Even with the Minnesota Vikings facing the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night for a national TV audience, the rivalry doesn’t seem to have its usual zest.
The biggest reason might be where the two teams reside in the division. With three straight wins, Green Bay (4-2) is now leading the NFC North and Minnesota (1-5) is at the bottom.
Here’s five things to watch as the Vikings hope to end the two trends this week:
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1. The last laugh
One player could add some spice back to the rivaly: Greg Jennings. Both Green Bay and Jennings, in his first year with Minnesota after leaving the Packers, refused to add any verbal jabs this week. Jennings offered plenty during the offseason and apologized this week. It’s kept the rivalry and the Jennings-Aaron Rodgers feud simmering.
Jennings will get his first crack at his former teammates this week and will surely be motivated to show Green Bay what it’s missing. Jennings said he doesn’t talk during the game, so he might not add any fuel to the fire on Sunday night, but surely emotions will be running high. Jennings is working with his third quarterback of the season in Christian Ponder. Meanwhile, Green Bay is down Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley and likely James Jones as receiving options for Rodgers. Both sides will be out to prove the other erred during the offseason.
2. Committed to Peterson
The rivalry hasn’t been lopsided in recent years, even with Green Bay’s annual success. Part of the reason is Adrian Peterson. The MVP running back has had some of his biggest games against the Packers. He’s averaged 120.2 yards per game in his career against Green Bay, the most of any opponent he’s faced more than twice. Last year, Peterson ran for 508 yards in three games against the Packers and nearly topped 200 yards in a game twice. He went for 210 yards in the first game at Lambeau Field, followed it up with 199 yards in a must-win game at the Metrodome before being held to 99 yards in the playoff game.
Minnesota’s running game hasn’t been the same this season and Peterson has been a secondary option the past two weeks. Peterson has totaled 23 carries the past two games and the Vikings have called 103 passes to 25 runs. The talk this week was about getting back to the run game, having balance with Peterson and staying patient even if early runs don’t equal big yards. The Packers own the league’s No. 3 run defense, so Minnesota might have to prove it can stay patient and physical.
3. A new element
Green Bay’s long reliance on the passing game has also changed a bit this season. Rodgers has been every bit as dangerous as Peterson in past Packers-Vikings matchups. Rodgers owns a 116.4 quarterback rating against Minnesota in his career, the best for any opponent he’s faced more than three times. He averages 258.2 yards per game and has thrown 24 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
But like the Vikings have gotten away from Peterson this year, this is a different Green Bay offense as well. The Packers have actually attempted less passes than Minnesota this season, and for good reason. Green Bay suddenly has a running threat. The Packers are sixth in the league in rushing and have had three running backs — rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, and James Starks — all run for over 100 yards in a game this year. Since Lacy, the second-round pick out of Alabama, returned from a concussion, he has rushed for 301 yards the past three games, the best in the NFL in that span.
The Vikings’ run defense held down New York last week and is still respectable in ranking 14th in the NFL, but it will have its hands full on Sunday night.
4. Ponder’s second chance
Coincidentally, Ponder is returning to the starting lineup against Green Bay. His career has seemed almost intertwined with the division rival. It was his last outing against the Packers — a 37-34 win in the regular-season finale — that pushed Minnesota into the playoffs last year and was the best single-game of his career. He threw for 234 yards, three touchdowns, had no turnovers and had a career-best 120.2 quarterback rating.
He also suffered a triceps injury in the game and had to miss the playoff game at Green Bay the following week. Ponder’s first NFL start also came against the Packers and it was his rough outing in Green Bay midway through last season that started Minnesota’s and Ponder’s, turnaround.
But Ponder couldn’t keep the momentum from last season and was benched and the team is only going back to him this week because Josh Freeman suffered a concussion on Monday night. Ponder and Freeman say nothing has been decided past Sunday night, but Ponder believes it’s his chance to regain his starting job. He said stepping back for a few weeks has shown him some things. He vows to play more relaxed and said he was playing with pressure earlier this year. He will need to stay confident and turnover-free to give Minnesota a chance to win Sunday and have any chance at reclaiming his starting spot.
5. Physical on both sides
In an effort to get Peterson going, the Vikings have stressed the need to be physical along the offensive line and impose their will on defenses. Peterson said after Monday’s loss the entire offense needs to be more physical, from the offensive line and the tight ends blocking and fullback Jerome Felton leading the way through holes. The issue, coach Leslie Frazier said, is the offensive line needs to sustain its blocks. The Vikings controlled the line of scrimmage in the games against Green Bay last season.
Frazier said the defensive line needs to play with a physical edge. If Minnesota hopes to slow Lacy and Rodgers, it will come down to the defensive line too. When the Vikings have had success against Rodgers, it’s been by applying pressure with Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Kevin Williams. Minnesota will need to control the line of scrimmage on both sides.