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Vikings vs. Packers Week 12 Preview: Thanks For Nothing

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This was supposed to be a battle for supremacy in the NFC North. Instead, Minnesota and Green Bay fans alike are lamenting relatively disappointing seasons. Which team can salvage the Thanksgiving leftovers?

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks
Many Packers fans (and maybe one Packers quarterback) have had enough of Mike McCarthy. Can the Vikings help push him out the door on Sunday?
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Thanksgiving has always been about three major staples: food, family, and football. For the most part, it’s wonderful. A long weekend full of gorging on deliciously extravagant cuisine, sharing time with loved ones you might not see that often, and enjoying a jam-packed schedule of our nation’s greatest sport with the built-in option of socially acceptable naps if the games aren’t that intriguing. I’m licking my chops and hiding my scale just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, the three F’s of Thanksgiving can also lead to plenty of less pleasant F words. The travel is always an absolute nightmare regardless of your mode of transportation. If you’re stuck preparing the meal, the kitchen is a thankless war zone for the better part of eight hours. Oftentimes you realize why you don’t see those loved ones that often after spending a few hours with them. Sure, the food’s great, but it usually starts a cycle of overeating and guilt that we can’t kick until the new year. And if your favorite football team happens to be playing over the course of the four-day weekend, there’s a very good chance they can ruin everything even worse than your inebriated uncle that can’t stop waxing poetic about his political views.

If you happen to have a Packers fan at your Thanksgiving celebration, first of all, my condolences. But this year, you might have more in common with your wayward relative than you think. Green Bay was supposed to be a contender for both the NFC North and the conference title itself. Instead, they’re hovering near .500, looking up at the Chicago Bears in the division standings, and wondering whether they’ll even make the postseason at all. They’re fresh off an embarrassing road loss on national television that left their fans questioning some of the pieces that have been most responsible for their success in recent years. The entire regime is being taken to task, from the Head Coach to the front office to the star quarterback. This wasn’t supposed to be how the season unfolded, and people are mad.

Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?

When the 2018 schedule was first released, the Week 12 game between the Packers and Vikings seemed destined to be a gigantic matchup with tons of playoff implications on the line. It still is, but in a much different way than most of us anticipated. Instead of battling each other for division supremacy or maybe even laying the groundwork for a first round bye, Green Bay and Minnesota are facing off for what may very well be their playoff lives. It isn’t quite a “loser leaves town” match, but the team on the wrong end of this one might want to consider gathering their belongings.

Many Packers fans would be thrilled if Mike McCarthy left for good. The Green Bay Head Coach and on again/off again/on again play caller has been a center of scorn for much of the year, and with good reason. McCarthy has been to the playoffs in nine of his twelve seasons in Green Bay, but one could argue that the majority of that was due to riding the coattails of Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre. I like to joke that McCarthy is the guy that was born on third base but can’t stop bragging to everyone how he hit a triple. It isn’t just fans that appear to be fed up this time. There have been rumblings about Rodgers being at odds with McCarthy for years, and it appears to be reaching a crest this season. Rodgers has always been an artist at taking thinly veiled shots—we all remember the Purple Crush thing—but lately it doesn’t even look like he’s trying to hide his disdain for his Head Coach anymore. McCarthy’s baffling decision to not go for it on fourth down in last week’s loss to the Seahawks has become a microcosm of his mismanagement in recent years. His defiant attitude about most of the team’s shortcomings is wearing thin with fans and pundits alike.

If I was a Packer backer (perish the thought), I’d be pretty furious. Green Bay has been blessed by the football gods with twenty-seven straight seasons having a first-ballot Hall Of Fame quarterback at the helm. Since Favre took over in 1992, 16 different players have led the Vikings in passing. Only three players have earned that distinction for the Packers, and two of them were named Brett because that includes Brett Hundley from last year. Despite all that unparalleled greatness and consistency, Green Bay has exactly two Super Bowl titles to show for it. That’s over a quarter century of the very thing the Vikings have been desperately searching for since Fran Tarkenton left. Hell, the Vikings even borrowed Favre for a couple years to try and manufacture some of the magic! And yet Green Bay has the same amount of titles in that span as the team that won with Trent Dilfer and Joe Flacco. I’d be a little frustrated too, especially if I bought a worthless piece of paper claiming some sort of ownership stake in the franchise.

Naturally, as a Vikings fan, my initial reaction to all of this is pure glee. Watching Green Bay waste what could very well be the end of Rodgers’ prime has been a treat. However, as I alluded to earlier, all is not well in Valhalla either. An avalanche of takes has thundered down upon Vikings country after their disappointing loss in Chicago last Sunday, ranging from valid to patently absurd. No matter where you fall on the take spectrum, there is no denying that the season has been disappointing through the first ten games.

