Different Story in 2nd Matchup with Packers as Vikings Playoff Hopes Dwindle

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

It’s hard to believe the Vikings and Packers who played on New Year’s Eve were the same two teams who met on October 29 in Green Bay.

The Vikings dominated that day in a 24-10 victory in which they outgained the Packers 348-270 (without the injured Justin Jefferson) and Brian Flores had Packers QB Jordan Love confused and holding the ball as they sacked him four times and intercepted him once. The Vikings D held Love to a 59% completion rate and 229 yards with one TD pass.

Different Story in 2nd Matchup with Packers as Vikings Playoff Hopes Dwindle

The Vikings defense also stopped the run in that Week 8 game, holding Aaron Jones to 29 yards. The Packers converted only 6 of 18 on third and fourth downs, while the Vikings were 11 of 19. Of course, the biggest difference that day was the Vikings had a productive Kirk Cousins at quarterback (74% completion rate, 274 passing yards, 2 TDs, no turnovers) until he tore his Achilles in the fourth quarter with the game in hand.

Story in
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It was a totally different story on Sunday with rookie Jaren Hall’s two first-half turnovers and ineffective play, along with a bad game by the undermanned defense missing key starters and not getting top performances from those who played, especially in the trenches. The Packers did the dominating this time as they built a 23-3 halftime lead on their way to a 33-10 victory behind Jones’ strong running (120 yards) and without edge rusher D.J. Wonnum (two sacks in the first meeting) and top cornerback Byron Murphy, Love was well protected (no sacks) and often found receivers wide open for big plays including three TDs.

Green Bay converted 9 of 14 on third down, including 6 of 7 in the second half, while the Vikings were 0 of 4 in third down conversions in the disastrous first half and 3 of 10 for the game.

In the first meeting, K.J. Osborn had eight receptions for 99 yards, and T.J. Hockenson caught six passes for 88 yards and one touchdown. Osborn was shut out on Sunday (with no targets), and Hockenson was on IR after his knee injury in the Detroit game. 

It was a virtual playoff game, with the winning team moving into the final NFC wild-card spot with a Week 18 opportunity to clinch a postseason berth. That is now the Packers, who host a hot Bears team. The Vikings have lost five of their last six games after their 6-4 start (all one-score defeats until the Packer loss). They face the unlikely task of winning in Detroit and needing three other results to go their way in order to make the playoffs.

The Lions are almost certainly locked in as the No. 3 seed. They need to beat the Vikings and have both the Cowboys and Eagles lose (to the lowly Commanders and Giants, respectively) in order to gain the NFC’s No. 2 seed. But I don’t see Lions Coach Dan Campbell pulling his starters this week until late if the game is decided as he’d love to sweep the Vikings and officially eliminate the Purple from their small chance to earn a playoff spot.

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It’s turned into a season of “what ifs,” starting with if Cousins had stayed healthy and if the Vikings had a better backup QB along with not sustaining injuries to several other key starters on offense (including Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson) and defense (Wonnum, Murphy, Marcus Davenport, and Jordan Hicks). Add an awful season with turnovers on offense, plus two lousy QB sneak play calls in Cincinnati and poor end-of-game cornerback play against the Broncos, Bears, and Bengals. But most of all, the QB issues cost the team two to four more wins, which would’ve had them playing this week to improve their already clinched playoff seed, probably with the division title still at stake.

Here are my other reactions to the Vikings’ disappointing loss at home to the Packers:

Bad home record: after playing so well at home last season (only one regular season loss and the playoff loss), the Vikings finished a dismal 2-6 at home this season. Their performance in home games surely will be a point of emphasis for Kevin O’Connell in 2024.

2. Bright lights and pressure too much for Hall: Vikings Nation was excited to see how Hall would perform in his second start and it was not good. After a 3-and-out on the first series, he made a poor throw behind tight end Johnny Mundt that would have required a great catch (that Hockenson probably would’ve made) but deflected off Mundt’s hands into an early game-changing play as the Packers followed two plays later with a 33-yard TD pass from Love to Jayden Reed (who beat corner Mekhi Blackmon and safety Cam Bynum couldn’t catch up with the wide open Reed).

