8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Vikings -5.5, Over/Under: 47.5
Bitter rivals clash in the penultimate weekend of the Regular Season, as the Green Bay Packers meet the Minnesota Vikings from U.S. Bank stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a matchup that will go a long way towards deciding the NFC North. Coming into this weekend, the Packers (11-3, 1st in NFC North) have held pole position within the Division, rebuilt and reconstructed under the watchful eye of first-year Head Coach, Matt LaFleur, who injected some sorely-needed energy and enthusiasm into the club. After missing the Postseason in each of the previous two terms, Green Bay underwent major change in the Offseason, with LaFleur importing a much more modernized Offense, while the Defense received some major reinforcements. In that latter respect, this team is vastly improved, thanks in large part to the continued development of this young group under Defensive Coordinator, Mike Pettine, who was one of the few Assistant Coaches who were retained by LaFleur, which in hindsight was an absolute masterstroke. The Packers have allowed 20.2 Points per Game (9th Overall), despite giving up a sizable amount of Yards (371.3 Y/G), though they’ve managed to stiffen up considerably in the Red Zone, where they’ve permitted a Touchdown on just 48.9% of their opponents’ attempts (6th Overall), while producing a wealth of big plays. Few teams have enjoyed a greater Turnover Differential than these guys, who’ve logged Twenty-Three Takeaways (7th Overall), including a league-best Fifteen Interceptions (1st Overall). They began the season on a tear, enjoying a Plus-6 Turnover Differential in their first three games, and now appear to be closing the term out in a similar fashion with a healthy Differential of Plus-6 in their most recent three outings. In fact, this particular statistic has been the driving force of their success in 2019, posting a Plus-17 Differential in their eleven wins in comparison to a Minus-4 Differential in their three losses, in which they’ve failed to come away with a single Takeaway. Sophomore Cornerbacks, Kevin King (59 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 4 INT, 13 PD) and Jaire Alexander (51 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 2 INT, 16 PD), have flourished in their second season together, while veteran Safety, Adrian Amos (74 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 8 PD), alongside Rookie Defensive Back, Darnell Savage (51 TKL, 1 QBH, 2 FF, 2 INT, 5 PD), have collectively stabilized the back end of the Secondary. King and Alexander have been particularly stingy in coverage, combining for Twenty-Nine Deflected Passes. Of course, these guys have benefitted tremendously from their teammates up front, with Green Bay registering Thirty-Five Sacks (17th Overall) and Forty-Four Knockdowns (7th Overall) in 2019. The bulk of the pressure has come from two shrewd signings in Free Agency, Preston Smith (52 TKL, 11 TFL, 22 QBH, 11.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 3 PD) and Za’Darius Smith (47 TKL, 12 TFL, 30 QBH, 10.0 SK, 1 FF), who together have enjoyed career campaigns, combining for 21.5 Sacks, Twenty-Three Tackles for Loss, and Fifty-Two Quarterback Hits. The Offense on the other hand, has remained a work in progress throughout the season, ranking in the middle of the pack in a number of categories, which is a bit confounding considering that they’ve enjoyed rather strong field position thanks to all the Turnovers forced by their teammates on Defense, Though he arrived in Green Bay carrying the credentials of working under Offensive Maestros such as Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, the 40-Year Old has found it rather difficult to return this unit to the heights that it enjoyed from 2009 to 2016, even with the presence of Aaron Rodgers (63.3%, 3,463 YDS, 6.34 NY/A, 24 TD, 2 INT, 55.8 QBR) under Center. In a new scheme for the first time since entering the NFL fifteen years ago, many pundits were curious as to how the two-time MVP would adjust to working with the young LaFleur, particularly given how his relationship with his predecessor, Mike McCarthy, ended in less than desirable fashion. To his credit, Rodgers has been solid, though sometimes unspectacular, though the faithful in Green Bay are happy to see that he’s still as ruthlessly efficient as ever, tossing Twenty-Five Touchdowns opposed to just Two Interceptions. As a result, the Packers have cleaned up in the Red Zone, scoring a Touchdown on 68.9% of their opportunities in that particular region of the field, with all but one of the 36-Year Old’s scores coming there. However, it must be stated that he hasn’t enjoyed the most prolific of Supporting Casts either, sustaining the attack with a largely unheralded group, which was only underscored with Pro-Bowl Receiver, Davante Adams (63 REC, 788 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 4 TD), missing four games with a sprained toe. With that said, there have been those who have stepped up for LaFleur & Co. with third-year Tailback, Aaron Jones (188 CAR, 830 YDS, 4.4 Y/C, 14 TD), chief among them. The former 5th Round Pick out of Texas El-Paso has been a revelation in 2019, proving his worth as both a Rusher and Receiver, piling up 233 Touches for 1,255 Yards from Scrimmage and Seventeen Touchdowns, fourteen of which have been of the rushing variety, the most in the league thus far. He barreled into the End Zone twice in last Sunday’s 21-13 victory over the Chicago Bears, while the Defense forced Three Turnovers. It was nearly an identical showing when Green Bay hosted Minnesota back on September 15th, in which the hosts got their hands on Four Takeaways, with Jones announcing his presence to the NFL with 116 Yards and a Touchdown Twenty-Three Carries, and another Thirty-Four Yards on Four Receptions. Rodgers, who on that day went 22-of-34 for 209 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, 13-8-1 all-time against the Vikings, with Forty-Three Touchdowns and Six Interceptions, though he has suffered Sixty-Six Sacks, against his Division Rivals, which is by far and away his most against any particular opponent that he’s faced.
