EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — With the top seed in the NFC clinched last year, the Green Bay Packers entered their final regular-season game sitting several star players like MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, cornerback Charles Woodson, linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Greg Jennings.
Two weeks later, Green Bay lost its first playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Resting players won’t happen again this season. The NFC North champion Packers (11-4) have nearly as much riding on Sunday’s game at Minnesota as the playoff-hopeful Vikings (9-6).
“Even though we have a playoff spot clinched, we’d love to get that No. 2 seed,” linebacker Clay Matthews said Wednesday on a conference call with Minnesota reporters. “So, it actually puts a lot on the line for us and also for the Vikings as well, with their playoff hopes on the line where it’s a do-or-die situation. Obviously they flexed the game back. We’re going be playing out there. It’s going to be a playoff-type environment out there, so we’re really looking forward to it.”
With a win, Minnesota would clinch a Wild Card position. A loss means the Vikings need losses by the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. Green Bay is vying for the second-overall seed in the NFC, which would give the Packers at least one home game — and some rest for their stars in the way of a bye. Green Bay, which has won nine of its past 10 games, gets the No. 2 seed with a win or a loss combined with losses by the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
“I’m sure the Vikings feel the same way we do,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on a conference call Wednesday. “We couldn’t ask for a better final regular season game. It’s a playoff game as far as we’re looking at it, and I’m sure that’s the way they’re looking at it. To go on the road and play in this type of atmosphere against a tough opponent, a rival, a division game, the opportunity to sweep the division again this year, there’s so much to play for. We’re just focused on keeping it about the Packers and the Vikings.”
Green Bay, which has won 12 straight regular season games against NFC North teams and have won five straight against the Vikings, won’t be at full strength for Sunday’s game, but this season it’s not by choice. The Packers have already ruled out Woodson, who will miss his ninth consecutive game after breaking his collarbone on Oct. 21. Guard Josh Sitton missed Wednesday’s practice with a concussion and running back James Starks was held out with his knee injury.
“I’m disappointed for Charles,” McCarthy said. “He’s here around the clock with the medical staff as far as rehab, working on doing all the different things you can do to hopefully heal quicker. This is the game that we had been targeting all along. I think when everybody walked in the room to look at the information, we thought he was going to be ready to play. But the doctors’ recommendation was for him not to play.”
Receiver Jordy Nelson practiced fully on Wednesday after missing the past three games with a hamstring injury, but leading receiver Randall Cobb was limited after suffering ankle and knee injuries in Sunday’s game. Defensive end C.J. Wilson, a key run defender, will try to return for Sunday’s game for the first time since Nov. 25 with a knee injury. Starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith (knee) and cornerback Davon House (shoulder/hip) and defensive lineman Jerel Worthy (hamstring) were limited Wednesday.
There is another big difference from last year’s Green Bay team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. With Matthews back from his own injury, the defense finally feels up to the task of complementing the team’s high-powered offense.
The Packers had the league’s worst defense in terms of yards allowed last year, giving up 411.6 yards per game. They allowed the 14th most points (22.4 per game). This season, with additions like rookie cornerback Casey Hayward, Green Bay is 10th in yards allowed (329.6) and seventh in points allowed (19.9). Hayward leads the team with six interceptions.
“It’s not just an offensive team where the offense has to carry the entire team,” said Matthews, who added he feels much more confident about the defense than last year. “So we feel good about that, especially being a member of the defense and kind of pulling our weight for the first time in a year.”