Things didn’t go well for the Vikings from the get-go in Green Bay.
They began with a three and out. The defense did well to force a three-and-out for Green Bay, and Josh Metellus did a great job to block another punt, setting up the Vikings at the Packers one-yard line. But the Vikings couldn’t punch it in from there, and they lost starting center Austin Schlottmann to what looks like a season-ending ankle injury. They got a field goal but gave up a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff. It looked like Jalen Nailor got out of his gap assignment on the return, apparently thinking the returner took a different route, which opened up the hole that led to the touchdown.
Then they had another 3-and-out. By this time it was becoming apparent that Lambeau Field was pretty sloppy as receivers were slipping left and right. The Vikings were able to stop the Packers on a 4th down conversion attempt with a big sack of Rodgers, but then the Vikings had another turnover on a tipped ball intended for TJ Hockenson which ricocheted straight to another Packers defender. The Vikings also lost starting right tackle Brian O’Neill to a calf injury on that play, ending his evening. Unclear the severity of the injury at this point, but he will undergo an MRI tomorrow to determine the severity. He was chasing after the interception return and came up gimpy and fell to the ground. The Packers took that interception for a touchdown. At that point the Packers had 14 total yards on offense, and 14 points.
The Vikings then missed a field goal on their next drive, while the Packers were able to make a field goal on the following possession, making it 17-3. The Vikings had another interception on the following drive, and the Packers were able to turn the short field into a touchdown. The Vikings missed another field goal on the next drive, while the Packers made another one to go up 27-3 at halftime.
Sloppy Field Proved a Disadvantage Most Vikings Didn’t Prepare For
Lambeau field was so sloppy that several Vikings had to change to different cleats during the course of the game, and undoubtedly contributed to the poor production offensively. It was clear the footing was making it difficult for receivers to make their breaks and keep their footing, which favored defenders throughout the game. The only Vikings receiver to practice in and use 7-stud cleats for more sloppy fields was KJ Osborn:
O’Connell: "When I did see some guys on the ground, having some issues, they put those cleats on. Hopefully it's a lesson for all of us, that we don't need to go through some of that early to rectify that problem."— Ben Goessling (@BenGoessling) January 2, 2023
Osborn said he practiced in 7-stud cleats during the week. He'd slipped in warmups last year at Lambeau, and switched to the 7-stud cleats. Practiced in them this week to loosen them up and get his feet used to them; said he didn't have issues on Sunday.— Ben Goessling (@BenGoessling) January 2, 2023
Osborn was the Vikings’ most productive wide receiver until Jalen Nailor in garbage time. Kevin O’Connell said that coaches recommended the 7-stud cleats for more sloppy fields, but they can’t force players to wear them. And many didn’t until later in the game when it became clear they needed to change them. An unforced error in preparation for several players- including Justin Jefferson.
Comeback wasn’t in the Cards
The Vikings playing with a third-string center and backup right tackle didn’t help things either. Chris Reed had trouble snapping the ball at the right time on several occasions, leading to multiple 5-yard penalties the Vikings’ offense could not afford. And although the Vikings had comeback many times this season, the circumstances of this game didn’t lead one to believe another big comeback was in the offing. The Packers offense wasn’t particularly dominant, but the Vikings offense wasn’t either as gains in the passing game were difficult to come by with the sloppy field and offensive line situation.
The Vikings defense forced another Packers punt to start the second half, but after putting together a nice drive (aided with a change of cleats) the Vikings had another turnover- this one a strip of Kirk Cousins and fumble recovery by the Packers. That seemed to kill any chance of a Vikings comeback.
The Packers were able to drive for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, further removing any chance of a comeback. Still, understanding the need to score in a hurry, Kirk Cousins took a deep shot to Adam Thielen on the next drive, but was intercepted on the play. Green Bay scored a touchdown on the following drive as well, and it was 41-3.
