4:25 PM EST, FOX – Line: Packers -3, Over/Under: 48.0
The penultimate Sunday of the regular season is here and there is plenty left to decide in regard to the playoffs, which is the case in this particular matchup as the Minnesota Vikings travel to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field to battle the surging, Green Bay Packers, who at this point, hold their postseason destiny in their hands. In many ways, this season has served as a miraculous renaissance for the Vikings (12-3, 1st in NFC North), who in their first season under the new regime of (Head Coach) Kevin O’Connell have managed to consistently defy both convention and common sense en route to clinching their first division title since 2017. The latest graduate from the Sean McVay coaching tree, O’Connell has done a tremendous job with an Offense that despite being loaded with talent at the skill positions, had oftentimes failed to become greater than the sum of their parts over the past few years. It’s clear that the passing game has been their strength in Minneapolis, where this unit ranks seventh in scoring (25.2), twelfth in total offense (375.5), thanks in large part to the sixth-ranked passing attack (281.0). Indeed, O’Connell has made no illusions as to where their proverbial bread is buttered, for only two teams have thrown the football more than Minnesota (40.2 attempts per game), with only four logging more aerial scores (27). (Veteran Quarterback) Kirk Cousins, who played under O’Connell for one season during the early stages of his career in Washington, has enjoyed this reunion, completing 65.7% of his attempts for 4,117 yards on 5.98 net yards per attempt, with twenty-seven touchdowns in comparison to eleven interceptions. However, the biggest selling point of this relationship has been how cool the 34-year-old has been in the clutch; Cousins leads the league in both fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, with eight of them apiece. Of course, it’s easier to make plays when you’re surrounded by talent, chief among them, (All-Pro Receiver) Justin Jefferson. The most productive pass-catcher int he NFL over the last three seasons, Jefferson (pictured below) leads the league in both receptions (123) and receiving yards (1,756), breaking the franchise record set by none other than Randy Moss for single-season yardage. The 23-year-old has posted TEN games of 100+ receiving yards thus far, including each of the last three in which he has averaged a whopping 159.7 yards! However, as fun as this season has been for the faithful in Minneapolis, there is a caveat to their success; all but ONE of their twelve victories have come by one possession, with eight of them needing a fourth quarter rally to complete, including ach of their last two outings. When you look at the other teams in the league to have accumulated twelve or more victories, all of them have enjoyed a point differential of over 100 points, though the Vikings have managed to outscore their opponents by a scant FIVE. The problem has been the Defense, which has failed to launch under the direction of (new Defensive Coordinator) Ed Donatell, whose charges have shipped the second-most total yards overall (402.3) and the fifth-most points (24.9). An injury-ravaged and inexperienced Secondary has relinquished the most passing yards in the league (281.5), while the pass-rush has failed to get to the Quarterback with a middling thirty-six sacks (17th Overall) and a sack percentage of 19.7% (23rd Overall). At this juncture of the campaign, there likely isn’t any remedy for their woes, other than the one thing they have been good at, which is forcing turnovers. Minnesota has logged twenty-three takeaways thus far, the eighth-most in the NFL, aided largely by the fourth-most recovered fumbles (10).
When we last saw the Vikings, they followed their highly improbable comeback over the Colts with another close call, this time a 27-24 victory over the Giants. After racing out to an early 10-0 lead, Minnesota suddenly went cold as New York slowly wrestled control away from the hosts over the next two quarters, eventually building a 13-10 lead heading into the final stanza. This is where things got a little crazy, folks, for O’Connell’s troops opened the period with a 15-yard touchdown strike from Cousins to (Tight End) T.J. Hockenson, their second connection of the afternoon, to retake the lead. Big Blue responded with a field goal to cut the deficit to one, only for Cousins to find the aforementioned Jefferson for a 17-yard score to make it 24-16 with just three minutes left to play. However, the Giants were far from finished, as they frantically marched seventy-five yards downfield in under a minute, with (Pro-Bowl) Tailback Saquon Barkley powering his way into the end zone, leading to a successful two-point conversion to tie it at 24-24 with just over a minute left in the game. Starting from his own 25-yard line, Cousins calmly completed 4-of-5 passes to push the football past midfield, setting up (young Kicker) Greg Joseph for the game-winning 61-yard field goal. In the end, Donatell’s Defense was once again torched for over 400 yards, but they did manage to force a pair of crucial turnovers, which were enough to turn things into their favor. Cousins was stellar in completing 34-of-48 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, while the tandem of Jefferson and Hockenson accounted for fifteen receptions, 242 yards and all three of those scores. In nine all-time meetings, Cousins is 5-3-1 against Green Bay, completing 67.4% of his passes for an average of 281.2 yards on a healthy 8.39 net yards per attempt, with twenty touchdowns opposed to just five interceptions, while Jefferson netting 92.6 yards with four touchdowns in five career encounters of his own. When these two sides last met back in the season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium, Cousins was an efficient 23-of-32 passing for 277 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both of which went to Jefferson, who logged nine catches on eleven targets for 184 yards. From a betting perspective, the Vikings are 5-4 against the spread over their last ten games overall, though have managed to cover the spread in just three of their last ten trips away from Minneapolis. Furthermore, they’ve struggled as underdogs of late, covering the line in only one of their last five contest in which they’ve received points by the oddsmakers, though that notion doesn’t apply to when facing the Packers, whom they’ve covered the spread against in six of their last ten encounters as an underdog, which is the case this afternoon. On the injury front, that beleaguered Defense could be missing a few more bodies on the back end, as (young Cornerback) Cameron Dantzler is listed as questionable with a sprained ankle, potentially compounding depth concerns for a Secondary that has already seen three of its number land on injured reserve. Furthermore, (Center) Garrett Bradbury will miss this afternoon’s trip to Lambeau due to an ongoing back issue, though (Guard) Ezra Cleveland is on track to participate with a sore shoulder.
