Rarely over the last seven years have the Green Bay Packers (7-4) been punched in the mouth quite like they were Sunday night in New York.
In fact, counting Sunday’s 38-10 loss to the Giants, the Packers have only lost six total games in the Mike McCarthy era by more than three touchdowns. Three came in 2006, McCarthy’s first season, and the last came in New Orleans in 2008 (51-29). The 28-point deficit Sunday was McCarthy’s worst loss since a 35-7 loss in Chicago in 2007.
When the Minnesota Vikings (6-5) make the short trip east Sunday, the Packers will have the much-needed opportunity to pick themselves back up off the canvas. Avoiding a 10-count won’t be the only thing on the line, however.
The matchup will also mark the start of an important stretch of NFC North games that is likely decide who is the division champion, who is a likely NFC Wildcard winner and who’s on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The Packers, now second to the Chicago Bears (8-3) in the division, play three-straight games within the NFC North, including Minnesota Sunday, Detroit in Week 14 and at Chicago a week later.
How Green Bay fares in those three games will likely set the path for each of the three teams to finish the 2012 season. As it stands now, the Bears are the front runner for the division, Packers for the wildcard slot and the Vikings as the outsider. A Minnesota win Sunday shuffles that balance.
Here are some other things you could watch Sunday:
As is the case in any problem that lingers in the NFL, the Packers’ issue in protecting the passer is multi-faceted. If it involved just one single area that needed fixing, the problem would already be solved.
Personnel, play-calling, individual execution, quarterback decision-making and separation from receivers have all played a factor in Aaron Rodgers being sacked an NFL-high 37 times this season.
Improving in one area can help another, such as play-calling helping out personnel issues and execution helping even out play-calling. We know the personnel isn’t changing, but the rest can and need to have improvement over the final five weeks.
The Vikings bring capable pass rushers to Lambeau Field Sunday, including Jared Allen (seven sacks), Brian Robison (5.5) and Kevin Williams (two). But this isn’t the same kind of defensive line as those possessed by the Lions and Giants, both elite units in the top tier of the NFL. McCarthy must walk the fine line of adjusting and over-adjusting Sunday.
Kill the Head and the Body Will Die?
An encouraging start from quarterback Christian Ponder has given way to what can only be considered as a very disappointing second season for the Vikings quarterback. Since Week 6, Ponder has finished five of six games with a passer rating under 75.0, and his overall season rating of 82.0 ranks 24th in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks. In two of the aforemetioned games, Ponder finished with less than 100 yards passing—a rather shocking development in this day and age of professional football.
Ponder’s struggles in the passing game make containing (note the word usage, “stopping” was not mentioned) Vikings running back Adrian Peterson the most important task for the Packers defense Sunday. But even containing Peterson has been a difficult assignment in 2012.
Peterson, despite undergoing reconstructive knee surgery in January, has rattled off five-straight games with 100 or more rushing yards, tying the Vikings’ franchise record. The All-Pro is averaging 112.4 yards a game and 5.8 yards a carry, both of which would set new career highs.
Not having Clay Matthews and C.J. Wilson will compound the difficulty of the task of stopping Peterson Sunday. To adjust, the Packers have to match power with power in the box and trust that a young secondary can control a passing game that has struggled mightily over the last two months.
The emergence of Randall Cobb has helped ease the loss of Greg Jennings for the better part of the last six games. But for as good as Cobb has been, the return of a Pro Bowl receiver like Jennings can still have the kind of impact that ripples throughout the rest of the offense.
Having the Vikings on the opposing sidelines should be music to Jennings’ ears, too. In 12 career games against Minnesota, Jennings has tallied 798 yards and eight touchdowns—his most in either category against an opposing team.
While Jennings may not play a full game’s worth of snaps, watch Sunday for one or two of his patented comeback routes. The Packers offense has been mostly void of one of Rodgers’ favorite throws, really since Jennings hurt his knee late in the 2011 season. It’s a bread-and-butter route for Jennings that the two players have mostly perfected.
Fair Injury Tradeoff?
While the Packers will likely be without linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) for a third-straight game, the Vikings are looking more and more like they won’t have Percy Harvin (ankle) available Sunday. Impact-wise, the tradeoff might be a wash.
Matthews (nine sacks) is the Packers’ best pass rusher and hardest worker against the run, but Harvin has been responsible for 1,347 total yards and five touchdowns in nine games for the Vikings this season. His role as a receiver and runner can’t be understated for Minnesota’s offense, and it’s no coincidence that Ponder’s struggles in the passing game have coincided with Harvin’s lack of availability. Harvin may also be the game’s best kick returner. Not having him available is as big a loss to Minnesota as Matthews would be for Green Bay.
Key Matchup: Packers RT T.J. Lang vs. Vikings LDE Brian Robison
Marshall Newhouse vs. Jared Allen is obviously important, but the Packers know he’s a handful and you can live with losing a few battles against one of the NFL’s top rushers. Things get sticky, however, when more than one passer rusher is consistently winning his one-on-one matchups.
Last season, the Packers didn’t allow that to happen with Robison. In two games, the Vikings defensive end had just three total hurries and zero sacks. But that was with Bryan Bulaga anchoring the right side, which obviously isn’t in the cards Sunday.
Lang, who will make his third start at right tackle, needs to handle Robison with similar effectiveness. In two games, he’s really struggled handling the edge and getting his arms on athletic defensive ends. If the Packers have to provide both Newhouse and Lang help for long stretches, this offense could really get handcuffed.
15 of the last 19 meetings between these two teams have been within a touchdown or less, so the safe bet here is a close game that comes down to a late stop or turnover. But if there’s anything we know about Mike McCarthy and the Packers, it’s that adversity fuels his team’s best performances. All week, this team has heard that the sky is falling; that the butt-kicking they received Sunday was more than just a fluke. But you get a feeling that the Packers knew taking care of business in the four division games to end 2012 was vastly more important than beating the Giants on the road last week. And while Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen can be great equalizers, the Vikings are a struggling football team with big holes on both sides of the football. The Packers turn it back on Sunday to win their 10th straight game over the NFC North.
Packers 34, Vikings 18 (Season record: 6-5)