GREEN BAY, Wis. — For the Minnesota Vikings (6-5) to make the playoffs this season, they’ll need to win at least one of their two upcoming games with the division-rival Packers (7-4). The first of those two NFC North showdowns is Sunday at Lambeau Field, with both teams’ regular-season schedules concluding four weeks later in Minnesota.
“I want to go ahead and control our own destiny,” Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said this week. “I don’t want to have to deal with looking at different games and hoping that this team loses or this team wins.”
Peterson’s league-leading 1,236 rushing yards have helped give Minnesota a shot at the postseason for the first time since 2009, back when now-retired gunslinger Brett Favre was handing him the ball.
“(These games) count as double, especially with how things have panned out so far,” Peterson said. “Everyone is a game ahead or a game behind, so each game is going to be very important.”
The Vikings and Packers both trail the Chicago Bears (8-3) in the chase for the division title.
Minnesota hasn’t done itself any favors in the playoff race by losing to the NFC’s other two 6-5 teams, Seattle and Tampa Bay, both of which own the head-to-head tiebreaker as a result. With those three teams battling for the sixth and final postseason spot in the conference, the Vikings will have to finish with a better record than the Seahawks and Buccaneers in order to still be playing in January.
If Peterson continues to run as well as he has been, even after undergoing major knee surgery in the offseason, the Vikings certainly have a good shot at beating the Packers this weekend. The only team that has had any level of success at stopping Peterson this season was the San Francisco 49ers — arguably the NFL’s best defense — in Week 3.
Containing Peterson will be even more difficult for Green Bay this weekend with the Packers missing Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), veteran defensive back Charles Woodson (collarbone) and defensive end C.J. Wilson (knee). According to ProFootballFocus.com, Matthews, Woodson and Wilson are three of Green Bay’s six best run stoppers this season.
“Peterson, I mean, he’s a once-a-decade kind of runner,” Packers veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “For him to come off the kind of injury he had and to run the way he’s running is unbelievable.
“Nobody is Adrian Peterson. There’s only one. He’s on a whole other level. You can contain him all game and then he’ll break a long run, so the whole game is like a headache.”
One way for Green Bay to make Peterson less relevant is to get a big lead early in the game. No matter how good he is, if the Vikings are down 21 points at halftime, coach Leslie Frazier will have little choice but to go to a pass-heavy offense. And when Minnesota is throwing the ball, it’s rarely a positive for its offense.
Behind second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ passing offense is ranked 30th in the NFL. Ponder is 24th in passer rating, 24th in passing yards and 32nd in yards per attempt. Plus, for the third consecutive game, Ponder will be without his top wide receiver, Percy Harvin (ankle).
“He’s so important to our offense, our team,” Frazier said of Harvin. “To not have him, it definitely has an impact.”
Despite missing two games already, Harvin still leads the Vikings in targets, catches and receiving yards by a significant amount. He’s also a dynamic kick returner who scored on a 105-yard touchdown in Week 4.
But the Packers have issues of their own. Their defense allowed 38 points last weekend to the New York Giants while picking up only one sack and no interceptions. Green Bay’s offense wasn’t much better, specifically regarding the play of its offensive line, which gave up five sacks and 17 quarterback hurries.
“The sack totals are too high,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “We’ve had some games where it’s gotten out of hand.
Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 37 times this season, the most of any quarterback in the league.
“It’s something that we obviously talk about,” Rodgers said. “We shoot for obviously a lot less (sacks) than we’ve had so far. We’ve got to do a better job as an offense of eliminating some of those. Everybody has a part in that, and as a whole we have to do a better job, because those hits start to add up a little bit.”
Even with all the pressure Rodgers has faced this season, he’s still ranked first in passer rating and second in touchdown passes. Rodgers, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, would be at the top of nearly every statistical category had his receivers not dropped a league-worst 9.2 percent of the catchable passes he’s thrown.
However, the Packers are getting two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings back for this game. Jennings hasn’t played since Week 4 and is just one month removed from undergoing abdominal surgery.
“He’s dangerous,” Rodgers said of Jennings. “I think just the name recognition alone merits the respect … just having him out there gives us another weapon.”
But like the Vikings, Green Bay has a relatively one-dimensional offense. Minnesota struggles when forced to pass, and the Packers aren’t as good when running the ball. Now that veteran running back Cedric Benson (foot) is officially out for the remainder of the season, McCarthy has to hope that James Starks and Alex Green, as well as fullback John Kuhn, can help Green Bay improve upon its 23rd-ranked rushing offense.
“I feel we have a good rotation (at running back),” McCarthy said. “It’s just really finding the things they all do well and to play to that and have that in sync with the run-blocking unit. If we can find that rhythm, that definitely would benefit us.”