On the game’s biggest play, Hall didn’t feel the blind-side pressure coming from Preston Smith, who badly beat Christian Darrisaw for the late second-quarter strip sack that led to another Reed TD and the 20-point halftime deficit. Hall also made a terrible, fluttering third-down pass that fell incomplete on his second-to-last series (a throw that caused O’Connell to noticeably grimace).

Tale about Jaren
Green Bay Packers linebacker Preston Smith (91) forces a fumble by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Jaren Hall (16) during their football game Sunday, December 31, 2023, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. © Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Hall committed the cardinal sin of only targeting Jefferson twice in the first half, and he didn’t target K.J. Osborn at all, so it’s clear Hall wasn’t seeing the field well, and the offensive line didn’t help as they were outplayed up front (three sacks allowed in the first half).

Nick Mullens led a couple of good drives when he entered the game after halftime, but he couldn’t convert  4th-and-4 on the first drive in the third quarter when he was pressured and threw short of Jefferson in the end zone (and how about calling a play with an underneath route to just pick up the first down at the Packer 5?). After that Vikings failure, the Packers followed with an 8-minute, 90-yard drive to the TD that put the game away.

3. Second straight game badly beat in run game: the Vikings’ running game and run defense had a bad last two games as they were outrushed 143-17 by the Lions and then 177-67 by the Packers. It wasn’t so much Green Bay’s run defense since the Vikings had a 4.2-yard average, but they only had 16 rushing attempts after falling so far behind in the first half.

4. Beat on both sides of the line of scrimmage: the injuries to Wonnum, Davenport, and Dean Lowry have weakened the defensive front, and the Vikings’ offensive line play has been suspect the past several weeks. I think the Vikings have two Pro Bowl-caliber tackles in Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw, but they haven’t played like it in their past few games. O’Neill had trouble with Montez Sweat against the Bears and Maxx Crosby in Las Vegas before his ankle injury kept him out vs. Detroit. He did return against Green Bay.  

Darrisaw played at a high level in the first half of the season, but he’s struggled the past few games and gave up the strip sack to Preston Smith in the game’s biggest play on Sunday (along with getting beat by Smith, who pressured Hall into an incomplete pass on the Vikings’ first series). Center Garrett Bradbury again had trouble with the Packers’ excellent DT Kenny Clark.

5. Danielle Hunter not impactful enough for second straight week: he was sackless for the second straight game and most often rushed from the left side against the Packers’ best tackle this season—Zach Tom—instead of flipping more often to the right side. Hunter also didn’t have a tackle-for-loss the past two games after leading the league with 21 going into Week 16. He’s had only one QB hit in the past two weeks. Much more was needed from Hunter down the stretch as the Vikings’ best defensive player.

6. The Vikings young corners played poorly: the D certainly missed Murphy for the second straight week as Akayleb Evans and Mekhi Blackmon gave far too much room to the Packers receivers, or they simply blew coverages on Reed’s two TD receptions and several times for Bo Melton to get wide open (six catches, 105 yards, 1 TD). And the underneath or quick sideline routes were easy picking for tight end Tucker Kraft (six catches, 48 yards). It was not a good day for the Vikings’ linebackers or safeties either, as they did not make enough plays against the run or pass.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports.

7. Love’s obvious improvement and Coach Matt LaFleur and his staff deserve a lot of credit: Love looked much more poised and confident in a must-win game than his shaky persona and level of play in the Vikings’ Week 8 win. Love is on a late-season tear with 100-plus passer ratings in six of his last seven games after a 125.3 rating with his three TD passes and no interceptions on Sunday. Love has thrown 16 TD passes against one pick in the last seven games as the Packers have gone 5-2.

He ranks third in the league with 30 TD passes and 10th in passer rating (93.8) among QBs with at least nine starts. That’s not good news for the Vikings and the rest of the NFC North since this is his first year starting in place of Aaron Rodgers.

LaFleur has done a good job bringing Love along and keeping his confidence up after the team’s 3-6 start. He designed an excellent game plan, keeping the Vikings’ defense off balance with Jones’ strong running and Love’s mix of short and longer passes. Love also missed a few opportunities for additional big plays with some off-target throws, or the score would’ve been even more lopsided.