Meanwhile, the Packers (7-8, T-2nd in NFC North) literally hold their destiny in their own hands at this point, for if they manage to win these final two games on their schedule, then they will punch a ticket to the postseason for a fourth consecutive year. Indeed, about a month ago it appeared that Green Bay was D.O.A. with a roster ravaged by injuries and (two-time reigning MVP Quarterback) Aaron Rodgers frustrated with everything and anyone. Heading into December at 4-8 is far from ideal, folks, but as Rodgers & Co are proving, it’s also far from impossible, for a three-game winning streak coupled with some friendly breaks in their favor have put them in a position decide their own fate. So, what has changed for this team, you ask? Well, it certainly helps that they’ve managed to get healthier, and they’ve also managed to take advantage of much softer portion of their schedule; the Packers bested their bitter rivals, the Bears, in a 28-19 victory before enjoying a very late bye week, and then emerged rejuvenated to blast the decimated Rams, 24-12 on a frigid Monday night at Lambeau Field. However, the true test was a Christmas Eve trip to Miami, where they would turn the tables in the second half, en route to vexing the Dolphins in a 26-20 triumph (much more on this one in a bit). During this winning streak, (Head Coach) Matt LaFleur’s troops have FINALLY seen the passing attack come together, thanks in large part to a full complement of weapons in the Receiving Corps helping to facilitate some sorely needed chemistry between Rodgers and his young teammates. By far and away the youngest corps of pass-catchers in the NFL, Green Bay’s passing game has thrived (and died) on the 39-year-old Quarterback’s rapport with three Receivers, two of which are rookies and another who is at the top of the depth chart for the first time in his career. Despite being 27-years old, Allen Lazard has been forced to step up to WR1 in the wake of the departures of both Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, while (Rookies) Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs have experienced their ups and downs; the former posted just ten receptions in the first six games only to erupt for twenty-five catches for 408 yards and seven touchdowns over the next six contests, while the latter missed five weeks with a broken bone in his foot. During this period, Rodgers, who himself has played through a partially broken thumb and a broken rib, is completing 64.6% of his passes for 203.7 yards on 5.78 net yads per attempt, with three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Granted, those numbers are far from scintillating, certainly by the four-time MVP’s standards, which leads us to the other factor that has worked in their favor in this rally, a Defense that has really clamped down on their opponents. The Packers have relinquished 17.0 points per game on 313.7 total yards, including 210.7 against the pass and another 103.0 yards versus the run, and though they’ve shipped some big plays (7.18 yards per play!), they’ve been producing more than a few big plays, logging seven sacks and eight takeaways, six of which are interceptions. (Veteran Cornerbacks) Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas have been BALLHAWKS this season, combining for NINE picks overall and two apiece during this three-game stretch.
When we last saw the Packers, they managed to keep their postseason hopes alive with a third consecutive victory, this one coming on Christmas Eve in Miami, where they turned the tables on the hosts in the second half to escape with a 26-20 victory. This one was a tale of two halves, folks, for over the first thirty minutes, Green Bay was outscored 20-13 and outgained 229-130. However, the final two periods featured a complete 180 from both sides, with (Defensive Coordinator) Joe Berry’s troops stepping up in a MAJOR way, forcing three consecutive turnovers on as many drives to close out the affair. After Miami missed a 48-yard field goal on their first possession of the second half, (newly minted Pro Bowler) Alexander picked off Tua Tagovailoa on their first play of their next drive, while (veteran Linebacker) De’Vondre Campbell intercepting him deep in Green Bay territory on the next one, with the aforementioned Douglas doing the same with just 1:35 left in the game. When it was all said and done, LaFleur’s troops only totaled 301 yards of offense, but with FOUR takeaways on the day, they didn’t need to have the ball for long, for three of them led directly to points for the visiting side. Rodgers completed 24-of-38 passes for 238 yards with a touchdown and an interception, (veteran Defensive Linemen) Preston Smith and Jarran Reed each logged a sack and a forced fumble with a pair of hits on Tagovailoa. Very familiar with the Vikings over the course of his long, stellar career, Rodgers has amassed a 16-11-1 record against his division rivals to the west, completing 68.2% of his passes for an average of 249.9 yards on 7.31 net yards per attempt, with fifty-six touchdowns in comparison to just eight interceptions. However, when they last met back in the season opener in Minneapolis, he was under fire throughout the afternoon, posting just 195 yards and an interception on thirty-four attempts, with four sacks and a lost fumble along the way. From a betting perspective, the Packers are 5-5 against the spread over their last ten games overall, though have won and covered each of their last three outings. They’re 4-6 against the spread in their last ten contests played at Lambeau Field, though are 6-4 in that regard over their last ten meetings in which they’ve hosted the Vikings. Furthermore, being a favorite hasn’t been good to them, for Green Bay has covered the spread in just three of their last ten affairs when laying points, which is the case this afternoon. On the injury front, the Packers appear to be getting healthier at the most opportune of times, with (Left Tackle) David Bakhtiari and (Guard) Elgton Jenkins expected to return after missing last weekend’s trip to South Beach, which would be a huge boost to an Offensive Line that has really struggled to keep their Quarterback clean at various points of the campaign.