Back in early October, the Minnesota Vikings were sitting at 2-2, and a lot of questions swirled about what kind of team they were. We took a look at the next four games on their schedule, posited that they had four winnable games, and could take themselves from a middle of the road club and transform into a serious playoff contender.
They've done just that, adding a win in Oakland to go with wins in the four games we talked about back then. The reason we stopped at the Rams game was because after that stretch of the Chiefs, Lions, Bears, and Rams, the thinking was that the rest of Minnesota's schedule would get exponentially more difficult.
The Vikings started that gauntlet yesterday by beating the Raiders on the road, and from here on out, the schedule looks like this:
Sun: Green Bay
11/29: at Atlanta 12/6: Seattle 12/10 (Thur): at Arizona 12/20: Chicago 12/27: Giants
1/3: at Green Bay
If you had asked me a month ago how this schedule would play out, I would have been being optimistic if I said I saw a win against Green Bay this upcoming Sunday, and playing the Packers in recent years usually has me more scared than a cat when encountering a cucumber.
HOWEVAH, the script has really been re-written for these two teams over the last month or so. Green Bay has lost three in a row, including at home to the woeful Lions. they've gone from a Super Bowl coronation to a team in disarray. The Vikings are on fire, winning five straight, and have steamrolled into first place in the NFC North.
I'm an admitted Vikings homer, but the Packers have only been as good as Aaron Rodgers, and they've been that way since he became the starter in 2008. Their defense has never been stellar, their running game has been just good enough, and the difference was the Hall of Fame level of play Rodgers has consistently produced. When he struggles, the Packers struggle. When he excels, the Packers excel.
Over the last three games, Rodgers has struggled for the better part of all three of them, and unsurprisingly, Green Bay has lost all three. Rodgers and the Packers offense is sputtering right now. They only had 50 yards passing against the Broncos, and although he went north of 300 against both Carolina and Detroit, his completion percentage was under 60% for both games, and he was not on the same page with his receivers. Surprisingly, the Packers are only 22nd in passing yards, and the uncanny ability Rodgers has of elevating the play of his receiver group doesn't seem to be at the level it has been in past seasons.
Green Bay's defense is, once again, a fairly mediocre bend but don't break product. They're 21st in passing yards, 24th in rushing yards, but 11th in scoring defense. They give up a lot of yards, and after watching several of their games, they don't do anything at a high level, at least consistently. They're just okay at stopping the run, just okay at stopping the pass, but they are good at getting to the quarterback, registering 23 sacks this year to Minnesota's 21.
The Packers can be had, and the Vikings should actually be favored heading into this game. Why? It's simple--the things the Packers are struggling with right now, like giving Rodgers time, receivers beating man coverage, and their defense struggling against the run, are three of the things the Vikings are currently excelling at. They are harassing quarterbacks, their press man coverage has been very successful, and Adrian Peterson is punishing opponents on the ground.
And finally, by crossing out the other five games left on Minnesota's schedule, I'm not trying to downplay them. Obviously, if Minnesota sweeps Green Bay and loses the other five games, they'll be lucky to get in to the playoffs, and if they do, they'll be a road wildcard team.
What I am trying to re-emphasize is just how important these two games against Green Bay are. Let's say, for example, the Vikings only go 2-3 against the five remaining opponents besides the Packers. A split with Green Bay gets them a 10-6 record, and a probable playoff spot, maybe even a home wildcard game. Sweep the Packers, and it's 11-5 and, more than likely, a division title and a guaranteed home playoff game. That said, I concede there's a lot of football left to play, and anything can happen.
But for the first time in what seems like forever, the Vikings control their own destiny as to whether or not they make the playoffs. A win Sunday against the Packers gives them a hammer lock on the division, both in terms of straight up wins/losses and tiebreakers, and completely changes the race in the NFC North. A loss doesn't take the Vikings back to square one, not by a long shot, but makes their quest of winning the division and getting a home playoff game more difficult.
This is the biggest 'Vikings can't ____' thing remaining on their list of 'can't do's', and a win Sunday not only makes almost a sure playoff team, but they can also start thinking about getting the #2 seed and possible home field advantage, if Carolina ever loses. Ever since the divisions realigned and the NFC Central became the NFC North in 2002, the road to winning the division has almost always gone through Green Bay.
Come Sunday night, there's a good chance the new road through Minnesota will be open for business.