While effortless to predict that Sunday's Week 13 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings could come down to Green Bay's ability to contain Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, a recent history of the series tells a different story.
If we are to trust the 10 games between the two rivals since the Vikings drafted Peterson in 2007, the Packers' handling of quarterback Christian Ponder becomes a much better predictor of Green Bay's success or failure rate Sunday.
The difference in Peterson's production between wins and losses is surprisingly marginal.
In three wins, Peterson has averaged 26 carries and 114 yards. That three-game sample includes a 30-carry, 192-yard performance in 2008. In the two other wins, Green Bay held Peterson under 100 yards and a 4.0 rushing average. Also, the high number of carries can be partly explained by two games in 2009 in which the Vikings played safer in the fourth quarter to melt away clock.
Over seven losses, Peterson's numbers fall to 17 carries and 92 yards. In several games, the Vikings had to abandon the run because of large deficits. And while a noticeable drop off, 22 yards is hardly a number one could argue being the difference between a win or loss. In fact, in the five games Peterson has rushed for over 100 yards against the Packers in his career, Minnesota is just 1-4 overall.
The statistical difference between a win and loss in the series—at least since Peterson arrived on the scene—has centered more directly on the quarterback position.
In three wins over Green Bay—all coming during a stretch between Nov. 2008 and Nov. 2009—the Vikings received very good play from the position. In one Gus Frerotte start and two Brett Favre starts, the Vikings completed 56 of 87 passes (64.4 percent) for 709 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions (passer rating of 106.0). The Vikings averaged 32 points.
The losses reveal a severe decline throwing the football.
In seven defeats—one each from Kelly Holmcomb, Brooks Bollinger and Tarvaris Jackson, and two each from Favre and Ponder—the Vikings completed just 115 of 233 passes (49.4 percent) for 1,441 yards, five touchdowns and 10 interceptions (passer rating of 58.3). Minnesota averaged 15 points.
In no Packers win since 2007 has a Vikings quarterback finished a game with a passer rating over 70.0.
History is just that—a part of the past, not the present—but in this case, the stats clearly show that playing well against Ponder Sunday is more important that holding Peterson to under a certain amount of rushing yards.
After an encouraging start, the second-year quarterback has mostly struggled in his first full season as the Vikings starter.
Since Minnesota started 4-1—a stretch that saw the 2011 first-rounder finish four games with a passer rating above 90.0—Ponder has thrown seven of his nine interceptions and had his passer rating drop over 20 points. The Vikings are 2-4 over their last six games, two of which Ponder threw for less than 100 yards and finished with a passer rating under 40.0.
In the one game over the last month and a half that he has played well—a 34-24 win over the Detroit Lions in Minnesota—Ponder completed 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. His passer rating of 114.2 was his second-best finish of the 2012 season.
Again, the stats tell a rather clear story: When Ponder plays well, the Vikings are a very good football team capable of beating most NFL teams (see: San Francisco 49ers, Week 3). When he struggles, Minnesota must grind to even stay relevant.
Of course, this isn't to take away anything from Peterson. The veteran running back's miraculous recovery from reconstructive knee surgery and ascent to the top of the NFL's rushing leaderboard (1,236 yards, 5.8 yards per carry) is a tremendous storyline that isn't without worth.
But the Vikings surprising 6-5 record is still more about Ponder's early development and later regression than any other individual factor.
For the Packers, bouncing back from a disappointing defensive effort—especially in the passing game—remains high on the priority list.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who came into last Sunday's contest with zero touchdowns and four interceptions in New York's previous three games, completed 16 of 30 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns (114.4 passer rating) against Green Bay's young secondary.
Coming into Sunday, the Packers rank 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed a game at 244.3. Opposing quarterbacks have a 78.9 overall passer rating against Green Bay, ninth best in the NFL.
In two games last season against Ponder, Green Bay picked off the rookie three times and allowed a completion percentage of just 44.0. Peterson ran for 226 yards and two scores, but the Packers swept the series.
More than likely, the NFL's premier running back is going to find space against the Packers defense Sunday. Without Clay Matthews (hamstring) and C.J. Wilson (knee), he's likely to produce numbers. The Giants ran for 147 yards last Sunday.
But regardless of Peterson's total Sunday, the Packers must hold Ponder in check throwing the football to secure their eighth win in 11 tries against the Vikings since '07.
The history of the series tells us that the Packers can withstand an onslaught from Peterson. A pristine passing performance from Ponder might just spell out a defeat for Green Bay.