On Sunday night, the Vikings will step onto what might literally be the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field for the penultimate game of the 2021 season against the Packers. Since Minnesota won the first matchup 34-31, the Packers have gone undefeated and clinched the NFC North while the Vikings lost three of five and are on the brink of being eliminated from the playoffs. three games clear of the second place Vikings. So what’s the latest with the Packers since these teams last met six weeks ago? Who’s looking like they’ll play, and who’s going to be out? Is this the last time the Vikings will face Rodgers in a Green Bay uniform? Once again, I caught up with Jon Meerdink of Acme Packing Company to gather some intel on the Vikings rivals before the teams square off. Our Q&A is below.
1. The Packers have already run away and hidden with the NFC North title. Now it’s time for Green Bay to focus on clinching a bye and making a deep playoff run. Are the current expectations for this team “Super Bowl LVI or bust”? How do you think the 2021 team stacks up compared to previous iterations that have made the NFC Championship Game in recent years?
I think the expectations very much are “Super Bowl or bust” this year, and while that wouldn’t be fair in most seasons (it’s hard to win the Super Bowl!) the Packers have put themselves in a scenario where that’s really the only positive outcome. They brought everybody back from their ill-fated 2020 squad (even Kevin King!) and structured their cap so that the spring of 2022 is going to force a reckoning. Even if Aaron Rodgers ends up coming back next year, the 2022 squad is going to look incredibly different from this year’s group.
As to how they compare to past seasons, I think they’re somewhere between 2019 and 2020. Their defense is better than 2019, but their offense has taken a step back from where it was in 2020.
2. Green Bay is still missing a handful of key players, but it sounds like many of them will be available for a postseason run, and possibly even returning this week. What’s the latest on the injury status of David Bakhtiari, Jaire Alexander, and NDSU legend Billy Turner? (Yes, I went to North Dakota State. How did you know?) Are there any other players that have missed time but could be making their return on Sunday?
David Bakhtiari sounds like he’s still a ways off, which is a bummer, because December 31 marks exactly one year since he tore his ACL. Alexander was activated from injured reserve on Wednesday, but it sounds like he, too, is going to need a bit more practice time before he’s back in game shape. It’s not impossible that he’ll be on the field on Sunday, but Week 18 seems more likely. As a side note, it’s still weird to say Week 18.
Billy Turner is a bit of a mystery. Matt LaFleur has been cagey on his status, and of the three I think he’s the least likely to see the field again in the regular season. It’s truly a bummer, because this could be his last year in Green Bay and he’d been having his best season with the Packers at the time of his injury. Hopefully he can put some more solid play on tape yet this year before cashing in this spring — whether that’s with the Packers or somebody else.
We should also note that Marquez Valdes-Scantling returned to practice this week after a stint on the COVID list. He’s the only real burner the Packers have at receiver, and getting him back in the lineup would be huge.
3. On the field, Aaron Rodgers continues to dominate. Despite playing with a broken pinky toe that he is constantly reminding everyone about, Rodgers is currently the frontrunner to win his fourth NFL MVP award. His excellence is indisputable, even for certain fan bases that have loathed his existence for the past decade and a half. His future, however, remains much less certain. Do you think Rodgers’ future with the Packers depends on how he and the team perform this postseason? In your heart of hearts, is Rodgers a Packer for the 2022 season? (Please say no. The rest of the NFC North has had enough of this.)
I lean barely toward Rodgers playing with the Packers next season. It’s far from a sure thing, but I think the incentives are strongest for both sides to kiss and make up. Life is just going to be better for Rodgers in Green Bay than practically anywhere else, even if Davante Adams follows him wherever he’d end up going. Plus, Rodgers is keenly aware of how long it took Brett Favre to mend fences in Green Bay, and for a guy as image-conscious as he clearly is, it’s hard to believe he’d really go through with the “forcing his way out” path. He’s already tried it once, and the Packers refused to blink.
But I do think there’s a significant amount at stake as to his future in the postseason. Last year’s loss to the Buccaneers seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth, not so much for the fact that they lost, but how. Kicking a field goal instead of going for it in the red zone late. Kevin King getting exposed again and again. A lack of weapons at receiver. Those things seemed to weigh on him through the offseason, and I think the extent to which they end up feeling addressed in the playoffs could determine his future.
4. What do you consider to be the Packers’ biggest weakness both on Sunday night and going into the playoffs? How do you want the Packers to address that weakness going forward?
The Packers’ biggest weakness is their tendency to start slow. They’ve really stumbled out of the gate the last few weeks, and it’s allowed teams to prey on their greatest weakness on defense: slowing down the run. If they can get into their offense quicker, it’ll help them stave off the run game. If they don’t, teams will continue to hammer them, and the good teams they’ll face in the playoffs will inevitably bury them.
I’d like them to abandon the idea of “establishing the run” early, a surprisingly antiquated idea to which Matt LaFleur continues to cling. Against the Ravens, who started a handful of practice squad guys along with a couple of athletic-looking fans in the secondary, the Packers came out running and dutifully went to a three-and-out on their first possession. Between that and a bad punt, Baltimore had a chance to go up double-digits before the Packers had even touched the ball twice. The Packers need to be more aggressive, and they should be.
5. With how the past few weeks have gone, half of either team’s roster could suddenly become unavailable between now and kickoff. But as of right now, what’s your prediction for Sunday night’s outcome?
Well, it might end up looking like a preseason game, but I think the Packers still should win. They’ll still have Rodgers and Adams, and it should be mostly all hands on deck on defense. That should be enough, but the Packers have kept things closer than they should each of the last two weeks. I’ll say they do that again, but still get the win, 27-21.
Thanks again to Jon for being a good sport and providing some great insight from a rival’s perspective. Stay tuned for much more as we approach kickoff on Sunday night.