For the most part, the Vikings defense has held its end of the bargain. While they haven’t reached the heights of 2017, they’re still among the better units in the league. Football Outsiders has the Vikings ranked 5th in defensive DVOA. They’re fifth in total yards, third in points allowed per drive, and first in both third down conversion and red zone touchdown percentage. The only reason the Vikings had even a slim chance at victory against the Bears was because of their defense.

The offensive shortcomings were on full display for a national audience at Soldier Field. And no, it isn’t because Kirk Cousins is worse in primetime, because that narrative isn’t true. That said, he was pretty lousy against the Bears. Outside of the still-inexplicable Bills loss, it was probably Cousins’ worst game of the season. Chicago’s tough defense is going to make a lot of quarterbacks look bad, but Cousins just flat out missed some passes that he has made all season. It wasn’t just the two interceptions and overshooting Diggs in the end zone either. He was just off for a good portion of the night.

Perhaps Cousins was hearing footsteps on some of his errant passes. It would be hard to blame him since he’s the most pressured quarterback in the NFL. The Vikings allowed 21 pressures on 49 dropbacks according to Pro Football Focus, bringing their total to 154 on the season. Their 80.8% pass blocking efficiency is tied for 28th in the league, and their ESPN Pass Block Win Rate metric ranks 27th. Run blocking hasn’t exactly been their strong suit either. The Vikings rank dead last in adjusted line yards in the run game and their runners are hit behind the line of scrimmage more often than any other team. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Cousins has been the main problem for the offense.

Part of the blame behind the offensive line’s massive shortcomings has to be placed at the feet of first year Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo. He was considered an exciting hire fresh off a Super Bowl run in Philadelphia, but even Mike Zimmer has started openly questioning the offensive game plan. While Zimmer stopped short of putting his OC on full blast, it seems as though he thinks DeFilippo’s offense is a bit overcomplicated. I tend to agree. Matthew Coller had a superb breakdown of some of the offensive miscues that were made against Chicago. At the very least, there were several times where the offense wasn’t put in a good position for success. Miscommunication and poor play design combined for some truly disastrous results.

This first quarter run by Latavius Murray was particularly curious. Adam Thielen is already past Cousins at the snap so the Bears don’t have to respect the jet sweep; no defenders follow him across the formation. Tyler Conklin is asked to pull across the formation even though Murray runs to the space Conklin just vacated. Stefon Diggs and Brian O’Neill double team safety Eddie Jackson, which feels a tad unnecessary especially since Pat Elflein was left alone to be annihilated by Akiem Hicks. I’m guessing this wasn’t how DeFilippo drew it up, but I’m also guessing this might be too much to ask of a unit that has trouble run blocking in the first place.

As much as Zimmer wants to create some semblance of balance in the offense, that’s hard to pull off when you’re chasing the game. The Vikings have trailed by ten or more points in each of their non-wins, including the Week 2 tie against the Packers. While trailing by double digits, they have run the ball on only 15% of their plays. That has contributed to Minnesota being the most pass-heavy team in the NFL, passing on just over two-thirds of their snaps. Minnesota has had less than 90 yards rushing in seven of their ten contests this year. If the Vikings offense wants to find more balance, they’ll need to get off to a fast start. They trailed for most of the first matchup in Green Bay, which led to a 50-to-18 pass-run ratio.

Running the ball should be an easier proposition against Green Bay’s defense, which is 26th against the run and has allowed at least 123 yards on the ground in each of their last five contests. Seattle was literally able to run the clock out for the last four minutes of the game last Thursday. Kenny Clark is still a problem in the middle, but there could be opportunities for Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray to have some success running off tackle.

There should be opportunities for big yardage in the air too, as the Packers are pretty beat up on defense. Mike Daniels is out for a few weeks with a foot injury; he had five pressures in the first meeting. Kevin King, Bashaud Breeland, and Nick Perry all sat out practice on Wednesday and are at risk of missing the game. Green Bay could start as many as three rookies in the secondary on Sunday. The Vikings racked up over 400 yards passing in September; if they can’t consistently move the ball at home on Sunday night, there may not be much hope for the remainder of the season.

Despite all the questions swirling around Mike McCarthy’s play calling and Rodgers’ overall effectiveness, Green Bay has discovered some dangerous weapons since the first time these two teams met. Aaron Jones didn’t play in Week 2 and has since established himself as the lead back for the Packers. He has shown excellent vision and is ranked in the top 10 in PFF’s Elusive Rating among qualifying backs. Jones is averaging a whopping 6.4 yards per carry this season. He has been effective catching the ball out of the backfield as well, grabbing 16 receptions for 141 yards and a score in eight games.

