8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Packers -2, Over/Under: 43
Division rivals clash in the unveiling of the newly-minted U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, as the Minnesota Vikings host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football. After an underwhelming campaign marred by injuries, much is expected of the Packers (1-0, T-1st in NFC North) now that the perennial NFC favorites are once again back to full health. Playmaking Wide Receiver Jordy Nelson has since returned after missing 2015 in it’s entirety rehabbing from an ACL tear suffered in the Preseason. A svelte Eddie Lacey shed over twenty pounds, once again resembling the explosive rusher he was as a rookie. The Offensive Line is intact and healthy, providing solid protection for All-World Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Hell, even Head Coach Mike McCarthy has retained play-calling duties, which if you recall he made headlines reacquiring midway through the previous season. Add it all up, and you have a team that at least on paper looks far more imposing than the inconsistent group that went 4-6 over it’s final ten games and backed it’s way into the Postseason where they ended up narrowly on the wrong side of a thriller in Arizona. And so far so good for Green Bay, who escaped a tightly contested opener at Jacksonville where the temperatures were sweltering over 100 degrees throughout regulation. The 27-23 victory was as hard-earned as they come, as the visitors survived a furious rally from the Blake Bortles-led hosts, ending the Jaguars’ final drive at the 14-yard line. Battling the heat, Rodgers led the offense to 294 total yards, efficiently converting half of their fourteen attempts on Third Down, along with their lone Fourth Down attempt. The two-time MVP completed 20-of-34 passes (58.8%) for 199 yards and two touchdowns through the air, while adding another score scrambling into the End Zone in the First Quarter. Balance was the key here, as the Packers ran just enough to keep an improved Jags’ Defense honest, rushing for ninety-five yards on twenty-five carries, sixty-one of which were credited to the aforementioned Lacey. However, credit must go to the defense, who bent but never broke throughout the affair. On the surface, the visiting side yielded 348 total yards, including 320 through the air, but managed to snuff out Jacksonville’s ground game (forty-eight yards on twenty-six carries), and harass Bortles just enough to effect the passing game. Green Bay limited the home side to a poor 4-of-15 on Third Down, accumulated three sacks (loss of twenty yards), and forced a crucial fumble which Safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix managed to recover. Transitioning to tonight’s contest, keep an eye on just how far Rogers is able to stretch the vertical passing game. One of the reasons the Packers’ offense struggled throughout the second half of last season was due to their inability to stretch the field, as the rash of injuries to the Receiving Corps and Offensive Line failed to provide Rodgers with the needed time and playmakers to do so. Case in point; two years ago, Green Bay led the NFL in Net Yards per Pass (7.5), ultimately leading to a league-best 30.4 Points per Game, yet saw both numbers plummet in 2015, averaging 5.7 net yards per attempt (31st Overall) and 23.0 points respectively (15th Overall). It remains to be seen just how effective the 33-year old will be throwing down field this season, for last weekend against the Jaguars he seemed to favor the short to intermediate game far more, averaging just 5.69 Net Yards per Attempt.
Meanwhile, it been a very interesting forty-five days for the Vikings (1-0, T-1st in NFC North), who in that period of time lost their promising young Franchise Quarterback for the season (and possibly longer), acquired one of the most polarizing players in the league as his replacement (for a king’s ransom no less), only to start a 36-year old journeyman on Opening Day, which was won on the shoulders of their tenacious Defense, who seemed to revel in the plight of their comrades on the opposite side of the ball. Oh, and did we fail to mention that they also opened a brand-new, state of the art stadium to boot? Indeed, Head Coach Mike Zimmer and his Staff have had their work cut out for them of late, as third-year signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater completely tore his ACL and dislocated his knee in a bizarre non-contact calamity during the latter stages of Training Camp. With the prognosis of his rehab possibly keeping him out well into next season, Management went all-in on former Eagles’ Quarterback Sam Bradford, the much maligned (yet well-compensated) former No. One Overall Pick. The timing of this transaction was strange, as the Vikings traded a First Round Pick, along with a conditional Fourth Round Pick (which can become a Second Rounder), to the Eagles for Bradford, whose body of work up to this point leaves a lot to be desired; the sixth-year veteran has been injury-prone (missed seventeen games over the past four years), mediocre in the pocket (posted a QBR over 50.0 just once), turnover-prone (sixty-four turnovers, including twenty last season), and for lack of a better word, a loser (25-37-1 as a starter). Yeah, those teams he was charged with leading in St. Louis ranged from average to abysmal, and Chip Kelly’s Eagles were an unmitigated mess a year ago, but at some point the excuses surrounding this guy’s dearth of success just has to stop. Now he’s supposed to save the Vikings’ season by arriving a week before the season begins and absorb a playbook that his predecessor has taken over two years to competently execute? Again, we realize that Minnesota won the division last year for the first time since 2009, and was picked by many as a dark horse candidate to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLXI, but the fact that they packaged a FIRST ROUND PICK for Bradford with the expectation of taking them to the postseason under THESE circumstances is absolutely ridiculous. General Manager Rick Spielman and his Staff panicked, plain and simple, feeling the heat of keeping their brand new stadium filled to capacity. After all, it’s hard to sell the fan base on sixteen games starring the aforementioned Hill. And speaking of Hill, he performed exactly as expected in Week One, the longtime backup completed 18-of-33 passes (54.5%) for an underwhelming 236 yards. The hubris that either he or Bradford can simply hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson all game is ludicrous, as the four-time All-Pro Tailback struggled his way towards thirty-one yards on nineteen carries in last Sunday’s 25-16 victory at Tennessee, and is now listed as Probable after sustaining a mild ankle sprain in that outing. Thankfully, the Defense has been as advertised thus far, as they were downright heroic against the Titans. Minnesota relegated the hosts to 316 total yards, while shutting down their imposing rushing attack (sixty-four yards on twenty-four carries), forcing three turnovers (two fumbles), returning both an interception (Eric Kendricks) and a fumble (Danielle Hunter) for touchdowns. They also sacked Marcus Mariota twice for a loss of nineteen yards. Accounting for Blair Walsh’s four Field Goals (attempted six), Zimmer’s Defense outscored his Offense by fourteen points, which despite the exploits of the former is a damned indictment on the latter. Good luck Sam, you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you…
Predicted Outcome: Packers 24, Vikings 13