Win puts Packers in NFC North driver’s seat

GREEN BAY, Wis. — With one month until the playoffs begin, the Packers showed Sunday that they still have a lot of work to do to become serious Super Bowl threats. But this was certainly an improvement over how they played a week ago, so coach Mike McCarthy’s team is starting to make a few of the necessary adjustments.
Handing out grades following the Packers’ 23-14 win over the Vikings:
Passing Offense: B
It wasn’t an MVP-type birthday performance by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but it was enough to lead his team to victory. Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 286 yards with one touchdown and one interception, for a passer rating of 98.0. The efficiency was there (77% completion rate) for Rodgers, but the trips into the endzone were not.
Green Bay’s opening drive gave Rodgers his only touchdown pass, a terrific 32-yard grab by wide receiver James Jones that came on a free play due to an offside penalty. The remaining 56 minutes of the game were serviceable for Rodgers, but not spectacular. 
Greg Jennings, in his first game since Sept. 30, led the Packers in targets with eight, but he only caught four of them for 46 yards. Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley tied for the team-lead with six receptions. Rodgers completed passes to nine different receivers, and none of those came from Donald Driver, who was inactive due to a thumb injury.
The offensive line held up fairly well, just one week after getting destroyed by the New York Giants. In this game, Rodgers wasn’t sacked until the fourth quarter. It was then that the Vikings were able to take him down twice. Considering that an injury to right tackle T.J. Lang forced undrafted rookie Don Barclay into action, this was a solid improvement overall from Green Bay’s front five.
Rushing Offense: A-
It was a split-carry game between James Starks and Alex Green, and it worked very well for McCarthy’s offense. Starks had 15 carries for 66 yards (4.4 average), which included a 22-yard touchdown run. Green finished with 12 rushing attempts for 58 yards (4.8 average).
Green started the game and played on first and second down on the opening drive, with fullback John Kuhn coming in for third-down plays. But on Green Bay’s next series, it was Starks who played first and second down. This was a fairly consistent theme throughout the game, with McCarthy alternating in an effort to keep both guys fresh, and it worked.
With veteran Cedric Benson (foot) out for the remainder of the season, Green and Starks will both have to continue at this level in order to give the Packers some offensive balance.
Rushing Defense: D
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is one of the NFL’s best … best ever, that is. Tramon Williams said after the game that not since Barry Sanders has a running back been as good as Peterson. Ryan Pickett described Peterson as a once-in-a-lifetime type of talent.  And that’s after Peterson’s remarkable comeback from a devastating knee injury late last season.
So, yes, the Packers’ defense will always likely have a difficult time stopping someone that good. But Peterson’s 210 yards on 21 carries (10.0 average) is close to a failure for Green Bay.
Peterson had his share of 2- and 3-yard runs, but he also had an 82-yard touchdown run that gave Minnesota a 14-10 lead midway through the second quarter. He then opened up the second half with a 48-yard run.
Peterson is the elite of the elite, but that can’t be an excuse for a running back gaining 200-plus yards on the ground, especially on only 21 rushing attempts.
Passing Defense: A-
Peterson was as great as Christian Ponder was terrible. The Vikings’ second-year quarterback completed just 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Throwing for 119 yards is low enough, but with 83 of those yards coming in the final four minutes of the game, that means Ponder had just 36 passing yards in the first 56 minutes of action.
Ponder also went 38 minutes and 46 seconds without completing a pass. That’s two-and-a-half quarters of football in which a starting NFL quarterback was unable to connect on a single pass. Minnesota was without star receiver Percy Harvin, and that’s a huge loss, but no team — even with the success it had on the ground with Peterson — should have such little production in the passing game. Weather conditions weren’t a factor, either, as this particular December afternoon at Lambeau Field was 45 degrees at the start of the game.
Safety Morgan Burnett had the two best plays of the game, both interceptions, including one in the end zone that saved a touchdown.
Special Teams: C+
A foot to the left and Mason Crosby’s 30-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter would have been the latest in a series of recent misses. Instead, the left goal post was kind to Crosby, bouncing his kick through the uprights and potentially saving his career.
At the end of the first half, Crosby missed badly on a 53-yard try that went wide right. To open the second half, Crosby booted his kickoff attempt out of bounds for a penalty to give Minnesota great field position. 
But later in the game, Crosby settled in a bit and connected on 47- and 31-yard field goals.
Randall Cobb struggled in the return game, including a minus-7-yard punt return, but punter Tim Masthay continued his phenomenal season.
Overall: B
A division win with a makeshift offensive line, defensive stars sitting out (Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson) and a huge game by an opposing player (Peterson). That’s not the ideal way to get it done, but the Packers found a way to get a victory they very much needed.
This win, coupled with the Chicago Bears’ loss Sunday, puts Green Bay back in first place in the NFC North. The difference between winning the division and getting into the playoffs as a wild card team will be substantial, and the Packers are in a better spot now than they were before play began this weekend.
Though Green Bay wasn’t great in this game, Burnett’s interceptions, Jones’ touchdown catch and a few solid plays along the way was enough for the win.

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