“I broke you. How have you come back?”
I was reminded of this line from Bane in The Dark Knight Rises last Sunday night. After the villain had broken Batman’s back and left him to rot in a pit, Bane was shocked to find that the Caped Crusader had returned to thwart his takeover of Gotham.
That must have been exactly how the Chicago Bears felt. After knocking Aaron Rodgers out of the game and taking a 20-0 lead in the third quarter, the future Hall of Fame quarterback returned and laid waste to any hopes of Chicago’s upset. Rodgers willed the Packers all the way back on one leg, making play after play as the Bears dissipated into an overly-conservative puddle. Everyone watching around the country could see it coming, just like we knew that a wounded Batman would eventually triumph despite the staggering odds against him in the movie.
As we look forward to Sunday’s crucial early-season divisional clash between the Packers and Vikings, I’m reminded of another scene from the previous movie in Christoper Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The Dark Knight closes with Batman escaping from the police into the night despite just having saved the city from certain doom. Lieutenant Gordon explains to his son why it has to be this way:
Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.
As a Vikings fan, it pains me to compare a rival player to a comic book superhero. But let’s face it—a lot of what Rodgers has been able to pull off over the years has looked like works of fiction. If this storied NFC North Border Battle is going to live up to its billing in 2018, Aaron Rodgers is the hero the rivalry deserves.
But like Gordon said, he’s not our hero in Minnesota. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it.
Rodgers didn’t practice on Wednesday, instead rehabbing his left knee with other injured Green Bay players. As of this posting, his status for the game remains uncertain. If you ask Mike Zimmer and the Vikings defensive players, they’re preparing as though Rodgers will be there. So for the purposes of this game preview, we’ll prepare as though Rodgers will be there too.
Because we saw DeShone Kizer last year in London. If “Kizer So-So” is the starter on Sunday, this preview could be pared down to two words: “Vikings win.”
Of course, Kizer was on the putrid 0-16 Browns last year. He actually had one of his better games of the season against the Vikings in London; it was one of the two games he didn’t turn the ball over. Surely he could perform well enough to compete a with better supporting cast and coaching staff, right?
Well...are we sure that the supporting cast and coaching staff is that much better in Green Bay than it is in Cleveland?
I’m not trying to troll Packers fans here. (That much.) It’s an honest question. (Mostly.) I think very little of Mike McCarthy, but I’ll still concede that Green Bay’s coaching staff is a step up from Cleveland, especially with the new coordinators the Packers have brought in this year. (Even if Joe Philbin is a retread, he’s probably an improvement over Edgar Bennett.) But the roster itself? I’m not so sure. We saw the Packers’ 2017 season go up in flames after Rodgers was injured in a perfectly legal play that I’m sure won’t be brought up at all during Sunday’s broadcast. Green Bay was the heavy favorite to win the division and went 3-8 down the stretch with Brett Hundley at the helm. Green Bay has obviously added some key pieces to their team since then, but there is little doubt that the Vikings have better players at nearly every positional group that doesn’t involve #12 in dark green and gold.
Again, this isn’t (all) my Vikings bias talking. Longtime Packers reporter Rob Demovsky posted an article on Wednesday explaining how some scouts think that the Vikings might have an advantage on the Packers everywhere but quarterback. Unsurprisingly, this had Packers fans and writers alike gnashing their teeth about how other various units were just as good or better than their Minnesota counterparts. The most common rebuttals were the offensive line, defensive line, and secondary.
I’m willing to accept that the Packers have an advantage offensive line, especially with how both units are currently constructed. David Bakhtiari is still one of the best left tackles in the game, and Bryan Bulaga is still effective when he’s healthy. The interior that consists of Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, and Justin McCray isn’t stocked with All-Pros but it is stocked with continuity and experience. That said, they still allowed 13 pressures on 43 dropbacks against Chicago, and not all of that can be attributed to Khalil Mack being a one-man wrecking crew in his Bears debut. The Vikings’ front four should be able to replicate some of that on Sunday.
Pat Elflein was the sole member of the Vikings that wasn’t a full participant in practice on Wednesday, so there’s a good chance that we’ll have the same starting lineup of Riley Reiff, Tom Compton, Brett Jones, Mike Remmers, and Rashod Hill. On the whole, that group was serviceable against the 49ers. The right side of the line was fooled by a couple stunts and DeForest Buckner wrecked Tom Compton for an early sack, but they acquitted themselves pretty well pass blocking. Pro Football Focus actually gave the Vikings the third highest pass block rating of Week 1. The run blocking was the bigger concern. Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook averaged only 3.0 yards per carry because running lanes were extremely hard to come by.
