Cold as Ice: How the Vikings Can Shock the Packers. Again.
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
The Vikings head to Lambeau Field without Kirk Cousins (now Covid positive) for a national TV matchup with the 12-3 Packers on Sunday night with lots at stake for both teams. Minnesota would need a win to remain in the race for an NFC wild card spot if Philadelphia defeats Washington on Sunday afternoon. Green Bay is seeking home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with two more wins.
The Packers also have revenge on their minds as the Vikings have beaten them in the last two meetings. It was 34-31 in the Week 11 shootout in Minneapolis when Cousins (341 yards passing, 3 TDs) and Aaron Rodgers (385 yards passing, 4 TDs) aired it out, mostly to Justin Jefferson (8 catches, 169 yards, 2 TDs) and Davante Adams (7 for 115, 2 TDs).
Last season on November 1, 2020 at Lambeau, Dalvin Cook rang up 226 total yards and 4 TDs and D.J. Wonnum stopped the final Packers drive with his strip sack on Rodgers in the 28-22 Minnesota win. Can Cook repeat that performance which may be necessary with Sean Mannion replacing Cousins?
Here are my keys to the Vikings once again upsetting the Packers:
1. Dust off that November 1, 2020 game plan: Cousins only threw 14 times in the Lambeau win last season while Cook ran wild. A reasonably balanced attack will be needed so Mannion will have to complete some big passes but Cook must be featured and he’ll be fresh after missing last week while on the Covid list. The Packers run D ranks No. 18 in the NFL while their pass defense is No. 10. The problem is that the Packers will load up against the run even more so without Cousins at the helm and force Mannion (with two career starts, both losses) to make plays.
And with leading sacker Rashan Gary (8.5 sacks) playing this week after missing the earlier game with the Vikings, the pass rush could be more fierce this time unless the field is icy which definitely slows down the rushers.
2. If the field is icy, advantage goes to offenses so Mannion (or if we see rookie Kellen Mond at some point in the game) must try to hit J.J. as Cousins did in the last meeting: when it’s cold, fields can get slick and the receivers have an edge as they know the direction they’re running so it can be very tough on the defensive backs. Jefferson must have his share of targets and he’s such a great route-runner that I can see him getting open, even against the constant double teams he’ll face. But with Adam Thielen out after ankle surgery, the Vikings are missing a key playmaker. Also, the screen game was excellent against the Rams and should play a prominent role again so Cook could break a long catch and run.
Of course this slick-field problem for pass rushers and DBs works both ways which could well be an even bigger advantage for Green Bay with Rodgers and his receivers.
3. Hold onto the ball: the Packers lead the league with a plus 16 turnover ratio so it’s imperative that the Vikings don’t cough up the ball running and passing, especially on a cold night when the ball gets slippery.
4. Help Bradbury against Clark: in the last meeting, Mason Cole—with help from the guards–did a nice job on Packers Pro Bowl nose tackle Kenny Clark. Cole is currently on the Covid list and if Bradbury starts at center, he’ll need lots of help from the guards as Bradbury has struggled against Clark in the past.
The Rams were successful in pressuring Cousins with lots of stunts upfront so the O-line must be ready for a similar strategy and pick up the stunts as needed.
5. Stop the run and batten down the hatches on Rodgers Adams: the Minnesota D must control Aaron Jones who missed the past two Vikings-Packers games and he’s an excellent runner (723 yards rushing, 4 TDs) and receiver (47 catches, 6 TDs). A.J. Dillon is a bigger back who may perform well on a cold, slick field. Vikings defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce and Armon Watts must play well along with the linebackers.
It would help the run and pass defense if Eric Kendricks is healthy and playing to his Pro Bowl level after battling injuries in recent weeks. Plus another big game from Anthony Barr is needed after his two interceptions last week.
The best hope with Rodgers is to do as in the last game and make sure he doesn’t have the ball last. The Vikings were able to drive to the winning field goal at the buzzer and keep Rodgers on the sideline late. The Vikings still rank second in the league with 44 sacks but were shut out last week. That can’t happen again as Rodgers will play much better than Matthew Stafford with his three picks.
