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Vikings vs. Packers Week 16 Preview: The (Almost) Big Game

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Monday night’s game between Vikings and Packers lacks a bit of the gravitas that should normally surround a late-season matchup like this.

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
Pictured: Exhibit A of why the Pro Bowl selection process is broken.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In the penultimate week of the 2019 regular season, the 10-4 Minnesota Vikings are hosting their hated rivals, the 11-3 Green Bay Packers, on Monday Night Football. Tons of Vikings fans (along with an uncomfortable amount of Packers fans) will put U.S. Bank Stadium at full capacity on Christmas Eve Eve. With the majority of attendees on holiday break, the atmosphere should be more raucous, drunk, and agitated than your uncle talking politics at the family holiday party. It’s the stuff legendary lifelong feuds are made of.

Monday will mark the 119th edition of the Border Battle; the two teams have never faced off with more wins between them coming into the game. (There were two previous instances where the teams had 21 total wins: the 2012 playoffs and the 1996 regular season finale.) Playoff seeding hangs in the balance just as much as bragging rights. Minnesota and Green Bay have both exceeded preseason expectations; now they’re gearing up for what each fan base hopes is a deep playoff run.

On its surface, it’s hard to imagine a non-playoff game being much bigger. Two very good teams from the same division, a game apart in the standings, late in the season, on a national stage? Screw sugar plums—this is what dances through the heads of football fans at Christmas time.

Yet somehow, Monday night’s game doesn’t feel quite as important as it probably should.

By now, you’re probably well versed in the playoff scenarios surrounding this game. The Vikings would keep their NFC North title hopes alive with a win, but that would also require the Packers dropping their Week 17 game against the bloated corpse of a Lions team that hasn’t won in two months. If the Vikings lose, they may already be locked into the final Wild Card spot depending on how other games went over the weekend.

Now don’t get me wrong—there is still plenty to play for on both sides. The Packers are gunning for a first round bye while the Vikings could earn a much more favorable first round opponent even if they miss out on the division crown. But it’s a bit disappointing that this game doesn’t quite have that “winner-take-all” feel.

If everything was truly on the line and the Vikings could seal the NFC North with a win, I might be more inclined to take some more risks with this article. If I knew that a Vikings victory couldn’t be rendered futile next Sunday in Detroit, I probably would have tried to talk a little smack about my least favorite team in sports. I might have gone full Playa Haters’ Ball on Green Bay.

For instance, if I was certain that the division hinged on Monday’s result, I’d probably point out that Aaron Rodgers is basically an above average quarterback now and the fact that he made the Pro Bowl is an affront to the entire selection process.

For the first half of the decade that’s ending in less than two weeks, even the most ardent Packers hater (for example, yours truly) had to begrudgingly admit that Rodgers was among the very best at his craft, if not the best. Each week he would pull off plays that left opposing players and fans befuddled and in awe. In 2019, Rodgers is still capable of making some of those plays from time to time.

However, the great plays are accompanied by a lot of underwhelming ones these days. There are several statistical areas where Rodgers has declined over the past few seasons. I would go over some of them in this space, but somebody else already did the legwork for me.

The Holy Grail of the facts behind Rodgers’ decline is an October article from The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin titled No longer elite: What the numbers tell us about Aaron Rodgers. It’s the Mona Lisa of anti-Rodgers analysis. Baldwin has built a bit of a cottage industry around lightly trolling Rodgers with game clips and statistics that paint him in a bad light, which has obviously made him one of my favorite follows on Twitter. It isn’t just trolling though; there is plenty of truth to be found among all the riling of Packers fans. Rodgers has decreased his throwaways from 59 in 2018 to 35 this season, but there have still been plenty of head-scratching plays. Like this pass in the blowout loss to the 49ers:

Or taking this “sack” against Washington two weeks ago:

I could go on and on, but Green Bay is probably going to win the division, so who am I to say that Rodgers has declined? After all, everybody knows that the most important quarterback statistic is #QBWinz! I’m just a jealous hater!

Besides, as any logical Packers fan will tell you, nothing is ever Aaron’s fault. The offensive line isn’t what it used to be! Never mind that the Packers are best in the league at pass block win rate while David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, and Corey Linsley all rank in the top three in their respective positions. Ignore how according to Pro Football Focus, all 32 sacks of Rodgers this season have come after 2.5 seconds or more in the pocket. Or how only Lamar Jackson spends more average time in the pocket than Rodgers.

So yeah, blaming the line instead of Rodgers doesn’t work that well. But their receiving corps is another story! It’s basically Davante Adams and the island of misfit toys out there. Geronimo Allison can make the most routine catches look difficult. Allen Lazard has made some big plays but can disappear for large stretches. Marquez Valdes-Scantling has somehow caught fewer than half of his 48 targets this season. Second year wideout Jake Kumerow is a fan favorite in Green Bay for extremely obvious reasons, but he plays too sparingly to make a consistent impact.

