With a split regular-season series for just the second time since 2004, the Green Bay Packers (11-5) and Minnesota Vikings (10-6) need a playoff game to decide who really wins the 2012-13 chapter of the 51-year-old rivalry.
The Vikings beat the Packers on Blair Walsh’s 29-yard field goal as time expired in Week 17, which set up a rematch in the NFC Wild Card at Lambeau Field Saturday. The Packers beat the Vikings in Week 13, 23-14.
Below, we look at the things you could watch during Saturday’s NFC Wild Card Round:
Despite facing Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen on over 90 percent of the pass-protection snaps, Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse was not credited for a single sack against the Vikings this season. His ability to protect on an island against Allen is important, mostly because rookie right tackle Don Barclay is likely to need help against both Brian Robison (8.5 sacks) and Everson Griffen (8.0).
If Newhouse is overmatched early and the Packers are forced to provide help to both offensive tackles Saturday, the offense’s usage of the four- and five-wide sets will naturally have to decrease. The Packers can’t afford a second shaky performance from Newhouse in the postseason.
Containing Peterson? It’s an Inside Job
Adrian Peterson’s 409 combined yards against the Packers this season make it very unlikely that Green Bay is able to keep the Vikings’ MVP candidate from breaking the century mark Saturday. But to stop Peterson from running completely wild again, the Packers have to do a better job of keeping Peterson between the tackles.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Green Bay allowed Peterson to average a staggering 13.7 yards a carry outside the tackles in two meetings this season. Overall, it’s been a problem for the Packers defense all season. Teams are averaging 7.0 yards a carry outside the tackles against Green Bay this season, good for second worst in the NFL. If Peterson is able to break contain and get to the corners again, expect another huge stat line Saturday.
Cold, Hard Truth
Saturday night is going to be cold. You know it. The Packers know it. And the Vikings know it. While most of the attention has been placed on Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and his inexperience in the cold, the Packers must be wary of another potential impact of the temperature: tackling.
Bringing down Peterson was difficult for Green Bay indoors, as evidenced by the 11 tackles he broke in Week 17. Knock down the temperature 60 degrees, and the Packers certainly have their work cut out for them against the 220-pound Peterson. Can Dom Capers’ unit improve dramatically in the tackle department playing in sub-freezing weather against the NFL’s leader in yards after contact? They need to.
The Vikings’ ability to compete against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers passing game may hinge on how cornerback Antoine Winfield’s hand holds up Saturday. In Week 17, Winfield had to leave after just 18 snaps because of pain and swelling in his broken right hand. He’s expected to play Saturday with a cast and padding to protect the hand.
His effectiveness with the injury will likely be limited, but consider what Rodgers did after Winfield went out last Sunday: From snap 19 on, Rodgers threw for over 300 of his 345 yards and the Packers scored all 34 of their points. Backup slot cornerback Marcus Sherels allowed over 160 passing yards, including Jordy Nelson’s 73-yard catch in the second half. The Vikings need Winfield available for all 60 minutes Saturday, if for no other reason than keeping Sherels off the field.
Ponder in the Big Spots
In the first meeting, the Packers blitzed Ponder on nearly every passing third down and also forced turnovers on two separate occasions when the Vikings were either in or near the red zone. That all changed in Week 17. Capers played more coverage on third downs, and Ponder was near perfect inside the Packers’ 20-yard line.
Ponder’s decision-making in both spots might be the X-factor Saturday. When the Packers get Minnesota into obvious passing third downs, the defense has to get off the field. Whether Capers uses pressure or not, Minnesota can’t extend drives when playing behind the sticks on third down. And just one bad decision from Ponder inside the red zone could be the difference for a Packers defense that allowed 444 yards in the second meeting.
Matchups You Could Watch: Packers RB DuJuan Harris vs. Vikings Front Seven; Packers S Charles Woodson vs. Vikings QB Christian Ponder
While Rodgers threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns in Week 17, don’t discount how important the run game remains for the Packers. During an 8-1 stretch before the season finale, Green Bay averaged almost 130 yards on the ground. Harris is expected to get the first crack in the Packers’ backfield after rushing for 70 yards on 14 carries in Week 17.
On defense, how Capers will use Woodson in his first game back from a broken collarbone remains a mystery. Casey Hayward (six interceptions) is expected to remain the primary slot corner. However, Woodson picked off Ponder twice in his first NFL start and can be a playmaker at the backend. Ponder and Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will have to get an early feel for how Capers is utilizing the 36-year-old Woodson.
The Packers losing at home against a Christian Ponder-led Vikings team would be a major black eye on the postseason resumes of both Rodgers and Mike McCarthy. That said, it’s very difficult to envision Ponder replicating his Week 17 stat line of 234 yards and three touchdowns on just 28 attempts Saturday. The Vikings likely need something similar from Ponder to win at Lambeau Field, where the Packers have won 20 of their last 22 games overall. Green Bay could run away with it if Ponder isn’t perfect again.
Packers 31, Vikings 20 (Season record: 10-6)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.