Preview: Vikings still have plenty to play for
GREEN BAY, Wis. — If the Minnesota Vikings have their way, they won’t have to take another road trip after this weekend, even in the playoffs.
For an opportunity for that to happen, the NFC North champions need to finish out the last two weeks of the regular season with victories over division rivals already out of the playoff picture.
The payoff could be sweet for the Vikings if they can safely navigate the postseason all the way to February — a Super Bowl played in front of hometown fans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
There is something to play for after all when Minnesota visits the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night.
“The only thing I’ve really told them is we’d like this to be the last plane trip that we have to take, but that’s about the only thing I’ve said,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
The Vikings (11-3) head into the second-to-final week of the season having already assured themselves of a home playoff game.
Minnesota wraps up the regular season with a winnable home game against the Chicago Bears on New Year’s Eve, while the Eagles finish with home games against the Raiders and Cowboys.
But Philadelphia is also adjusting to backup quarterback Nick Foles, who will start the rest of the year with starter Carson Wentz out with a knee injury.
Green Bay (7-7) is handing the offense back to backup Brett Hundley after quarterback Aaron Rodgers went on season-ending injured reserve this week.
It was a decision that coach Mike McCarthy said was made in the best interest of Rodgers, who wasn’t completely healed from a collarbone injury.
With the Packers out of the playoffs , it didn’t make sense to further risk the health of their franchise quarterback, who was hurt the previous time these teams met in Week 6 in Minneapolis.
There have been gradual signs of improvement from Hundley since he was thrust into the starting job after Rodgers went down.
“I know for as many things that went wrong that day, he felt like he got better,” McCarthy said. “But he’ll be much better prepared for this opportunity.”
The Vikings, of all teams, know full well how much a backup quarterback can succeed.
Subbing for the injured Sam Bradford, quarterback Case Keenum has kept the Vikings rolling with a 9-3 record in his starts. Keenum has completed 68 percent of his passes, with 20 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a career-best 98.9 passer rating.
Not bad for a player once considered a journeyman who first entered the league in 2012 as an undrafted free agent with the Houston Texans.
“Case has done an unbelievable job,” Zimmer said. “I think the more he’s played, the more confident he’s been with making the correct decisions.”
Out of the playoffs for the first time in eight years, the Packers were a little subdued in the locker room this week. They’re not used to playing games in late December that don’t have postseason implications for themselves.
But don’t call them “spoilers.”
“I’m not really interested in being a spoiler or an underdog. We’re the Green Bay Packers. That doesn’t change,” McCarthy said. “I fully expect and demand that our team goes out to win the game.”
EYES ON BARR
Don’t expect a warm welcome from Packers fans for Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr on Saturday night. Rodgers’ season nearly ended after landing on his right shoulder following a hard hit outside the pocket from Barr in Week 6.
“It’s inevitable. Aaron Rodgers is to Green Bay what LeBron is to Cleveland,” Barr said . “You’re responsible in a way for their guy going down, you’re going to take some heat. It just comes with the territory.”
Receiver Davante Adams seems to be OK after being spotted walking in the Packers locker room and chatting with teammates this week following a blindside hit from Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis last week that put Adams in the concussion protocol.
But Adams, who is still in the concussion protocol, won’t play this week to deprive the offense of its top receiving threat this season. Adams, who has 10 touchdown catches, has developed the kind of rapport with Hundley that fellow receiver Jordy Nelson has with Rodgers.
Packers cornerback Davon House (shoulder/back) returned to practice and was listed as questionable for Minnesota after missing the loss to Carolina. Getting the veteran back could help an already shaky and injury-depleted cornerback group that has to contend with speedy receiver Stefon Diggs and first-time Pro Bowler Adam Thielen (83 catches, 1,191 yards).
HEAT ON DEFENSE
The Packers are hurting at outside linebacker, where Clay Matthews (hamstring) is questionable and Nick Perry (ankle/shoulder) is doubtful after both players missed practice at midweek. Not having either starter on Saturday would further deplete a defense that already had issues generating a consistent pass rush off the edge. The run defense has trailed off too of late.
“Broad question, short answer,” McCarthy said. “We need to play better on defense.”
MINNESOTA (11-3) at GREEN BAY (7-7)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC
OPENING LINE — Vikings by 8 1/2
RECORD VS. SPREAD — Vikings 10-4, Packers 7-7
SERIES RECORD — Packers lead 60-51-2
LAST MEETING — Vikings beat Packers 23-10, Oct. 15
LAST WEEK — Vikings beat Bengals 34-7; Packers lost to Panthers 31-24
AP PRO32 RANKING — Vikings No. 3, Packers No. 18
VIKINGS OFFENSE — OVERALL (8), RUSH (9), PASS (9)
VIKINGS DEFENSE — OVERALL (2), RUSH (2), PASS (3)
PACKERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (23), RUSH (18), PASS (22)
PACKERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (26), RUSH (20), PASS (24)
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Teams’ first meeting since Packers QB Aaron Rodgers broke right collarbone following hard hit by Vikings LB Anthony Barr in Week 6. Rodgers missed next seven games, returned for last week’s loss at Carolina, and was placed on season-ending injured reserve this week. … Vikings have clinched NFC North, second division title in last three seasons. … Vikings have won three of last four in series. … QB Case Keenum averaging 268.2 yards over last six games, with 13 TDs and four INTs. … RB Jerick McKinnon has 184 scrimmage yards and two TDs in last two games against Packers. … Pro Bowl WR Adam Thielen averaging 98.9 yards in last nine road games, including five scores. … Pro Bowl DE Everson Griffen has seven sacks and two forced fumbles over last six road games. … DE Danielle Hunter had 1 1/2 sacks in last meeting against Packers. … Harrison Smith only safety since 2014 with at least five sacks (eight) and 10 interceptions (10). … Packers eliminated from playoff race, first time to miss postseason since 2008. … Brett Hundley takes over at QB for rest of year with Rodgers out. Hundley has six TDs and one INT for 102.9 rating in past three starts. … WR Davante Adams second in NFL with 10 TD catches, but was in concussion protocol at midweek. … WR Jordy Nelson has nine TD catches in last eight home division games. … LB Clay Matthews made five sacks in last four games. … DT Kenny Clark has 2 1/2 sacks in last three games, third among DTs since Week 13 behind Rams’ Aaron Donald (five) and Jaguars’ Malik Jackson (three). … Fantasy Tip: Packers giving up average 143.2 yards rushing over last four games, which could bode well for Vikings RBs McKinnon and Latavius Murray (five rush TDs in last six games).