The 51-year-old rivalry between the Green Bay Packers (11-4) and Minnesota Vikings (9-6) has had its share of intrigued-packed affairs, but Sunday's tilt in Minnesota may have more on the line than any other previous matchup between these two teams.
The Packers can lay claim to the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye by beating the Vikings for a sixth-straight time, while Minnesota would clinch the No. 6 seed and likely set up a trip to Lambeau Field for a playoff rematch by snapping the losing streak to Green Bay Sunday.
Despite Green Bay and Minnesota winning 14 of the last 19 division titles, only once before in the series history has both teams entered a regular-season clash with at least nine wins. Back in 1996, the Packers were 12-3 and the Vikings 9-6 when the two met in the season finale at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won, 38-10.
Of course, there's also an important record on the line Sunday. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is 208 yards shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record, a prestigious mark that has stood for 28 years. Even if he doesn't get the record, Peterson needs just 102 to become the NFL's seventh member of the 2,000-yard rushing club.
Here are some other things you could watch Sunday at the Metrodome:
Before Minnesota traveled to Green Bay in Week 13, I wrote about containing Peterson but also quarterback Christian Ponder's importance to the Vikings ending up in the win column. Minnesota proved that column true, as Peterson rushed for 210 yards in a losing effort because of two interceptions and a general lack of efficiency from Ponder.
A month later, little has changed. Ponder has thrown just one interception over the Vikings' three-game winning streak, and back-to-back games with a passer rating over 80.0 brought Minnesota's record to 6-2 in that situation this season. The Packers can survive another Peterson onslaught. But getting efficient and turnover-free play from the quarterback position puts the Vikings on a winning track at home.
Home Sweet Dome
Sunday's trip to the Metrodome will mark the fifth time the Packers have played inside a dome in 2012, the most ever for one season in franchise history. Green Bay's offense, and Aaron Rodgers in particular, won't mind.
The Packers are averaging almost 31 points and 375 yards a game this season indoors, while Rodgers has a passer rating of 125.2 with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Overall, Rodgers has thrown 49 touchdowns against just eight interceptions in 20 career games indoors, and his career rating of 116.6 is No. 1 in NFL history. Once a house of nightmares for the Packers' offense, domes are now a comfortable setting for big numbers.
Weakness into Strength?
Few teams were as poor at running the football as the Packers were through the first eight weeks of 2012, but that's no longer the case in the second half. Since Week 9, Green Bay is seventh best in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 129.9. Minnesota is second at 193.0, Seattle first at 195.3.
Predictably, production has followed Mike McCarthy's commitment to running the football. Over the same span, the Packers have called the fourth-most runs in the NFL at nearly 32 a game—or over eight more than the first eight weeks. The result has been the transformation from a team dependent solely on the arm of Rodgers to one that can compete week-in and week-out on the ground.
Matchup to Watch: Packers WR Greg Jennings vs. Vikings CB Antoine Winfield
While Randall Cobb (ankle) participated in a limited fashion Friday, the expectation remains that the franchise's new all-purpose king will be out Sunday. Green Bay still has something to play for, but the risk of losing Cobb for an already locked in playoff game likely trumps his impact on the season finale. In Cobb's place in the slot, expect the Packers to rely on Jennings, an old master inside.
Last season, Jennings caught a team-high 33 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns in the slot (via Pro Football Focus), and his catch rate of 70.2 ranked in the top five of receivers who caught at least 25 passes inside. Jordy Nelson should play Sunday, so the Packers can move Jennings inside at a higher percentage and play Nelson and James Jones on the perimeter.
With Minnesota returning Chris Cook, Jennings should see plenty of Winfield in the slot. The veteran corner, who is dealing with a hairline fracture in his hand, has allowed a rating of just 78.2 inside this season and is as physical as they come at the line of scrimmage. Considering how heavily Rodgers has leaned on Cobb's ability to win in the slot this season, the Packers offense needs Jennings to consistently be a difficult matchup for a hard-nosed veteran like Winfield.
The Vikings are playing as well now as they have all season, and the opportunity to win a home game to get to the postseason couldn't provide any finer motivation. Still, it's hard to discount what the Packers have done defensively over the last two games. Teams are averaging just 185 total yards over the last two weeks, and in three of the last four, opposing quarterbacks have been held under 150 yards. Peterson will go over 102 yards to get to 2,000, but Ponder simply isn't efficient enough to beat a secondary and pass rush that is coming on strong late in the season.
Packers 28, Vikings 20 (Season record: 10-5)
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected].
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