There’s also this nugget from Sam Monson:
Dalvin Cook had 40 rushing yards week 1.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 13, 2018
He had 45 yards after contact.
Clearing space won’t get any easier this week. Mike Daniels will be every bit the handful that Buckner was when he’s on the field. Kenny Clark and Muhammad Wilkerson will be a problem as well. When it comes to the defensive lines, Green Bay and Minnesota are closer than you might think, even though the 4-3 vs. 3-4 comparison is a bit apples vs. oranges. But thinking that the Packers might actually have the advantage in this department is still patently absurd.
We already know how good Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are coming off the edge. We already know that Linval Joseph is an absolute beast in the middle. Case in point:
The time Linval caused a tackle by throwing a center at the running back pic.twitter.com/V2RqtOAKj7— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) September 12, 2018
And now you throw Sheldon Richardson into the mix? That’s almost unfair. Nick Olson of Vikings Territory did a nice job of highlighting how much of an impact Richardson had in his Vikings debut. If he can keep that up throughout the season, no quarterback is safe—especially a hobbled Aaron Rodgers.
While claiming the Packers could be better along the D-line is a bit silly, claiming that Green Bay is on Minnesota’s level in the secondary right now is downright insanity. Drafting Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander was a very savvy move by new Packers GM Brian Gutekunst. It looks like they’re going to be very good and have a chance to surpass incumbent starters Tramon Williams and Kevin King in the near future. Plus, Dom Capers is gone! The Packers getting rid of Capers was the best addition by subtraction since Joffrey died on Game Of Thrones. The Packers are definitely better in an area that had been a weakness for years, but there are going to be some growing pains as well.
This play from last week against the Bears is a good illustration of the new kids learning on the job. Jackson looks a bit confused about the coverage pre-snap and allows Allen Robinson to get behind him on the in route.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a fine safety, but Harrison Smith is still the best safety in the league. (As well as the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week.) I’ll take Andrew Sendejo over Kentrell Brice any day. And we haven’t even mentioned the stable of talented corners that Mike Zimmer has at the ready. While the future is bright for Green Bay’s secondary, the future is now for Minnesota’s.
If Rodgers isn’t able to buy time with his legs like he usually does, I would anticipate that Green Bay will use a lot of shotgun and try to get rid of the ball in a hurry. Davante Adams and Randall Cobb should get plenty of targets underneath; the difference will be whether the Vikings can prevent yards after the catch better than Chicago did Sunday night. (Adams didn’t practice on Wednesday due to a shoulder injury. We’ll assume he plays this week too thanks to all this
Toradol “adrenaline” the Packers seem to have after getting hurt.) Jimmy Graham could get more involved after starting his Green Bay career with only two receptions for eight yards. Preventing the big play is always easier said than done against Rodgers. A defense as talented as Minnesota’s should be able to keep most of the action in front of them while making a few big plays of their own.
It’s also unlikely that Kirk Cousins will have the luxury of sitting in the pocket for very long. While Kyle Rudolph garnered only two targets in Week 1 (it would have been three if Laquon Treadwell had known his assignment better on a particular play), he was still an important part of the passing game. Matthew Coller of 1500 ESPN had an excellent breakdown of all the different ways Rudolph was used against the 49ers to open up space for other receivers. If Green Bay decides to focus on limiting Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen this week, look for Rudy to keep the sticks moving and keep the defense on their toes.
Don’t assume that only the usual suspects will keep the defense guessing either. The Vikings used eight different skill position personnel combinations for at least three plays in Week 1. John DeFilippo likes to use all the tools available to him in order to remain one step ahead of the opposition.
If all goes well and the Vikings are a step ahead of the Packers on Sunday, they’ll have to finish the job better than they did in their first game. Minnesota averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per play in the second half against the Niners. After going up 24-6 in the third quarter, the Vikings had all of two first downs in the game’s final 20 minutes. One of those first downs was from the boneheaded neutral zone infraction on 4th down when Solomon Thomas got fooled by Cousins’ cadence. Clinging to a lead like that won’t work if Rodgers is playing on Sunday. Just ask the Bears.
