In the NFC North, it doesn't get much bigger than Sunday's matchup at the Metrodome.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Regular-season NFL games don't get any bigger than Sunday's Week 17 matchup between the
Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
In the biggest game for Minnesota since the 2010 season opener, the stakes are high with playoff positioning on the line for both teams. There's also the side story of Adrian Peterson's chase for the single-season rushing record. Sunday's game was flexed into the late afternoon, with a 3:25 p.m. start time, giving it prime national exposure. All of this on top of the usual rivalry between the Vikings and Packers.
With so much on the line, here are five things to watch in Sunday's highly anticipated game:
1. Win and in.
Winning isn't an absolute must for Minnesota (9-6), but beating Green Bay does offer the only sure chance to make the playoffs. The Vikings will earn the final NFC wild-card spot with a victory, the benefit of winning three straight games in a nearly do-or-die situation the past month. Minnesota's playoff chances become much tougher with a loss. The Vikings have to hope for losses by the Chicago Bears (at Detroit), the New York Giants (at home against Philadelphia) and the Dallas Cowboys (at Washington). The Vikings will know the results from Detroit and New York before taking the field. Dallas and Washington play Sunday night with the NFC East title on the line.
Green Bay (11-4) has already won the NFC North, securing a playoff spot. The Packers are in contention for the No. 2 seed in the NFC, which would grant them a home playoff game and a first-round bye. A win would give Green Bay its preferred spot. A loss and the Packers would need losses by San Francisco and Seattle to secure the No. 2 seed.
2. Dickerson is in sight.
While Minnesota has focused on the playoffs, Peterson's attempt at breaking Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old, single-season rushing record has been the bigger story nationally. Peterson, with a league-leading 1,898 rushing yards, needs 208 to break Dickerson's mark (2,105 set in 1984). Peterson and the Vikings say their focus is winning Sunday's game and making the playoffs and that they won't be side-tracked by trying to get Peterson the record. Peterson wants the win more than the record, too. But if Peterson is getting close to the record, it probably means the game is going well for Minnesota, as well.
Green Bay allowed 210 rushing yards to Peterson the first time around and will be motivated to both win and shut down Peterson. Even with Peterson's 210-yard game, the Packers rank 14th against the run this season and are getting healthier. Linebacker Clay Matthews is back and injured defensive end C.J. Wilson, a key run stopper, is expected to play Sunday. Peterson is also 102 yards away from being the seventh player in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards rushing in a season.
3. Swaying the MVP race?
Peterson is considered one of the leading candidates for the league's MVP award, along with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. But a dark horse in the race is last year's winner, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers leads the NFL with a 106.2 quarterback rating and is second with 35 touchdown passes. He has completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,930 yards and has just eight interceptions. Another strong showing Sunday will have Rodgers right in the conversation again, or Minnesota can keep Peterson at the top by slowing Rodgers.
Rodgers has dissected the Vikings' secondary in his career. In 10 games against Minnesota, he's completed 70.8 percent of his passes and has a 114.3 quarterback rating. He's passed for 2,475 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions in the 10 games. ESPN's Kevin Seifert reported in Rodgers' last nine indoor games, he has a 71 percent completion rate and averages 317 yards per game to go with 27 touchdowns and one interception for a 126 quarterback rating.
The Vikings haven't had their preferred secondary often against Rodgers, giving them even less of a chance. Chris Cook hasn't faced Green Bay since his rookie year, missing the past three games. Cook returned last week from his broken arm in a limited role at Houston. Cook will probably be ready to play a bigger role Sunday. And Minnesota's secondary has played better this season with newcomers Harrison Smith, A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson. Meanwhile, the Packers could be without leading receiver Randall Cobb, who is listed as questionable with knee and ankle injuries.
4. One way to stop Rodgers?
Rodgers has been sacked 46 times this season, which is only one shy of the highest mark in the league. (San Diego's Philip Rivers has been sacked 47 times.) Rodgers' high total is an indictment on his struggling offensive line as well as his tendency to hold onto the ball hoping for the big play. The sacks have been costly, but Rodgers also comes through with more explosive plays than anyone.
The Vikings have had success over the years in getting to Rodgers, and the onus will be on defensive ends Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen on Sunday to create pressure without blitzes. Robison is coming back from his shoulder injury and will probably split some time with Griffen, who will stay in during passing downs. Minnesota, which led the league in sacks last season with 50, has 40 this season. Allen has a team-leading 11. Robison has 7.5, one off his career high, and Griffen has added a career-best five. They will need to get to Rodgers Sunday.
5. Protecting Ponder, in more ways than one.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has improved during the team's three-game winning streak, playing with more confidence and efficiency. Last week, with Houston focused on stopping Peterson, Ponder showed there is more to Minnesota's offense than just its star running back. He will have to come up with more big-time throws Sunday against Green Bay. This season has shown that Ponder doesn't need to throw for a lot of passing yards, but he does have to step up on third downs and keep teams honest against Peterson.
Ponder passed for 131 yards in a win at St. Louis and 174 yards against Houston. Against Green Bay earlier this season, he was 12 of 25 for 119 yards but ruined Peterson's big day with two costly interceptions, including one in the end zone that cost Minnesota a chance to extend its second-half lead. Minnesota can help Ponder by not needing to put the game on his shoulders.
The Vikings' offensive line must give Ponder the confidence to stay strong in the pocket and throw with authority. Green Bay is tied for third in the NFL with 46 sacks this season. Despite missing four games, Matthews is sixth in the league with 12 sacks.