Here’s a supercut of Rodgers targeting Jimmy Graham last week. Call me crazy, but I’m starting to think that the veteran tight end might not pose as much of a threat as he once did! And Graham is still two years younger than fellow tight end Marcedes Lewis.

The cupboard is pretty bare outside of Adams, so it would make sense for the Vikings to bracket Green Bay’s WR1 with safety help over the top early and often. Adams roasted the Vikings for seven catches and 106 yards on eight targets in Week 2 along with drawing a 25-yard pass interference penalty on Xavier Rhodes. The Packers have done well getting Adams open against single high safety defensive looks, as they showed on this play against the Bears Week 16. The pre-snap motion and play action made for an easy throw and big gain.

Five of Adams’ seven catches in the first meeting came when the Vikings defense had a single safety in the middle of the field at the snap. Running more Cover 2 and Cover 4 would leave the middle of the field more susceptible to big plays, but shifting coverage over to Adams would be easier. It will be interesting to see how Mike Zimmer and George Edwards try to defend Rodgers’ favorite target on Monday.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Zimmer will win his third division title in six years because of the new sheriff in town, so we should probably talk about him instead. Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur has had an excellent first year in charge. His next win will double the total of last year’s underachieving bunch. That’s no small feat.

LaFleur’s career is off to a nice start, but let’s hold off on labeling him some kind of genius. His greatest trait so far might be “not being Mike McCarthy.” Even the biggest mouth breathers among the Packer faithful could see that Aaron Jones needed more of the ball the past two seasons. Jones and his backfield battery mate Jamaal Williams have combined for 371 touches, 1,916 yards from scrimmage, and 23 of the team’s 40 touchdowns this season. They’re also second and third on the team in receptions, which has helped mask their other under-performing pass catchers.

This doesn’t happen very often, but the Packers might have a pretty big advantage at running back on Monday. Dalvin Cook is highly unlikely to play and Alexander Mattison was a scratch from the first injury report of the week, which means it’s Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah time. Being without Cook and Mattison would be a big loss, because their running (and the threat of their running on play action) would help counteract the Green Bay pass rush. The Packers had 28 total pressures in the Week 2 matchup, including 13 by interior defenders Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry. Garrett Bradbury and the rest of the Vikings offensive line have improved since then; they’ll need to show exactly how much better they are on Monday to keep Green Bay’s Smith brothers at bay.

Back in September, it looked like the Packers defense was poised to take a a huge step forward. Rodgers famously said “we’ve got a defense” after their Week 1 win in Chicago. The good news for Green Bay: that’s still technically true! They still put eleven players out on the field when the other team has the ball. The bad news: they have regressed quite a bit since their hot start. I tweeted out a few interesting numbers I found comparing each defense:

If the Packers were at a larger risk of losing the division title, I could throw out even more numbers about how their defense has been middle of the road. But just about any defense could shut down Detroit next week, so apparently those metrics won’t mean much.

In all seriousness, the Green Bay secondary is markedly better this year. Second year corner Jaire Alexander looks like he’ll be a starter in that defense for years to come. Darnell Savage is coming along pretty well in his rookie season. Adrian Amos is making Bears fans regret the de facto safety swap for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Tramon Williams is doing his best Terence Newman impression as an effective slot corner into his late 30’s. If there’s one area for the Vikings to exploit on the back end, it would be cornerback Kevin King. He does have four interceptions on the season, including the game-clinching pick in the end zone Week 2. But he tends to be the all-or-nothing type of cover corner and gambles far too often. King has allowed more yards and touchdowns in coverage than any other Packer this year.

The Vikings might be short-handed in the backfield but they should have their full arsenal of receivers. Stefon Diggs already has 52 more yards than his career high last year on 42 fewer catches; he has been one of the best deep threats in the league this season. Adam Thielen eased back into things last week, playing just over half of the offensive snaps in Los Angeles. They’ll need him to be back to his usual Packer killer mode on Monday. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, Thielen is averaging 7.4 receptions and 99.1 yards per game against Green Bay.

Then again, the Packers are in NFC North pole position because they held Diggs and Thielen to six total catches in September. Looking back at the film of the Week 2 matchup, it’s hard to recognize the Vikings offense at times, especially when it comes to the play of Kirk Cousins. Cousins threw two bad interceptions and fumbled on back-to-back plays while completing only 14 of 32 passes that day. Vikings fans came away from that game feeling like Cousins simply wasn’t the answer; now they’re scoffing at how Rodgers made the Pro Bowl ahead of him. If Cousins continues to take care of the ball and play like he has since October, the Vikings shouldn’t find themselves in a 21-0 hole this time around. If the Packers have shown one thing this season, it’s their ability to grind out ugly wins by getting an early lead and holding on for dear life down the stretch.

