How the Vikings Can Sweep Packers
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
Packer Week always is exciting, no matter the standings. But thanks to Tua Tagovailoa’s three interceptions in the second half last week that opened the door for the Packers third straight win, this Sunday’s matchup has playoff ramifications for both teams.
It’s most likely the 49ers will win out (at Las Vegas and home to Arizona), which means the Vikings must win cold weather games at Green Bay and Chicago to maintain the No. 2 seed since the 49ers have the tie-breaker on conference record. Fortunately for the Vikings, the forecast is the mid-30s on Sunday at Lambeau but with a chance of rain or sleet.
After winning the opener 23-7 over the Pack, the Vikings are seeking their first season sweep since 2017, when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone (courtesy of the big hit by Anthony Barr) in the first game and missed the rematch. In Kevin O’Connell’s head coaching debut, the Vikings jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead and cruised to the win as Justin Jefferson got his fantastic season off to a great start (9 catches, 184 yards, 2 TDs). How the Packers choose to cover J.J. this week is one of many storylines.
A lot is being made of the Packers entering this game with three straight wins to revive their playoff aspirations (now a half-game behind the Commanders for the final wild card and a possible first-round game in Minnesota, which could be dangerous for the Purple). I say look at who they’ve beaten in this stretch: a come-from-behind 28-19 win over 3-12 Chicago, 24-12 against the disappointing 5-10 Rams, and last week’s win in Miami, where the Packers defense was gashed for 271 yards in the first half (213 passing yards) before Tua’s latest concussion likely caused his awful second half which allowed the Pack to rally for the 26-20 win.
Yes, Lambeau Field in December is a challenge, and the Packers are 15-0 in Coach Matt LaFleur’s four seasons in December. But they have lost cold weather playoff games at home to Tampa Bay and San Francisco the past two years, so they’re beatable in the cold. And O’Connell wisely has the team working outside for several periods of practices this week to get acclimated.
“They’re playing really well, and they’re so tough to play at Lambeau,” O’Connell said. “They’re getting turnovers, running the football, and Aaron is making a lot of plays. You can see their passing game coming to life. We’ve got to play a really good game to be competitive and give ourselves a chance to win.”
O’Connell is politically correct, as always, in his statements about the next opponent. But I think he’s relishing the idea of putting the Vikings one step closer to the two-seed with a win that would knock the Packers out of the playoff picture. A lot is on the line, making for a playoff atmosphere and an exciting game on Sunday.
How the Vikings Can Sweep Packers
Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Packers:
1. Run the ball effectively and hang onto the ball: it’s great for the Vikings that Dalvin Cook is on track for his first season with no missed games (the Vikings are knocking on wood). He rushed for 90 yards in the opener against the Pack with Alexander Mattison adding 36 yards. The Packers rank 26th against the rush. They’ve played the run tougher the past three games, but it’s still the weaker part of their D compared to their third-ranked pass defense. The Packers have eight takeaways over the last three games, so Cook and Mattison must not fumble (as Cook did against Detroit and Indy), especially if the ball is slick due to the weather.
2. If the Packers put Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander on Jefferson much more than they did in the opener (which is expected), O’Connell and Kirk Cousins can’t be afraid to give J.J. contested catch opportunities. But T.J. Hockenson, Adam Thielen, and K.J. Osborn can also get the job done with Cook out of the backfield. The Packers let J.J. run wild through their zone coverage in the first game, and Alexander is having a great season (66.8 rating when targeted with five interceptions).
The Packers have to change their preferred scheme to put Alexander in man coverage on Jefferson which should give the Vikings other talented receivers plenty of opportunities if the Vikings offensive line can hold up (and it’s a concern if center Garrett Bradbury remains out with his back injury as Kenny Clark is one of the top nose tackles in the league and in that event, Austin Schlottmann needs help with Clark). The Vikings excellent tackles — Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill — will need to play well against Preston Smith, the Packers edge rusher with 8.5 sacks.
The quick passing game is likely, especially if it’s a wet and windy afternoon in Green Bay. But don’t be surprised to see Cousins take some deep shots after Jaylen Waddle (5 catches, 143 yards, including an 84-yard TD) and Tyreek Hill (4 catches, 103 yards) had big days downfield until Tua’s concussion likely caused him to make a bunch of awful throws in the second half last week.
3. It’s another good matchup for Hockenson: like the Giants last week, the Packers struggle against tight ends (110.2 rating, 25th ranked). T.J. is coming off a record-setting game (13 catches, 109 yards, 2 TDs), and I can see him getting targeted a lot again this week.
4. Stop the run: the Vikings had trouble with Saquon Barkley last week (6.0-yard average, 84 rushing yards, including the 27-yard TD late in the game). The Packers want to establish the run with two good backs in Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, but their offensive line is banged up, which should help the Vikings D contain the run and then get after Rodgers. Top tackle David Bakhtiari has battled injuries the past two years and was inactive against the Dolphins. Excellent guard Elgton Jenkins was limited in practice this week with a knee problem.