If Rodgers isn’t playing on Sunday, I don’t see how the Packers can keep pace outside of several self-inflicted Minnesota mistakes. The Vikings should cruise to a victory in that scenario. I am not above hoping for that scenario either. I know the old adage says that we should want to beat teams when they’re at their best. I say that a road division win is a road division win no matter how it happens. Taking Rodgers out of the equation makes that win much more easily attainable. He’s the hero this rivalry deserves, but he certainly isn’t the hero I need as a Vikings fan this week.
I still think we’ll see Green Bay’s Dark Knight rise and be ready to play. And when Rodgers is involved, nothing is off the table. With more experience on the roster and coaching staff, the Vikings should be less likely to wilt like the Bears did last week. (They save that for the playoffs—zing!) Since the game in Lambeau happening so early this year, the weather won’t be an equalizer. Playing the Packers in Week 2 is also advantageous because their young secondary still has some things to figure out.
I believe that the Vikings will take care of the ball, make just enough plays on offense, and lean on their defense again to grind out a close win. For the fifth time in the last six meetings, Minnesota will be the Bane of Green Bay’s NFC North existence.
Vikings 23, Packers 20
And now for the rest of my Week 2 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
BENGALS over Ravens
Cincinnati was pretty impressive on the road last week against Andrew Luck. Baltimore looked really impressive at home last week, but it’s impossible not to look impressive against Nathan Peterman. I’ll take the home team on a short week.
FALCONS over Panthers
Atlanta can’t afford to go 0-2 by losing a division game at home. Can they finally stop turning the red zone into the brown zone in time to prevent it from happening?
Chargers over BILLS
The Chargers can never seem to get out of their own way. Luckily for them, Buffalo is exactly the same way, except with much less talent.
SAINTS over Browns
If New Orleans blows another game as a heavy home favorite, when can we start the “TED-DY! TED-DY! TED-DY!” chants? Asking for a friend.
Texans over TITANS
It’s hard to read too much into either team’s Week 1 loss. Houston lost on the road to a perennial juggernaut that has always had their number. Tennessee lost on the road in a game that took longer than the wait for a Dr. Dre album. Either way, the loser of this game is in big trouble going forward.
REDSKINS over Colts
Adrian Peterson is currently Washington’s leading receiver for the 2018 season. That sentence was bizarre to write on at least a dozen different levels.
Chiefs over STEELERS
I’m not incredibly confident about picking the upset here, but it’s starting to feel like one of those classic “Year From Hell” seasons for Pittsburgh early on. I’m more confident that we’ll see a ton of points in this game.
JETS over Dolphins
Sam Darnold had all of 198 yards in his NFL debut. At least a few passes outside of his career-opening pick six could have easily been intercepted. Can we please pump the brakes on his Hall of Fame induction? The 31-point win in Detroit was mostly due to Matthew Stafford leaving excrement all over Ford Field. I do like New York’s defense though, so I’ll pick them to improve to 2-0 this week.
Eagles over BUCCANEERS
Philly looked pretty shaky on opening night and the Fitzmagic was plentiful in New Orleans last week. Could you imagine the 2-0 Bucs hosting the winless Steelers on Monday Night Football next week?!
Yeah, you’re right. Me neither.
49ERS over Lions
Detroit was so bad on Monday that it prompted me to make an all-time groaner of a Dad Joke at their expense:
I thought the NFC North was going to be the best division in football this year.— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) September 11, 2018
Turns out I was Lion.
Don’t blame me. Blame Stafford and Patricia.
RAMS over Cardinals
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, even though I’M ALREADY OUT AFTER WEEK 1 FOR THE SECOND STRAIGHT YEAR. Somehow, Sam Bradford might have found an offensive line that’s even worse than the one he had in 2016.
BRONCOS over Raiders
Jon Gruden is already puzzled as to why his team doesn’t have a pass rush. He’s already bringing back wide receivers that he cut less than two weeks ago. He’s already throwing his supposed franchise quarterback under the bus. And he still has nine years and 15 games remaining on that $100 million contract! At this rate, Oakland fans will welcome the sweet release of the team moving to Vegas in 2020.
Patriots over JAUGARS
I originally had the Jags winning this one because I think they’re a bad matchup for New England. But Leonard Fournette is at risk of missing the game, and he’s the one skill player I like on the Jacksonville offense.
Giants over COWBOYS
These two teams facing off on Sunday Night Football? YOU DON’T SAY.
BEARS over Seahawks
Russell Wilson might want to check his life insurance premiums before facing Khalil Mack with that offensive line.
Last week: 10-5-1
Season so far: 10-5-1