GREEN BAY, Wis. — A Vikings win and they’re in the playoffs. A Packers win and they’re the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a first-round bye. Oh, yeah, and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is 208 rushing yards from breaking the NFL’s single-season record that’s been held by Eric Dickerson since 1984.
This is as good as it could possibly get for a Week 17 matchup between NFC North rivals.
“Our guys are ready,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We talked about getting into a single-elimination mindset, the urgency that goes with these types of games.”
After Green Bay began this season 2-3, suffering more losses than the team had throughout all of 2011, the Packers got on a roll. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games and are coming off a dominant 48-point victory over the Tennessee Titans last weekend.
It’s because of this recent success that, despite most players on Green Bay’s roster speaking in favor of getting a bye and advancing past wild-card weekend, 15-year veteran defensive back Charles Woodson views things differently.
“I don’t really feel like having a week off helps us,” Woodson said. “We’ve got some guys who are going through some injuries or whatever that you’d be able to get back, but as far as the team itself, we’re playing well, why stop?”
The Vikings will be happy just to get into the postseason. On Dec. 2, Minnesota lost in Green Bay, fell to 6-6 and seemed completely out of the playoff picture. Not even 210 yards from Peterson in that game was enough to produce a win. To compound Minnesota’s issues, star receiver Percy Harvin was placed on injured reserve a few days later. Plus, quarterback Christian Ponder’s 12-for-25, 119-yard performance against the Packers suggested he wasn’t capable of leading his team to the playoffs.
But when Minnesota’s season looked bleakest, Ponder, Peterson and an improving defense led the Vikings to three consecutive wins, including one over the Chicago Bears in Week 14 that is now the difference between those two 9-6 teams in the chase for the postseason.
“That was a tough day for us,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said of the Dec. 2 loss in Green Bay. “We talked after that game about what we needed to do to right the ship. To our guys’ credit, they were able to put the game behind them and focus on our next opponent, and we played better as a group.”
Ponder, who appeared at many points this season to be the key problem preventing Minnesota from reaching its full potential as an offense, had one of the best games of his young career in a virtual must-win situation last weekend against the Houston Texans.
“He had a very good game against Houston,” Frazier said of Ponder. “He did so many things well, made great decisions, very efficient with the football, was excellent on third downs, did a terrific job of just leading our team, leading our offense throughout.
“He’s making the necessary strides at a critical time in our season that you want to see at the quarterback position. We think he’s improving, and we need him to have another great game this Sunday.”
Standing in Ponder’s way on Sunday will be a Packers defense that, just four weeks ago, made him look like a quarterback who didn’t belong in the NFL. Making the challenge even more difficult for Ponder will be Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who didn’t play in the first meeting because of a hamstring injury. Since Matthews’ return two games ago, he’s added three more sacks to bring his season total up to 12.
“If I don’t make an impact in any regard, I don’t look at it as a very successful game for me,” Matthews said. “Whether that’s getting sacks, pressure on the quarterback, stopping the run, doing my job, I need to make sure I do it at a playmaking level – my level.”
Matthews doesn’t just rush the passer well, he’s also an elite run stopper. But he had to watch from the sideline as Peterson ran all over the Packers’ defense earlier this month.
If Peterson again runs for 210 yards against the Packers on Sunday, he will knock down one of the NFL’s most coveted records. But even a 102-yard performance, which Peterson has already put together nine of this season, will give him 2,000 yards for the season. That would make Peterson only the seventh running back to ever reach that number, joining Dickerson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Chris Johnson and O.J. Simpson.
As proven in Week 13, a big game from Peterson doesn’t guarantee that the Vikings will win. But even Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be watching closely if Peterson starts closing in on Dickerson’s 2,105-yard record.
“Most of us are fans first,” Rodgers said. “Adrian has had an incredible year. It’s fun to watch; it is, from afar. You don’t want him to break the record this week because if he does, it probably means they’re playing the way they want to and they’re ahead in the game.
“He’s tough to stop. You just try to slow him down a little bit, and if the offense can get going and make them have to throw a little bit more, that would slow him down a little bit. He’s a big-time player. He’s got to be mentioned in the Comeback Player of the Year and MVP categories this year.”
Rodgers, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, isn’t alone in thinking that Peterson is deserving of that honor.
“He’d get my vote,” Frazier said. “Some of the things he’s done this season, and when you consider coming off ACL surgery for a running back and to be dominating your position and leading a team that very few people thought would be playing the last game of the season to go to the playoffs, a lot of it has to do with Adrian’s success.
“I don’t think we’d be in this position without him having a monster season.”
It’s possible that, if the Vikings win, these two teams could play again a week later in the first round of the playoffs. But the Packers can prevent that by beating Minnesota and, in the process, going undefeated in the NFC North for the second consecutive season.