5. Put the heat on Rodgers: he’s been dealing with a bad thumb much of the season and injured his knee in Miami, so his mobility on bootlegs could be limited. That’s good news for the Vikings pass rushers. Danielle Hunter is on a roll with 3.5 sacks the last two weeks, and ex-Packer Za’Darius Smith is sure to be fired up on his return to Lambeau (and he had a sack and two QB hits on Rodgers in the opener).
If the pass rush can’t disrupt Rodgers, it will be difficult for the Vikings secondary to contain Green Bay’s passing game that has improved lately with Christian Watson’s emergence as a threat (seven TD receptions and two jet sweep TDs over the second half of the season).
It took a while for Rodgers to trust Watson after he dropped a wide-open deep ball on the Packers’ first play of the season against the Vikings. Patrick Peterson better not bite on that hitch-and-go this week, but the bigger problem is with another ex-Packer in slot corner Chandon Sullivan who had a rough game last week, and with either Duke Shelley or Cam Dantzler at outside corner, as they also will be targeted by Rodgers with throws to Watson, Allen Lazard, Romeo Doubs, and Randall Cobb. The two tight ends — Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis — also must be well covered by the Vikings safeties and linebackers.
6. Joseph must stay hot & cover kicks: Greg Joseph has been kicking great with 20 straight made PATs and field goals, including the club record 61-yarder to beat the Giants. He now has five game-winning field goals this season and is setting himself up for a nice free-agent deal come March if he kicks well down the stretch and in the playoffs. He has a bigger leg than Packers long-time kicker Mason Crosby.
It’s tough to kickoff deep to prevent returns in the cold, so if Joseph can’t boot it deep in the end zone, the Vikings will have to cover kicks well, and the Packers have one of the league’s top returners in Keisean Nixon (27.5 yard average along with a 15.3 yard average on punt returns). Nixon is dealing with a groin injury this week. The Vikings covered kicks well early in the season but had some hiccups in recent games. They’ll need to bring their A-game on Sunday. But then the Vikings also have a dangerous returner in Kene Nwangwu, who should get more opportunities than he has in dome games recently.
Jeff’s Prediction: Much is being made this week of the Packers winning 15 straight December games (they’ve never lost in December under Matt LaFleur). The good news is this Sunday’s game is on January 1. O’Connell is 1-0 against LaFleur and the Pack, and while he says it’s tough to win at Lambeau, he’s telling his team the past doesn’t matter, and it’s all about getting a win, staying in the No. 2 seed ahead of the 49ers and eliminating the Packers in the process. Perhaps it’s good for the Vikings focus to know the Packers believe they’re in the playoff hunt and will give it their best shot on Sunday.
I see the Vikings keeping it close into the fourth quarter and then winning late, as they’ve done so well this season (outscoring opponents 155-77 in the fourth quarter and their two overtime wins over Buffalo and Indianapolis). They’ll come up with a couple of big plays from Cousins to Jefferson and Hockenson, some timely Cook runs and screens, and late pressure on Rodgers. I’m picking the three-point underdog Vikings to improve to 13-3 with a 27-24 victory on Greg Joseph’s sixth game-winning field goal this season.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The most crucial game for the Vikings to keep an eye on in Week 17 is the 49ers at the Raiders. I don’t see any possibility of an upset after Raiders Coach Josh McDaniels announced he’s benching Derek Carr for Jarrett Stidham, which should make things easier for San Fran, who have won eight straight and are 3-0 with rookie Brock Purdy starting at QB.
2. Game of the week — 12-3 Buffalo at 11-4 Cincinnati on Monday night. It’s a battle of hot teams — seven straight wins for the Bengals and six straight for the Bills, who haven’t lost since the Vikings game on November 13. I think the Bengals win at home in a close game.
3. Other games with NFC playoff implications — Panthers at Bucs with the NFC South title hanging in the balance — Carolina gets in with two wins. Cleveland at Washington –- the Commanders need to win to hang onto the No. 7 seed, which they should do with Deshaun Watson and the Browns eliminated
The Giants clinch a playoff spot with a home win over the Colts. Philly will wrap up the No. 1 seed with a likely win at home over the Saints, but it will be tougher if Jalen Hurts is still out (his replacement Gardner Minshew threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in last week’s loss to Dallas).
4. In the AFC, Tua will probably be out on Sunday as he recovers from another concussion. That would be bad news for a Dolphins team on a four-game losing streak and sliding out of a playoff spot. 8-7 Miami is at 7-8 New England on Sunday. The Jaguars and Titans (both 7-8) will play for the AFC South title on January 8, regardless of what happens in their games this week.
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
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