Meanwhile, thanks to the events that unfolded on Saturday, namely the San Francisco 49ers eliminating reigning NFC Champion, Los Angeles Rams, from Playoff Contention, the Vikings (10-4, 2nd in NFC North) have clinched a place in the Postseason. However, there is still much to be decided, particularly in regards to the Division, where Minnesota trails their opponent tonight, the Packers, by a single game in the standings. As it stands now, Mike Zimmer’s charges currently own the second Wild Card, though with one week left to sort out the top of the stacked NFC, it’s really difficult to predict where they’ll end up. Case in point, if they happen to gain a measure of revenge against Green Bay tonight, there is a set of circumstance sin which they could not only win the NFC North, but earn a precious First Round Bye as well. And that last bit is becoming more and more important for a team that has dealt with it’s fair share for injuries over the second half of the season. Pro-Bowl Receiver, Adam Theilen (30 REC, 418 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 6 TD), missed five weeks with a tender hamstring before finally making his return in last weekend’s 39-10 dubbing of the Los Angeles Chargers. He didn’t receive much action in this one, folks, hauling in just Three Receptions for Twenty-Seven Yards, but then again, it’s not like the Vikings really needed him; the visitors forced a staggering Seven Turnovers, one of which they managed to return Fifty-Four Yards for a Touchdown shortly before Halftime. The Running Game was strong as well, with 137 Yards on Thirty-Seven Carries, though the biggest takeaway was a shoulder injury to third-year Tailback, Dalvin Cook (250 CAR, 1,135 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 13 TD), which in addition to keeping him out of action tonight, will likely keep him sidelined until the Playoffs begin. Of course, the 24-Year Old is no stranger to injury, missing all but four games as Rookie due to a torn ACL, and sitting out five games last season with an ailing hamstring. With that said, this season saw the former 2nd Round Pick live up to his considerable potential, averaging 118.2 Yards from Scrimmage per Game, with Thirteen Rushing Touchdowns to his credit, benefitting tremendously from the Offense’s renewed emphasis on the Run. The Vikings are 10-1 when they rush for over 100 Yards this season opposed to 0-3 when held below that threshold, though we’ll have to wait and see just how effective they are without their leading rusher in the Lineup. Rookie, Alexander Mattison (100 CAR, 462 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 1 TD), has been effective in Cook’s absence, with 462 Yards on a healthy 4.6 Yards per Carry, though he’s labeled as Questionable for tonight’s tilt following a sprained ankle suffered against the Chargers. This likely means that the Offense is going to have rely upon Kirk Cousins (70.5%, 3,481 YDS, 7.60 NY/A, 25 TD, 5 INT, 63.0 QBR) and the Passing Game to keep their momentum rolling, though it will be fascinating to see them matchup with Green Bay’s impressive Secondary. After a bit of a rocky introduction to Minnesota in 2018, the veteran Quarterback has been quite good this season, benefitting from a much more balanced approach leading to career-bests in Completion Percentage (70.5%), Touchdown Percentage (6.1%), Interception Percentage (1.2%), Yards per Attempt (8.4), Net Yards per Attempt (7.60), and Passer Rating (111.1). Better protection has certainly helped, with the Pro-Bowler sacked just twenty-three times thus far, which is in stark contrast to 2018 in which he was dropped on forty occasions. Afforded more time to wait for his targets to get free, he’s found more success in throwing downfield, averaging 6.0 Completed Air Yards per Completion, up from 5.5 in 2018. Of course, it’s easier to hurl the football downfield when you have vertical threats such as Stefon Diggs (60 REC, 1,073 YDS, 17.9 Y/R, 5 TD), who has enjoyed the most productive campaign of his young career, averaging a whopping 17.9 Yards per Catch, a major increase from the 10.0 he registered in his first season with Cousins. And this is precisely why the Vikings invested so much in their Quarterback, when they signed him to the first fully-guaranteed contract for a player his position two years ago; to win these huge games against the better Quarterbacks in the league. Remember, Zimmer & Co. made waves when they acquired him following a 13-3 season in which they advanced all the way to the NFC Championship, ultimately deciding that they needed a significant upgrade over Case Keenum to get over the proverbial hump. After missing the Playoffs altogether last season, the pressure is on this guy to get the job done, particularly with only one year left remaining on his contract. However, he’ll have to get past Rodgers to do so, and since arriving in Minneapolis, he’s certainly held his own, completing 66.1% of his Attempts for 997 Yards, Eight Touchdown and Three Interceptions in three meetings in which his side have gone 1-1-1. Of course, that lone defeat came when they met back in Week Two, in which the 31-Year old struggled to complete just14-of-32 Passes for 230 Yards, a Touchdown and Two Interceptions, while fumbling twice, losing one of them. Though they amassed 421 Yards of Offense, much of that came after they found themselves trailing early in the Second Quarter. The aforementioned Cook helped turn the tide with a 75-Yard Score, with Cousins later hitting Diggs for a 75-Yard Strike midway through the third stanza to cut the deficit to 16-21. However, he could draw no closer for those mistakes would loom large, with a crushing Interception at Green Bay’s 8-Yard Line ending the potential go-ahead Drive with 5:17 left in the game.