The NBC schedule makers certainly didn't this coming.
Before the 2013 season, it would have been reasonable enough to peg the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings—two playoff teams from last year—as an attractive matchup for a Week 8 primetime game.
Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Clay Matthews provided the star power. Two seemingly well-built rosters would provide the competition. The last game between the two rivals in the Metrodome and a first meeting between Greg Jennings and his old team had the storylines.
Many of those factors still remain, but NBC can't be thrilled about pitting two teams going in completely different directions for a showcase game Sunday night. The Packers (4-2) have won three straight games and now hold sole possession of first place in the NFC North. The Vikings, after consecutive embarrassing losses, are now 1-5 and in the division cellar.
The win-loss trends say Packers in a blowout. Yet this rivalry rarely produces snoozers, especially inside the noisy, uncomfortable Metrodome. NBC may still get the entertainment value it was craving when it put this game on the schedule back in April.
Here are five questions the Packers need to answer Sunday night:
1. Can the Packers Contain Adrian Peterson?
There haven't been many times since Peterson entered the league that the Packers could feel somewhat confident going into a matchup with the league's most talented running back. Sunday night may be one, as Green Bay is currently the third best run defense (79.0 yards per game, 3.4 per carry) in football and Peterson hasn't been the same MVP back he was in 2012. He's also dealing with tightness in his hamstring that has been bothering him for several weeks. Peterson is still capable of turning any gap mistake or over pursuit into six points, and the Packers need only look back to last season to see how much damage he can singlehandedly do (508 rushing yards in three games, including single outputs of 210 and 199). But Green Bay is stout up front and Minnesota has struggled to open up the same lanes for Peterson in 2013. Keeping him under wraps now, with the Vikings spinning a quarterback merry-go-round, is as important as ever.
2. How Will the Packers Manufacture Openings in the Passing Game?
Unless James Jones (sprained MCL) somehow makes a miracle recovery between now and Sunday, the Packers will be without three of their top four pass catchers against the Vikings. Losing players of the quality of Jones, Randall Cobb (broken fibula) and Jermichael Finley (spinal contusion) would cripple most passing offenses, but the Packers found ways to stay productive throwing the football against the Browns. How? Mostly using the short-to-intermediate passing game (Aaron Rodgers threw just nine passes over 10 yards in the air), and exploiting matchups when the defense brought an extra man or two into the box. Jarrett Boykin also took full advantage of his opportunity, which is something the Packers tight ends will now need to embrace. On the other side, the Vikings possess a lethal combination for attempting to play pass defense: The front four has struggled to create a pass rush and the secondary features one of the NFL's worst combination of starting cornerbacks and safeties. That said, you get a feeling Jared Allen and Brian Robison will step up to the plate and create pressure Sunday night. Can a patchwork set of Packers receivers provide enough sting where the Vikings are hurting the worst?
3. Will the Packers Force Christian Ponder into Mistakes?
The last time Christian Ponder took the field in Minnesota, he was showered with boos and chants for backup Matt Cassel. That's seems like years ago now, as Cassel went on to flame out during his starting chance and Josh Freeman was concussed during a 33-incompletion night in New York. The quarterback wheel has spun back to Ponder, who will start Sunday night. The Packers certainly can't overlook a quarterback that threw for three touchdowns and zero interceptions in a Week 17 win at the Metrodome last season. But there should be an internal pressure on Ponder, who will be getting his last chance to prove he's starting quality before Freeman ultimately shakes off his concussion and returns to his 11-game audition. Green Bay needs to make Ponder what he's always been: an inconsistent, mistake-waiting-to-happen game manager. The Packers haven't been great at causing turnovers (just seven takeaways in six games, including five games with one or fewer), but Ponder has 30 interceptions and 15 fumbles in just 30 career games. Over his first three starts of 2013, he gave the football away seven times, which was the third most in football at the time. The opportunities will likely come. This Packers defense now needs to prove it is capable of taking advantage.
4. Can the Packers Hold Up on Special Teams?
If this game is close, special teams could play a huge factor. And if Minnesota is looking for an obvious mismatch, it might be returning punts and kicks. Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads the NFL with a 36.5-yard average returning kicks, has already established himself as one of the games most dangerous returners. Marcus Sherels also returned a punt for Minnesota's only points against the Giants. Thanks to a rash of injuries—especially to the linebacker position—the Packers have struggled in back-to-back weeks covering kicks and punts. In Baltimore, Jacoby Jones returned a kick 35 yards and Tandon Doss had a 38-yard punt return. The Browns then averaged 47.8 yards over four kick returns last Sunday. Allowing momentum shifts on special teams is one way to go on the road and get beat by an inferior opponent. The Packers must play a cleaner game in Minnesota on each coverage unit.
5. How Will the Packers Operate on Offense Indoors?
For years under Mike Holmgren, domes of all shapes and sizes typically terrorized Brett Favre and the Packers. It's been mostly the opposite for Mike McCarthy, whose offenses have used the fast track to take over games. In fact, the Packers have won 18 of 26 games indoors while averaging over 30 points and 380 yards a game under McCarthy. On Sunday night, it will interesting to see how the Packers operate on offense. A team missing Jones, Cobb and Finley is likely to be a more balanced offense that leans on rookie running back Eddie Lacy. A plethora of weapons is no longer available to Aaron Rodgers, who carries the best ever passer rating indoors (117.4). Green Bay has also been efficient running the football in 2013. The last thing the Packers want Sunday night is for the crowd to gain steam and a depleted passing offense to face tough situations. With the noise always playing a factor, Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen can pin their ears back and get after a pair of young tackles if the Packers play behind the sticks. A conservative game plan modeled around last week's victory against Cleveland could be a winning game plan Sunday.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Minnesota 20 (5-1)
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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