The only gripe Packers fans have about Jones is that he is underutilized. Jones has yet to top 15 carries or 18 total touches in a game. The Packers pass the second most often of anyone in the league (66.51%, just behind the Vikings) despite ranking fourth in adjusted line yards rushing. McCarthy’s unwillingness to increase Jones’ workload is one of the biggest beefs Green Bay fans have with him this season.

Of course, the Packers passing attack is still pretty dangerous with that #12 guy. There’s another weapon that wasn’t really heard from in Week 2 in Marquez Valdes-Scantling. MVS is third on the team in receiving yards despite getting only five total targets in the first four games. With Jimmy Graham nursing a sore thumb and Randall Cobb coming back from a hamstring injury, the 5th-round rookie could make some plays if the Vikings give too much attention to stopping Davante Adams.

Rodgers has had a propensity to silence his critics with huge games after being questioned throughout his career. Watching him go nuclear on Sunday night while Cris Collinsworth laps it up for three and a half hours and Vikings fans go completely catatonic is certainly a possibility. But he has already been sacked 30 times this season, including four times by the Vikings in a game where he was relatively held in check. A frenzied crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium could help a team that desperately needs a big win to keep their playoff hopes afloat. If the Vikingscan simply get out of their own damn way for once, they should be able to send the Packers further into their tailspin and accelerate the doomsday clock on McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay. This season hasn’t given either fan base a ton to be thankful for, but in the spirit of the holiday I’ll hold out hope for the Vikings getting back on track one more time.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I wish you safe travels and good eating, regardless of how dumb your holiday food takes may be. At the very least, I hope you get along with your family better than Aaron Rodgers this weekend.

Prediction

Vikings 27, Packers 20


And now for the rest of my Week 12 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Bears over LIONS

Chase Daniel, who has made over $28 million in a career where he has thrown 78 total passes, is getting the start for Chicago on a short week. Matt Nagy will have to keep things simple and lean on his defense to win this game. And since that’s pretty much what they have been doing with Mitchell Trubisky all season, I’m still picking the Bears to win.

COWBOYS over Redskins

Somehow, Dallas will be in first place if they win at home against Colt McCoy on Thanksgiving. Somehow, Adrian Peterson still refuses to have a modicum of self awareness.

SAINTS over Falcons

New Orleans is a damn juggernaut, which makes me very sad. So I’m going to look on the bright side here: Teddy Bridgewater has a very good chance of winning a Super Bowl! (Crap. That just made me even sadder.)

Jaguars over BILLS

Speaking of looking on the bright side: the 2018 Chicago Bears are built a lot like the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. So maybe we have something to look forward to next year!

BENGALS over Browns

HUE JACKSON REVENGE GAME! I really want to pick Cleveland, who’s playing better lately and would love nothing more than to stick it to their old albatross of a coach. But Cleveland has still lost their last 23 road games, so I’m going to wait for them to break that streak before picking them.

RAVENS over Raiders

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, which has been the kiss of death two weeks running and only 7-4 overall thanks to Riverboat Ron gambling and losing in Detroit last week. Lamar Jackson’s stat line last week was too gloriously goofy for me to doubt him against the lowly Raiders.

Patriots over JETS

Now that Bill Belichick has got that “losing to former coordinators” thing out of his system, it’s time to get back to what he does best—destroy the rest of the terrible AFC East.

EAGLES over Giants

I really wish the Saints hadn’t run up the score on Philly last week. That 38-7 scoreline they had late in the third quarter was strangely satisfying for some reason.

BUCCANEERS over 49ers

Eww, gross. No.

PANTHERS over Seahawks

Seattle looks awfully frisky, and Carolina looked completely out of sorts against the lowly Lions. But I’ll stick with the Fightin’ Jarius Wrights at home this week.

CHARGERS over Cardinals

Hopefully the Clippers of the NFL got it all out of their system last week. They can’t possibly screw it up at home against Arizona, can they? (Well, of course they can. They’re the Chargers. But I’m still picking them.)

Steelers over BRONCOS

Case Keenum has one impressive comeback and suddenly all his stans on #VikingsTwitter come out of the woodwork. I couldn’t be happier for the guy, but let’s see him beat an AFC contender that doesn’t specialize in imploding before we opine letting him go in the offseason.

COLTS over Dolphins

I think Mike Hughes is going to be a special player, but it’s hard to look at Indianapolis’ amazing turnaround at offensive line and not wonder what might have been if the Vikings had drafted someone like Will Hernandez instead.

TEXANS over Titans

How the hell is this Houston team poised to win their eighth straight game? Oh yeah, that’s right—they play in the AFC South.

Last week: 7-6
Season so far: 100-59-2