8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Vikings -9, Over/Under: 41
What sure looked like an enticing matchup at the beginning of the season sure does seem anticlimactic at this point, as the surging Minnesota Vikings travel to Green Bay to battle the wounded Packers for a frigid, late-night affair at Lambeau Field. Of course, the appeal of this particular matchup comes in the form of the Vikings (11-3, 1st in NFC North) staunch Defense matching wits with Aaron Rodgers, but after the events of last weekend (which we’ll get into later) have ruled that out altogether. As a result, Mike Zimmer’s charges have established themselves as the leaders in the NFC North, and perhaps beyond that, with an eye the NFC’s No. One Seed and Home Field Advantage throughout the Playoffs. Winners of nine out of their last ten outings, Minnesota is on fire, and given the rash of injuries all across the league that continue to level the playing field, they may just be the most complete of the true contenders at this point. Ironically, this all may have never came to be without one of the most inconspicuous signings of the Offseason, veteran Quarterback Case Keenum (67.9%, 247.6 Y/G, 7.0 NY/A, 20 TD, 7 INT). With Teddy Bridgewater continuing his rehab from a serious knee injury, and last year’s starter Sam Bradford succumbing to yet another injury of similar nature, Keenum, a Sixth-Year Veteran on his third team in four years, has become an absolute revelation in Minneapolis. It’s really rather remarkable just how much a change of scenery can change things, but when we saw him in a Los Angeles Rams uniform last year, he looked like one of the worst Signal-Callers in the NFL; in 2016, Keenum was a wreck, completing just 60.9% of his Attempts for an average of 220.1 Yards on a dismal 5.97 Net Yards per Attempt, with Nine Touchdowns in comparison to Eleven interceptions, all the while posting a QBR of 43.3. Fast forward a year later and you’d be hard-pressed to even recognize him, for the 29-Year Old has a higher Quarterback Rating than the likes of Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees. Of course, it helps tremendously to have a supporting cast like the one that has been assembled in Minnesota, where the Vikings various Position Groups may complement each other better than any other team in the league. Granted, we know the Defense is a monster, featuring a slew of Pro Bowlers in route to ranking among the NFL’s best in a litany of categories, allowing 17.3 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on 283.9 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including 198.6 versus the Pass (3rd Overall) on 5.4 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall), along with another 85.3 against the Run (2nd Overall) on 3.7 Yards per Carry (5th Overall). Furthermore, their Situational Defense has been off the charts, ranking tops in the league on Third Down where they’ve permitted a scant 26.3% Conversion Rate, and second in RED Zone TD Percentage (44.4%). But these guys were great last year, and they still slumped to a disappointing 8-8 finish after a scorching 5-0 start to the campaign. That was the Offense’s fault, folks, and Management made it a point to overhaul this unit, making it possible for some of Keenum’s skill-set to come and lead them to such success. The Running Game and Pass Protection were both abysmal in 2016, ranking dead-last in both Rushing Yards (75.3) and Yards per Carry (3.2), while permitting Thirty-Eight Sacks (23rd Overall), prompting the rebuilding of the Offensive Line, with the acquisitions of Tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, coupled with Rookie Center Pat Elflein paying huge dividends. Keenum has been sacked just seventeen times thus far, while the Running Game has returned to respectability churning out 121.3 Yards per Game (9th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (21st Overall), and that’s with promising Second Round Pick Dalvin Cook (85 Touches, 444 Total YDS, 2 TD)missing the last ten games with a Torn ACL. This has become an efficient, balanced attack, which is precisely what Zimmer has desired to pair with his Defense for years now. Just look at last weekend’s clinical 34-7 drubbing of the struggling Cincinnati Bengals for further proof; showing no ill-effects after their 8-Game Winning Streak was snapped the previous week, the Vikings ran off Seventeen Unanswered Points in the First Quarter before pulling their foot off the gas in the Fourth Quarter leading 34-0, en route to dominating the Bengals 18-8 in First Downs, 346-161 in Total Yardage, and 35:52 in Time of Possession. Keenum turned in arguably his finest performance as a professional, completing 20-of-23 Passes for 236 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns.
