GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Packers could have avoided this. They had control over the NFC’s No. 2 seed, which would have given them a first-round bye to watch from home as four playoff teams get eliminated this weekend.
Instead, the Vikings beat Green Bay in the regular-season finale, earning a postseason spot for Minnesota and setting up a rematch between the NFC North rivals for Saturday night at Lambeau Field.
“We’re very confident,” Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson said this week. “I feel like we’re playing some good ball right now in all phases. We’re playing some inspired football. I feel like if we just continue to play the way we have, playing Viking football, then the sky’s the limit. I feel like we’re peaking at the right time.”
Minnesota won its last four regular-season games to sneak into the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 6 seed. Though Peterson was great all year, finishing just nine yards away from Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, the difference late in the season was quarterback Christian Ponder.
Ponder’s second NFL season was bumpy, and at times he has looked like a player who would never come close to living up to his first-round pick status. But in Weeks 16 and 17, when the Vikings needed victories to stay alive in the postseason hunt, Ponder had two of his best games against the AFC No. 3 seed Houston Texans and Packers.
“Like a lot of young quarterbacks in our league, there’s a progression that you go through and it’s a process,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “For Christian, he’s still growing and developing as a quarterback.
“The maturation we’ve seen over the last four weeks has been great for our team and great for our organization. He’s really focused in and has become a much more efficient quarterback, a better decision maker and a better leader, as well.”
When Ponder struggled in a Dec. 2 loss in Green Bay, his biggest mistakes came in two costly interceptions. With Minnesota at the 8-yard line and a chance to take an 11-point lead, Ponder forced a pass into the end zone that was picked off by Packers safety Morgan Burnett. Later in the third quarter, with the Vikings down by six, Burnett again intercepted Ponder inside the red zone.
But in last weekend’s game against Green Bay, Ponder was turnover-free and tossed a season-high three touchdown passes.
“(Ponder) played a lot better,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Our opportunities that we had to make plays, in the first game, we made the plays. Last week, we (didn’t). You’ve got to make the plays when you have opportunities.”
None of that changes the fact Peterson is the focal point of the Vikings’ offense and is the key objective in Green Bay’s defensive game-planning. Peterson had 409 rushing yards in the two regular-season games, with the Packers often looking incapable of stopping his breakout runs.
“It definitely starts with Peterson,” Green Bay defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “If he can break tackles and run the ball like that, it’s putting them in favorable situations. We have to do a better job with AP.”
Peterson made a lot of NFL defenses look inept this season, as he became just the seventh running back in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards. But if the Packers can’t contain him better in this game than they did in the first two, the Vikings could pull off an upset on the road.
“We feel that we can stop him,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Obviously it’s a tough task, a tough task ahead. It has to be different. That’s why we think it’s going to be different; because it has to be different. We have to come out and win this game and stop him.”
Getting an early lead will be key for Green Bay. In the Week 17 matchup, Minnesota had a 13-0 advantage by the opening moments of the second quarter and was able to control the game by running Peterson a career-high 34 times. In the Week 13 Packers victory, Green Bay benefited from a 10-0 lead going into the second quarter.
The Packers’ offense is coming off two of its best outings of the season, scoring a combined 89 points in the final two weeks. Now, quarterback Aaron Rodgers will have all of his wide receivers healthy for the first time in a full game since late September.
“I don’t think [any team] can go four and five deep [at receiver] like we can,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “We’re excited about it, and hopefully we can go out and perform well, make a lot of plays and play a few games together. That’s what you want. You want to be at full strength going into the playoffs and I think we’re as healthy as we can be.”
Green Bay’s offense wasn’t as explosive this season (fifth in the NFL with 27.1 points per game) as it was last year, when the Packers were the highest-scoring team in the league. But Rodgers also has had to work every week for more than three months with one of his best playmakers sidelined.
The Vikings’ passing defense was poor this season, ranking 24th in the NFL in yards allowed through the air. That showed in Week 17’s game, when Rodgers had his best statistical game of the season, lighting up Minnesota’s defense for a season-high 365 yards and four touchdown passes.
“[It’s] single-elimination, [and] we have a chance to move on to the final eight,” Rodgers said. “We have a home game, which is our first goal when we start the season. We can take the first step with a win this week.”