8. Officials again didn’t help the Vikings: in reviewing the game tape, it’s apparent the officials missed a lot of offensive holding by the Packers linemen on big plays in the pass and run game. However, the officials picked up a flag on NaJee Thompson’s hit in punt coverage that appeared to be a foul.

9. Vikings won’t forget Packers throwing deep in last two minutes: after praising LaFleur, I’ll also rip him for a stupid deep pass play call (that was completed by backup Sean Clifford to Melton for 37 yards) with 1:48 left and the game long decided. The Vikings should and will remember that play as rubbing salt in the wound, and it likely led to a near post-game fight. Also, O’Connell gave LaFleur a quick handshake and not the usual friendly post-game embrace. 

10. It’s time to hone in on the college QBs and prepare to open the vault for Cousins, Jefferson, and Hunter. I saw a couple of QBs who would look great in Vikings purple during Monday’s College Football Playoffs—Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Washington’s Michael Penix, Jr

What is making more and more sense is for the Vikings to re-sign Cousins for a couple of years and then draft and develop one of these highly rated college QBs (USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye will probably be gone early, and perhaps LSU’s Jayden Daniels too with Oregon’s Bo Nix also in the first-round mix). The Vikings are currently slated to have the 12th overall pick in the 2024 draft, pending Week 18 results.

Around the NFL Observations: 

1. There’s more clarity at the top of the playoff races as Baltimore and San Francisco wrapped up the top seeds in each conference with their Sunday victories. The Ravens will enter the playoffs as the Super Bowl favorite with their Week 16 two-touchdown win in San Francisco followed by a 56-19 demolition of the Dolphins. It was Baltimore’s eighth win by 14 or more points against .500 or better teams this season.

Lamar Jackson should have clinched his second MVP award with his five TD passes, which tied his career-best. He ranks fourth in passer rating at 102.7 and leads all QBs in rushing with 821 yards.

Best of all for the Ravens, he has played in every game and will be at the helm in the playoffs (unlike last season when he was hurt) if he sits out as expected next week against the Steelers (although the Ravens lost in Week 5 at Pittsburgh so Coach John Harbaugh may want to play Jackson to help avoid a Pittsburgh sweep but he’d be wise to ignore that temptation).

The 49ers beat the Commanders 27-10 to earn their top NFC seed and first-round playoff bye.

2. The Eagles are in trouble: the most surprising result of Week 16 was Philly’s 35-31 home loss to 4-12 Arizona. The Cardinals rushed for 221 yards, and Kyler Murray threw three TD passes as Philly’s defense is having major issues (falling from second-ranked last season to 23rd ranked). The Cowboys took over the top spot in the NFC East and need a win over the Commanders to clinch the division and the No.2 seed.

3. Game of the week in the regular season finales on Sunday: Buffalo at Miami for the AFC East title. The Bills clobbered the Dolphins 48-20 back in Week 4 and have won four straight, but they could be eliminated from the playoffs with a loss at Miami if they don’t get help from other teams losing.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen looks for a receiver.

The latest example of smart coaches doing stupid things was Dolphins Coach Mike McDaniel keeping his defensive starters in late during the blowout loss and losing his best pass rusher in Bradley Chubb (11 sacks), for the year with a torn ACL. For the Vikings’ prime example, see O’Connell’s two ill-fated QB sneak calls in OT at Cincinnati.

4. The Rams were fortunate to escape the Meadowlands with a 26-25 win over the Giants after Mason Crosby missed a 54-yard game-winning field goal attempt, and Crosby also missed a PAT. The Rams clinched a playoff spot when Seattle fell at home against Pittsburgh, who remains alive in the AFC at 9-7. Mike Tomlin now has 17 straight non-losing seasons with the Steelers.

The Seahawks’ loss also opened the door for the Packers to grab the NFC’s No. 7 seed if they can beat the Bears next Sunday.

I’m back Friday with my preview of the Vikings-Lions game in Detroit that most likely will end this frustrating 2023 Vikings season, which would’ve been so much better without so many key injuries, starting with Cousins.

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