The Minnesota Vikings enter their second border battle with the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football, and there is a lot, potentially, at stake. It’s a bit of a longshot, but Minnesota can still capture the NFC North title, but to do so they first have to beat the Packers, and then get some help next week.
The Packers are our most hated rival, and in the spirit of keeping your friend close but your enemies closer because Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards Men can take a backseat until Tuesday morning, we wanted to find out more about That Team From Wisconsin.
Jason Hirschhorn, Green Bay Packers Expert, editor over at the SB Nation Packers site Acme Packing Company, and all around good amigo in spite of his professional football rooting interest, sent me five really good questions, and I gave him five terrible answers, which you can find over there over the next few days.
In turn, I cobbled together some pretty terrible questions for him, and he gave me some pretty good answers in spite of it all. So, let’s take a look at what Jason has to say about the Packers and this week’s game.
DN: Jason, help me figure out this Packers team. They’re 11-3, and in prime position to win the NFC North. Yet, when you look at their stats, there’s nothing that jumps out and makes you go ‘whoa, that’s why they’re 11-3’, other than the W-L record, of course. Or is there? Overall the Green Bay offense is ranked 21st in yards, the defense 23rd,, and they’re in the middle of the pack running the ball, at 17th. Aaron Rogers is having a good year, but not the eye popping MVP numbers we’ve seen from him in past years. What’s been the secret to success?
APC: At least to some degree, the “secret” is the small sample size. As we know, NFL teams good and bad tend to fare about the same in close games over a long enough period of time. However, within the stretch of a single season, the win-loss record in games decided by eight points or fewer can look much different.
This year, the Packers have lost just one game decided by one possession, Week 4’s 34-27 defeat to the Eagles. Conversely, Green Bay has seven wins by that margin so far, including the Week 2 victory over Minnesota. Falling on the right side of those close games has certainly helped the Packers, who haven’t managed to align good offensive and defensive play together for more than a few games sprinkled throughout the season.
Now, the Packers have looked like a better offensive team than their early season struggles against the Bears, Vikings, and Broncos. That doesn’t come as a total surprise given the shift from an offensive system they’ve run for more than a decade to the one installed by new head coach Matt LaFleur. Still, that doesn’t account for all of the team’s close games, and the offense still has to show more consistency before Green Bay can realistically expect to make a long playoff run.
DN: Although I mentioned that the rush offense is 17th in yards in the NFL, I would submit RB’s Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams give Green Bay one of the best running attacks that Aaron Rodgers has had in his time as the Packers QB. Combined, they have over 1250 yards between them, and with 830 yards, Jones has a good shot to get to 1,000 this year. Is that a fair statement, and what do both Jones and Williams bring to the table that makes them a good RB tandem?
APC: Yardage rankings don’t actually give a proper indication of how a unit has performed. To your point, the Packers’ ground attack enters Week 16 ranked fourth in the NFL by DVOA.
Though both backs have delivered strong years, Aaron Jones has become the fulcrum of the offense from an efficiency standpoint. Not only does he continue to run well, he has emerged as a featured weapon in the passing game. The Packers will run him on vertical routes out of the backfield and line him up as a receiver in other situations. They will even play him and Williams together.
DN: Okay, back to Rodgers. I mentioned before that he’s having a good year, but it’s not one of those years where he was typically a good portion of the offense, when he threw for over 4,500 yards and 35+ TD’s. Is his game evolving, is it the improved running game, or has the offensive philosophy changed a bit under first year head coach Matt LaFleur? Could it be a combination of those things, or something else entirely?
APC: Whether because of diminished skills or an ongoing adjustment to the new offensive scheme, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t performed at a level commensurate with his best seasons. That doesn’t mean he has played poorly, and his peak moments in 2019 serve as a reminder of how he can still dominate a game, but the overall product has not looked the same.
To some degree, this development shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Rodgers didn’t play at a high level last season, and though a serious knee injury contributed to those struggles, he also made more mistakes or poor throws than in the past. Additionally, the offense that LaFleur installed has typically involved a multiyear learning curve even for great quarterbacks. Perhaps Rodgers will find his footing next season after spending a full calendar year and two off-seasons in the scheme.
But that doesn’t mean he will improve, and the Packers might have to build around a good but no longer elite player under center. Teams have won championships with worse situations, and Rodgers would have to decline considerably before he reached the level of, say, 2015 Peyton Manning. Even so, it becomes considerably harder to win a title without a top-flight signal-caller.
DN: Defensively, the Packers are 23rd in yards, but 9th in points. Is Green Bay’s red zone defense that good, are they creating turnovers, or is it just tough to drive the length of the field on them? What’s the strength of the unit, and where are they vulnerable?
APC: Though the Packers defense hasn’t forced as many turnovers recently as in early portions of the season, the unit ranks seventh in takeaways (23 total) and the team trails only the Patriots in turnover differential. That, along with holding up well in the red zone, has allowed Green Bay to keep points off the board.
As in Week 2, the strength of the defense remains the pass rush. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have put together Pro Bowl-caliber seasons, each registering double-digit sacks and 82 and 52 total pressures, respectively. When that tandem can force opposing offenses off script, the poor throws and turnovers seem to follow.
The run defense has improved, but it remains by far the weakest part of the defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has typically played with three safeties on the field and only one true off-ball linebacker, and while that helps in coverage, teams committed to running the ball have gained plenty of yards.
DN: Okay, put on your soothsayer hat for a minute. I see Green Bay losing their last two games, Minnesota winning the last two, and the Vikings taking the NFC North. I know that’s totally how you see it going down, but...you know, just in case, give me your alternate reality on how the season ends for these two teams, where will be they seeded in the NFC, and who do you anticipate they’ll meet in their first playoff game?
APC: I also see the Vikings winning this weekend. Based on what both teams have shown so far, they appear to be better on defense and at least comparable on offense. Throw in home-field advantage and Green Bay’s recent offensive struggles, and a Minnesota victory seems the most likely outcome.
That said, I can’t see the Packers falling to the Lions in the season finale barring a catastrophic injury or similarly calamitous event. That would give Green Bay the NFC North title regardless of what happens this Sunday.
As for seeding, who knows? The 49ers just demonstrated that they can take down the Saints in New Orleans then fall to the awful Falcons a week later. It’s all guesswork at this stage, and I don’t see any value in throwing out another dart in the darkness. [ED Note: I will interpret this non-answer as Jason secretly agreeing the Vikings will win the NFC North, and he doesn’t want to anger is APC constituency by admitting it. He’s already out on a limb predicting the Packers will lose, so we’ll allow it.—Ted]
Thanks Jason, and here’s to a good game with no serious injuries Monday.