The Vikings continued to play some starters on the next drive, and Kirk Cousins ended his night with a 47-yard touchdown to Jalen Nailor to make it 41-10. The defense forced another punt, and the Vikings had a nice two-minute drive engineered by Nick Mullens, with a few more completions to Jalen Nailor, for another touchdown. The Packers went victory formation and the game was thankfully over.
Bad Game. Move On.
It was a bad game offensively for the Vikings, in large part due to the sloppy conditions and being down two offensive linemen, but it was also clear the Vikings struggled to match Green Bay’s energy in this game. After all, this was a playoff game for the Packers- lose and their season ends next weekend. It may end anyway if they lose to the Lions.
But for the Vikings, they’ve been waiting for the playoffs to start for a month now. And even though this game was significant in that a win would preserve their second seed position and keep them alive for the first seed if the Eagles lose to the Giants (who have nothing to play for) next weekend, it’s tough to match a do-or-die attitude when it isn’t do or die.
This is another game to basically flush and move on from. Offensively, I’m not sure there is much to gain from watching receivers slip and slide much of the game. One lesson to take away is to wear the right cleats when the field is sloppy. Another is to have a couple good plays for a one-yard gain in a goal line or 4th-and-short situation. They’ve struggled with play-calling in those situations lately.
Defensively, the Vikings held the Packers to 315 yards- well below their average for the season. 14 of the Packers 41 points were scored by their defense or special teams, while their offense was also aided by three other Vikings turnovers and the short fields that resulted from them.
Special teams was also a net liability, despite the blocked punt, with the kickoff touchdown allowed- a big momentum builder after the goal line stand- and also the missed field goals.
Give the Starters a Break
The injury to Austin Schlottmann and especially Brian O’Neill should make it clear to Kevin O’Connell that they cannot afford to lose any more players in a meaningless game at Chicago. Starters should be rested next weekend. The Vikings have lost the second seed to the 49ers, so playing starters next week in hope that the 49ers lose to the Cardinals would be asinine. The Giants are locked into the sixth seed win or lose next weekend, so they’ll likely be resting their starters.
At this point, barring a 49ers loss next weekend and a Vikings win, the Vikings will be hosting the New York Giants in the wild card round in two weeks. Getting ready to face the Giants should be the focus next week, not the Bears. Resting starters, getting healthy, game-planning for the Giants should be the priority.
Another NFC North Team Getting the 7th Seed isn’t Bad for the Vikings
At this point the Packers have the best chance between the Seahawks, Lions and Packers to gain the seventh seed. If the Lions win at Green Bay next weekend and the Seahawks lose, the Lions are the seventh seed. If the Lions win and the Seahawks win (they host the Rams), the Seahawks are the seventh seed. And if the Packers beat the Lions, they’re the seventh seed.
But whichever team gets the seventh seed, they’ll likely play at San Francisco in the wild card round. For a variety of reasons, I think either the Lions or the Packers would be a tougher matchup for the 49ers than the Seahawks, who the 49ers have already beaten twice. A Packers or Lions team would enter the playoffs with some momentum and, however unlikely, could beat the 49ers. Should that happen, and the Vikings beat the Giants, the Vikings would get another home game against either the Cowboys or Bucs. The Lions or Packers would then travel to Philadelphia- assuming they clinch the first seed. Should the NFC North prevail in both divisional round games, the Vikings would host the NFC Championship at US Bank stadium.
But at this point, the Bears game is meaningless. Losing to the Packers on a sloppy field is meaningless. All that matters, and has mattered for a few weeks now, is getting healthy and prepared for the postseason. A week off for starters to rest and rehab is part of that, while coaches begin game planning for the Giants.
It will be nice to see what some of the backup players can do against Chicago. Chris Reed could certainly use some more game snaps at center, and I’d love to see how far along the backups are in their development. And who knows when they may be needed for a stretch during the playoffs.
Should the Vikings rest their starters against Chicago next weekend?
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