Meanwhile, this is not how things were supposed to play out for the Packers (7-7, 3rd in NFC North), who with last weekend’s 31-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers were eliminated from Playoff Contention for the first time since 2008, which was coincidentally beginning of the highly successful Aaron Rodgers Era at in Green Bay. After eight longs weeks rehabbing a Broken Collarbone sustained in their previous meeting with the Vikings, Rodgers (64.7%, 29.3 Y/G, 16 TD, 6 INT) was finally given the medical clearance that he (and the fan base) desired, with the opportunity to lift his team on his shoulders and carry them into the Playoffs. After all, he had done virtually this very same thing back in 2013, when he returned from yet another Collarbone Break to carry the Packers into the Playoffs in the most stunning of fashions, besting the Chicago Bears on a considerably long Touchdown Pass in the Regular Season Finale. It was to be something like a script out of a Hollywood Blockbuster, with the 2-Time MVP playing the gun-slinging hero. All Green Bay had to do was run the table the rest of the way, winning the final three games of the campaign. And then last Sunday happened. It was a very mixed bag for Rodgers, who provided a number of highlights, throwing Three Touchdowns, including a 13-Yard Laser to Davante Adams (74 REC, 884 YDS, 10 TD) at the end of the First Quarter, but was also intercepted three times by a Carolina Defense harassed him throughout the affair, sacking him on three occasions, with his final attempt to send the game into Overtime ended with a Lost Fumble. While he certainly appeared capable of starting again this week, Management ultimately decided to place him on Injured Reserve, so to guarantee no more unnecessary damage to their Franchise Quarterback, preferring to have him at complete health in 2018. So now the remainder of this disappointing season has simply become an opportunity to evaluate the roster heading into the Offseason, which in all likelihood is going to feature quite a bit of change for a team that is usually the most resistant to it. When Mike McCarthy and his Staff get together, they’re going to need to devise a plan to bring more balance to the Offense, whether that’s by bolstering the Offensive Line or by acquiring through either the Draft or Free Agency, a true playmaker at Tailback. While Jamaal Williams (116 CAR, 416 YDS, 4 TD) has ben steady if not flashy, and Aaron Jones (78 CAR, 435 YDS, 4 TD) has good potential, the Packers have lacked a difference-maker out of the Backfield for years now, with a lot of that having to do with how heavily this attack is geared towards the Pass; despite averaging a solid 4.5 Yards per Carry, Green Bay rarely take advantage of it, with only five teams rushing the ball fewer times per game (23.9). As he gets older, it would make sense for Rodgers to be paired with a stronger Ground Game, which could provide a more balanced approach and an even more efficient Passing Game, particularly downfield. And then there is the Defense, which has been as problematic as ever for McCarthy, despite the wealth of draft Picks they’ve used on this particular side of the ball over the years. 2017 has not been a good one for this unit, who have allowed 23.8 Points (21st Overall) on 356.4 Total Yards (26th Overall), including 240.0 Yards against the Pass (24th Overall) on 6.8 Net Yards per Attempt (27th Overall), along with another 116.4 Yards versus the Run (20th Overall) on 4.0 Yards per Carry (9th Overall). While they’ve done a solid job of turning their opponents over (Twenty-Two, 8th Overall), they’ve pretty much failed in terms of a situational regard, allowing the third-worst Third Down Conversion Rate in the league (44.8%), while ranking dead-last in Opponents’ Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (69.2%). With all that said, the man with the most to gain from these last few games is Brett Hundley (63.9%, 170.4 Y/G, 5.0 NY/A, 8 TD, 8 INT), the Sophomore Quarterback who manned the fort for Rodgers for seven games he was on the mend. While he’s certainly struggled within the Pocket in one of the most nuanced systems in the NFL, he’s provided more than a few glimmers of potential, especially when he’s able to use his athleticism to make plays outside of it, rushing for 207 Yards and a pair of scores on Twenty-Eight Carries. While he’s clearly no threat to usurp Rodgers’s position, his performance could attract suitors from across the league, for there is rarely any shortage of need at Quarterback, with there being a long line of Packers’ Backup Quarterbacks striking it rich after they leave Lambeau Field for warmer and greener pastures. It just remains to be seen if this kid ends up being more like Matt Hasselbeck than Matt Flynn.