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NFC North Showdown

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Thoughts on the up-coming Vikings final regular season game with the Packers for the NFC North title.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings have not won the division since 2009.  The Packers have won it every year since then.  So being in position to take that title away from the Packers, on what will be the last game of the NFL regular season is a big win for this Vikings team.

Forget about, "well, if we lose we might play at Washington, while if we win we might draw the Seahawks."  This is stupid.  One of the primary goals of this Vikings team is to win the division.  If the Vikings fall short of winning the Super Bowl or NFC Conference championship, at least they will have taken the NFC North, and beaten their division rivals in a game that, especially if the Vikings win, could mark something of a turning point in the cyclical nature of both NFL franchises.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  This is a division game, against a bitter rival, on the road, in prime time, for the division championship, and against a team that beat the Vikings handily last month at home.  None of these suggest an easy victory.  Yes, the Packers just got blown-out at Arizona, and the Vikings just blew-out the Giants at home.  But the momentum for both teams was similar last month in the run-up to the Packers 30-13 win over the Vikings.

Looking Back at the Week 11 Game

The week 11 game was won in the trenches.   The Packers were able to run the ball effectively, got off to an early lead, and forced the Vikings into catch-up mode, which got them out of their game plan and exposed their weakness- pass protection, leading to an easy victory for the Packers.

The fact that the Packers were able to win in the trenches was very disappointing, particularly their offensive line vs. the Vikings defensive line.   The Packers offensive line was beat up, and the Vikings defensive line was healthy at that point, yet still the Packers dominated the line of scrimmage on offense.

On offense, Adrian Peterson was held to 45 yards rushing, and quickly became a non-factor in the game as the Vikings were forced into more passing situations.  Brandon Fusco and TJ Clemmings were weak spots generally, but the offensive line also had plenty of trouble protecting against the blitz as well.

Aaron Rodgers was pedestrian by his standards- 16/34 for 212 yards and 2 TDs- while Bridgewater went 25/37 for 296 yards and a TD.   The Packers had no turnovers and 5 FGs in addition to their 2 TDs, while the Vikings didn't attempt a FG, but had 2 TDs, a missed extra-point and a lost fumble.

Overall, I think the Vikings were still a little psyched-out by the Packers match-up, and felt the pressure to win, which led to their poor performance.   But this game also reflects how important the running game is to the Packers these days, which took some pressure off of the lackluster passing game, and how important getting out to an early lead is for both teams.  The Vikings are undefeated (8-0) this year when scoring first.

Looking Ahead to Week 17

There certainly are some similarities to week 11, as we look ahead to Sunday night.  First, the Packers offensive line is still banged up.  The Packers finished the game yesterday with both starting tackles on the bench.  It is unclear at the moment if either starting tackle (Bakhtiari and Bulaga) will be play against the Vikings- both have ankle injuries.  All three remaining starters on the Green Bay offensive line were on the injury report against the Cardinals, and have been most every week since week 11, but have played.

With the Vikings defensive line healthy, this is a battle in the trenches they should win.  The emergence of Danielle Hunter only adds to the reasons why the Vikings should be able to control the line of scrimmage against the Packer offense.  Yet, the Vikings defensive line was not able to get it done week 11.   If I were Mike Zimmer, this is where I would focus my attention during this week's preparation.  The Vikings simply need to win these match-ups with the Packers offensive line, stop the run and keep Rodgers under pressure- and in the pocket.  They are more than capable of doing so.   It's very difficult to see the Packers receiving corps getting open quickly and consistently against the Vikings press-man coverage- something they have failed to do most of the year- so containing the other threats should effectively shut-down the Packers offense- something Arizona was able to do quite well.

Offensively, the Vikings have made some adjustments to their game plan since week 11, which should help them in the re-match this week.  Primarily, Norv Turner has added more short passing into his game plan, making it look a lot more West Coast than Air Coryell in recent weeks.  But the adjustment needed to be made to take some pressure off of the Vikings weak spot- their pass protection.  And with players like Diggs, Wright, Rudolph, McKinnon, and even Wallace on occasion proving dangerous YAC receivers, it has helped the Vikings passing game be more effective, and has led to improvements in the red zone as well.  Since the Seattle melt-down, Bridgewater has an average passer rating of 118.6 over the past three games.

Generally the Packers have a solid DB corps, but not so much with linebackers in coverage.  Jerick McKinnon could have a big game against the Packers coming out of the backfield in crossing routes, as he has done, and Kyle Rudolph could have a good game as well- as he did in week 11.   The Packers top CB, Sam Shields, was out against Arizona with a concussion, and it remains to be seen whether he'll play against the Vikings.  My guess is he'll be back in the lineup against the Vikings.

The other thing that will be different in this week's re-match is the weather.  In week 11, weather was a non-factor.  With Sunday's game having been flexed to the evening, the forecast is for temperature in Green Bay to be similar to the Vikings-Giants game last Sunday.   That makes being able to run the ball effectively that much more important, as 10-15 degree weather can hamper the passing game.  Obviously the Packers are a cold-weather team, but I believe this is the first real cold weather game they've had this year.  That could lead to something of a slow start for them (as it did for the Vikings against the Giants the first couple series), and could make a difference given the importance of starting strong and scoring first for both teams.

Overall I expect the Vikings will have learned from their poor performance week 11, and I expect both a better game plan offensively, and a better performance from the defensive line than was the case in week 11.  I look for the Vikings to win a close game at Lambeau Field, but if either team manages to get a double-digit lead, it could lead to a easy victory.