Randall Cobb (792 yards, 6 TDs) has suffered through ailments of his own, but has generally struggled filling the void left by Nelson, while second-year teammate Davante Adams (429 yards, 1 TD) has been plagued by drops. Then there is third-year Tailback Eddie Lacy, whom many predicted was in for a big year, but in realty has done anything but. Also plagued by minor injuries, the former Pro Bowler has stumbled throughout the 2015 campaign, showing significant decline across the board with 724 rushing yards and three touchdowns in eleven starts, losing a healthy portion of his workload to the underrated James Starks (951 Total Yards, 5 TDs) in the process. Furthermore, Lacy is listed as Questionable for tonight’s outing after dealing with some tender ribs after last weekend’s 38-8 blowout loss at Arizona, in which he was responsible for his team’s lone score, a 28-yard reception in garbage time.
That aforementioned trip to the desert was as humbling an experience as any for these Packers, who effectively experienced a microcosm of their season. First and foremost, Rodgers was under siege for the majority of the day, until Head Coach Mike McCarthy relieved him of his duties in favor of backup Scott Tolzien in the Fourth Quarter, sparing his star Quarterback a biblical beating, which consisted of NINE SACKS, for a loss of seventy-eight yards. As has been the case in Minnesota, Pass Protection has been a problem all year long for Green Bay, who have seen a number of Linemen shuffled in and out of the starting quintet of late. Left Tackle David Bakhtiari (Knee) is Questionable for tonight’s tilt, while his fellow Tackle on the opposite side of the Line, Bryan Bulaga, has missed five games of his own with an assortment of ailments. Sophomore Center Corey Linsley has also missed four outings as well, with J.C. Tretter having to replace him on a number of occasions, including last week’s defeat. Of course, this has all had an adverse effect on Rodgers, who soldiered on as the lone constant on a unit that has been defined by chaos in 2015. The four-time Pro Bowler has seen many of his statistics fall from grace in a significant manner, including his completion percentage (60.4%), touchdown percentage (5.7%), yards per attempt (6.7), yards per game (235.3), passer rating (93.7), and QBR (67.2). Perhaps when the game is over, he and Bridgewater will sit down and discuss the finer luxuries of protection, for like his counterpart, Rodgers has seen very little; the eleventh-year veteran has also been sacked forty-one times (T-5th Overall), or in other words, on 7.2% of his dropbacks (25th Overall), which has caused his net yards per attempt to swoon to a disappointing 5.6 (32nd Overall), a year after leading the league in that particular category (7.7). Play-calling has also factored into this mess, with McCarthy wresting those duties from Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements after a Thanksgiving Night Loss to the Bears. It’s a lot to compensate for, given the state of the Offensive Line and the dearth of talent in the Receiving Corps, but McCarthy, who has long been regarded as one of the top play-callers in the league, has seemingly been up to the task. Apart from the debacle against the Cardinals, the Packers had shown progress offensively after the switch, winning three consecutive games, in which they averaged 28.3 points on 347.0 total yards, including 133.3 via the run. Perhaps facing the Vikings will remind them of what they did in their previous meeting; McCarthy’s charges posted a very balanced 320 total yards, with 196 coming through the air and another 124 on the ground. Rodgers was just 16-of-34 (47.0%) for 212 yards and two touchdowns, but benefitted greatly from a power rushing attack that proceeded to ground the smaller Minnesota Defensive Front into the turf with thirty-four carries. And that is going to be the key to any success that this team will have in the postseason; they must resist the urge of letting Rodgers drop back thirty-five to forty times a game, and allow the Offensive Line to build some steam moving forward with running plays. Green Bay has developed some good depth in the Backfield this year thanks to all the injuries, and would be wise to make use of it, for the Receiving Corps has yet to come together at this point, and submitting their Quarterback to more unwanted risk will have them watching the rest of the Playoffs from the comfort of their collective living rooms wondering what might have been.