Will there be a changing of the guard in the NFC North on Sunday night?
The Green Bay Packers host the Minnesota Vikings in a winner-takes-all showdown at Lambeau Field. The winner will improve to 11-5 and earn the No. 3 seed and a first-round home game. The loser will fall to 10-6 and hit the road to start the playoffs.
The Vikings have the momentum of back-to-back blowout wins at home against Chicago (38-17) and the Giants (49-17). The Packers must bounce back quickly after getting demolished at Arizona (38-8).
"It’s going to be tense," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "It’s two teams lining up trying to accomplish something special. We’ve had an up-and-down season, but there’s been some great moments of enjoyment and then, obviously, some frustration based on the lack of consistency at times. But we love this game, we’re blessed to be able to play and be compensated the way we’re compensated. So, we go out there every week, rely on our preparation and expect to play well, and that’s why when we don’t, it’s frustrating. But when we do, it’s obviously pretty special."
The Packers haven't played a "special" caliber of football too often this season, which makes this situation similar to when these teams were getting ready for their Nov. 22 meeting in Minneapolis. The Vikings were riding a five-game winning streak while the Packers had lost three consecutive games in miserable fashion to Denver, Carolina and Detroit. Green Bay, of course, beat the Vikings 30-13.
In a Wednesday morning conference call, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer pointed to penalties (eight), sacks (six) and “being outphysicaled, to be honest with you” as the reasons for that outcome. It was a performance that seemed out of character.
“I don’t know about that,” Zimmer said. “I think they played really well. They played physical. I don’t know what our character (is). You know, each game is so different, it’s hard for me to say it was out of character. I think they just played better than we did.”
Minnesota’s defense appears to be back on track. The Vikings were smashed 38-7 at home by Seattle on Dec. 6, then lost 23-20 at Arizona with safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Linval Joseph on the inactives list. The Vikings are back to full strength – and it showed in the victories over the Bears and Giants. New York had scored 30-plus points six times, including 35 vs. powerful Carolina the week before, but had three turnovers and one third-down conversion against the Vikings.
“It sure helps (to be healthy),” Zimmer said. “Those three guys are really good football players, and quite honestly it was probably good that some of our younger guys went in there and performed pretty good, I think, because it gave the team confidence that if guys go out you can still perform well and play good. But it is much better having them and, obviously, this is the time of the year that you want to start to get on a roll or peak or whatever you want to call it.”
While his defense is healthy and perhaps playing its best ball at the end of the season, Zimmer is taking nothing for granted entering this game. He’s seen enough of Rodgers to have ample respect for what the Packers are capable of doing. So
“We’ve played pretty good for most of the year,” Zimmer said. “We’ve probably been opportunistic the last couple of weeks – getting some turnovers and things like that. We were good on third down last week. Each week is a different week. This Green Bay team – Rodgers, I watch him and I’m in awe of the things that he can do, the way he throws the ball, the way he moves in the pocket, the vision that he has. I’m in awe of this guy and have been for a long time.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.