Winning ugly is still winning, which is why everything doesn’t truly come down to Monday’s outcome. I mean, everything would be completely different if the referees hadn’t gift wrapped a Packers victory in their Week 6 Monday night game against the Lions, but that’s just one game with a couple favorable calls. Lopsided refereeing happens throughout the league and it usually balances out over the course of a season.

Except...

Meanwhile, the Vikings have had the fewest penalties called on their opponents of any team in the NFL this season. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

Again, I wish I could trash talk the Packers more, but they have simply been the better team this season. They’re 11-3, which makes them practically infallible.

I’m sure that’s why Vegas currently has them as 5-point underdogs this week.

While I don’t like the Vikings’ chances to win the division, I like them to stay undefeated at home and give the Packers a nice lump of Skol in their stockings before Christmas. (Credit to KARE 11’s Eric Perkins for that A+ dad joke.) If they do manage the season split with Green Bay, I will anxiously await all the Twitter replies about how the game “didn’t matter that much” to the Packers and how the Vikings should “have fun losing their road playoff game.” Unreasonable rationalization from Packers fans would be the greatest gift I could receive this Christmas.

Happy Skolidays, everyone.

Prediction

Vikings 27, Packers 23


And now for the rest of my Week 16 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Texans over BUCCANEERS

**SATURDAY TRIPLE HEADER ALERT!** I love that the NFL is giving us a full day of games on the Saturday before Christmas. I’m sure no relationships at all will be strained because football fans are avoiding last-minute shopping.

And this matchup is actually really good! The Bucs are scoring at will and the Texans need to win to ensure an AFC South title. If Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were healthy I might pick the upset, but I can’t do it with them out.

PATRIOTS over Bills

The Bills are in the same boat as the Vikings—their only chance at a division title is winning and then hoping the 11-3 division leader they play this week also loses to a terrible team next week. With Buffalo virtually locked into the fifth seed regardless of outcome, maybe they save a little bit for a potential playoff rematch.

Or maybe they just pull the upset because their defense is really good and New England’s offense isn’t. It’s definitely possible, but I can’t pick the Patriots to lose two home games in a row.

49ERS over Rams

If this happens on Saturday, the Vikings are in the playoffs before they kick off. If it doesn’t happen, the Vikings have a better chance at getting the fifth seed. So either result is technically good! But if the 49ers win the Vikings can still get the fifth seed, and I don’t want to deal with two (or more) days of “Vikings missing the playoffs” doomsday scenarios. So...go Niners.

FALCONS over Jaguars

I wonder if Dan Quinn has been spending this week of practice telling his players that the Jaguars are actually one of the best teams in the league. That seems to be the best way to ensure an Atlanta win these days!

DOLPHINS over Bengals

This might literally be the worst game of the year. There aren’t even any real draft stakes involved! If you watch any of this game on purpose, seek help immediately.

Ravens over BROWNS

Cleveland’s 40-25 win at Baltimore in Week 4 keeps looking weirder and weirder as the season goes on. I have a feeling the Ravens will return the favor and then some, clinch the top seed in the AFC, and then get rested for their playoff run.

TITANS over Saints

If Tennessee loses this one they’re likely out of the playoffs. If New Orleans loses this one they can still get a bye. This upset pick might look dumb by halftime, but beware the team with lots more to play for.

COLTS over Panthers

I’ll take the home team in the “Can We Go Back to October When We Were Good?” Bowl.

Giants over REDSKINS

Fire this game into the sun.

Steelers over JETS

An upset here actually wouldn’t shock me; that Pittsburgh offense really struggles to move the ball and the Jets are less terrible lately. But I have to give the nod to the team fighting for their playoff lives over the team playing out the string.

BRONCOS over Lions

After two straight weeks of picking against the Broncos in my survivor pool (now 13-2 on the season), I’m taking them over the godawful Lions this week. Please, Detroit: if you have any semblance of good football left in you, kindly save it for next week.

Raiders over CHARGERS

I had a good joke about the Chargers lined up here, but Philip Rivers just threw it to another blogger.

Cowboys over EAGLES

The play-in game for the right to host a team with a much better record on Wild Card weekend! I think Dallas simply has the better team here. Of course, they have had the better team in several games they have lost this year. But in this case, I think it’ll be enough to beat the banged-up Eagles.

And then we’ll have to deal with two weeks of “don’t sleep on this Cowboys team!” articles leading up to the playoffs.

SEAHAWKS over Cardinals

The most Seahawks thing ever: being the top seed in the ridiculously loaded NFC with a point differential of about +35.

Chiefs over BEARS

The NFC North already got an early Christmas present when the Lions announced that they’re sticking with Matt Patricia next year. Think we could get another one with the Bears giving Mitchell Trubisky a contract extension?

Last week: 10-6
Season so far: 140-83-1