The Green Bay Packers host the rival Minnesota Vikings in Lambeau Field on Christmas Eve. The Packers are looking to continue their drive to fulfill quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ prediction of running the table and bring their win streak to 5, while the Vikings who have nought but the faintest hope of clinging to mathematical inclusion in the playoff race seek to play spoiler to these resurgent Packers. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a brief look at a few of the story lines surrounding this Minnesota team as our Packers head into this game.
As is always the case heading into these NFC North rivalry games with Minnesota, Adrian Peterson is one of if not the single biggest story line. With a career 2-6-1 record in games at Green Bay, he returns after his week 2 knee injury against the Packers (and the infamous scene of him being carried through what might as well be a Burger King in the bowels of that monstrosity of a covered NFC North stadium).
Last week against the Indianapolis Colts was not exactly a triumphant return for him, however. Only being in the game for 12 snaps resulted in 6 carries for 22 yards and a fumble. That that anemic stat line came against a very mediocre Colts defensive front bodes well for a Packers defense that, despite a few slumps over the course of the season, is still a top 10 rush defense by Football Outsiders DVOA metric. Not that any of this is to say the presence of Adrian Peterson should be taken likely. While his record at Lambeau is not spectacular, he has been a thorn in the side of the Packers since he entered the league. He has eclipsed 100 yards 8 times against Green Bay, including games of 175, 210, and 199 yards. For Green Bay to keep the great playoff ‘run the table’ hope alive, Peterson will need to be limited well below those impressive numbers.
Further news on Wednesday emerged that Peterson has been held out from practice, listed with a groin injury. He stated that he had a ‘couple of nicks’ to work on. This could mean he is simply being rested in which case some of the same rust that contributed to his fumble versus the Colts persists, or it may be something more serious that leads to him missing the game against the Packers, which would vastly change the approach both the Vikings and Packers take to the game.
Vikings Offensive Slide
The Minnesota offense the Packers are likely to see on Christmas Eve is vastly different to the one they saw early in the season. In week 2, quarterback Sam Bradford put together the game of his NFL career, garnering a 121.2 rating on an almost 300 yard effort by way of 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. This was backed up by a huge day of connecting with wide receiver Stefon Diggs who had 9 receptions for 182 yards and a touchdown, a performance not put forth by a Vikings receiver since the days of Randy Moss.
As the season has progressed to a point where we have a large enough sample size to make true judgments about a unit, as opposed to back in week 2, this Vikings offense is racking up a measly 18.9 points per game (last in the NFL), with the worst rushing attack in the league, and a passing offense ranking in the 20s. While the absence of Peterson may have played a role in this, Sam Bradford has also been a constraint. He has the 2nd highest percentage in the league (52%) of throws short of the sticks.
Combining a passing attack that appears to have difficulty generating first downs, with the 70.6 yards per game average on the ground, and you have an offense which the Packers defense may be in position to stifle. Much will hinge on if the young secondary can hold up better this time against Diggs and force Bradford to continue to play dink-and-dunk short of the line to gain.
Vikings Defense Remains Dominant
The thing that has not changed much since the week 2 matchup is the Vikings defense. Despite a poor showing against Indianapolis last week where they allowed 34 points, and 101 yards on the ground to Frank Gore whose age is rapidly approaching his yardage total. The Vikings defense is still a top 10 unit, allowing only 18.5 points per game, and ranked 8th in sacks with 35. Even at home, this unit can pose a serious threat to a Packers offense that seriously struggled when last they met.
Linval Joseph, the 7th year defensive tackle free agent procured from New York by Minnesota, is having as strong a season as any DT anchoring their front 7 who will have their hands full trying to contain Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael. On the back end, cornerback Xavier Rhodes has built upon his early season success, and developed into a corner the Vikings are confident in leaving in 1-on-1 situations following the oppositions premier receiver around the field. It will be interesting to see if he is put on Davantae Adams or Jordy Nelson, and how their play reacts. In week 2 it was a relatively easy choice for them to attempt to remove Jordy from the game, but since then Adams has developed leaps and bounds into effectively the Packers 1B receiver, so how the Vikings defense chooses to deal with that threat if Rhodes is left on Nelson will be an interesting situation, especially with elite safety Harrison Smith having missed the previous two games while battling an ankle injury.
As of Wednesday, notable pieces on the offensive are the aforementioned Adrian Peterson, and receiver Stefon Diggs being non-participants. Peterson listed with a knee/groin injury. Importantly Diggs is listed as having a hip injury that kept him out of practice. Were Diggs to miss the game this would likely have an even greater impact than if Peterson were to miss it. All indications are, per the Vikings release, that it is not a significant injury however, and he will likely play Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, Harrison Smith continued to be held out of practice for the Vikings with his lingering ankle sprain suffered against the Dallas Cowboys at the beginning of December. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer wouldn’t rule Smith out for the remainder of the season prior to their game versus the Colts, but at this point it would be a surprise to see him return for the game on Saturday if the injury is still serious enough to hold him out of practice midweek.
For the first time in quite a while, I’m feeling quite confident about how our Packers match up in this one. I’m going to go with a 27-14 Packers win, with Peterson held to under 75 yards. This Packers team is much improved over the last month, and when these two teams played in week 2 the Vikings were a much better team than they are now, played the game in Minnesota, and still only managed to win by 3 points.
I hope you all enjoy this new pre-game column from me to book-end the game with my Post Game Play Action each week. Wishing you all a wonderful holiday period, and as always, Go Pack Go!