I don’t have much confidence in the Vikings corners against Adams, Allen Lazard (who missed the Week 11 game), possibly Randall Cobb (who has been hurt) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling who caught the 75-yard bomb to tie the Vikings at the two minute warning five weeks ago. Which brings us to:
6. Another huge test for Vikings secondary no safeties one-on-one with wide receivers: the Vikings will be in big trouble if Green Bay is able to do with Adams as the Rams did with Cooper Kupp in getting him one-on-one with slot corner Mackensie Alexander. Adams has seven TD receptions in the last three Vikings games and he must be doubled virtually every snap, preferably with Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith on him.
Dantzler matching up with the other receivers is a big concern and Mike Zimmer must make sure Xavier Woods isn’t left in single coverage on Valdes-Scantling as on that aforementioned bomb.
7. Get the kickoff return game going better than last week hope Joseph outkicks a shaky Crosby: Kene Nwangwu has been quiet the past few games after his two kickoff return TDs. In the cold night air, the kickoffs shouldn’t travel as far so he’ll have return opportunities and must make the most of it.
Mason Crosby has had an off year, making just 21 of 30 field goals. Greg Joseph has been better—31 of 36—but do we trust him in the cold? Vikings punter Jordan Berry has been good most of the year but he’s had a blocked punt and a punt return TD on a short kick in the last few weeks so he must perform better. 8. Get some help from the officials: in the last meeting, an overturned Packers late interception was a key factor as the Vikings then drove to the winning field goal. But the officials may have cost the Vikings the game last week with several key non-calls including a push in the back on the game-changing punt return TD and the forward progress call that nullified a Kupp fumble.
Jeff’s Prediction: Cousins hitting the Covid list dramatically changes the outlook on this game and it was pretty much inevitable it would happen and worsened in terms of return time with his unvaccinated status. Before the Cousins news broke, I thought it would be typical of this unpredictable Vikings and NFL season for Minnesota to knock off Green Bay on Sunday night and then get beat by the Bears in the season finale with a playoff spot on the line. The Vikings hope they can get to next week still alive and then worry about the Bears.
The Vikings better bring a lot more energy to this game and rally behind Mannion after they reportedly came out flat last week (a ridiculous thing to happen with so much on the line and surely will not recur on national TV with the season on the line).
However, with revenge and home field in the playoffs on their minds, I think Rodgers and Adams along with the rest of the Packers offense will be too much for the Vikings No. 29 ranked defense. And with no Cousins or Thielen along with an inconsistent offensive line, I don’t see the Vikings offense putting up enough points to win unless Mannion shocks us and Cook and Jefferson have fantastic nights
If Mannion struggles, I’d like to see Mond get a shot with his mobility much greater than Mannion and that could make things interesting on a slick field where it’s tougher for defenders to handle a scrambling QB. It’s also hard to see Minnesota winning three straight in this series. 31-17 Green Bay is my pick.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. Saints Covid embarrassment vs Miami: count New Orleans along with Washington, Cleveland and the Chargers as teams whose playoff hopes have been damaged or destroyed by Covid issues. The Saints top two QBs were on the Covid list so rookie Ian Book started and was ineffective in the 20-3 loss to Miami last Monday night.
The Vikings have had their share of Covid problems, most notably missing Cook last week when he could’ve made a difference against the Rams and now Cousins out.
2. The most intriguing game this weekend—aside from our local interest in Vikings-Packers—is Kansas City with a surging Patrick Mahomes and much improved defense bringing their eight game winning streak to AFC North leading Cincinnati led by their hot QB Joe Burrow (coming off his 525 yard, 4 TD passing game against Baltimore).
3. On the sad passing of John Madden: he was a Hall of Fame coach, the best football analyst of all-time and is best known by the younger generation as a video game icon. I knew John personally during my NFL years as a very nice, down-to-earth guy who obviously loved football.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl
Also Read: What the Heck Went Wrong for the Vikings?