World’s Best Preview: It’s Time for the Packers’ Stars to Shine

With the biggest games of the season on the horizon, the Green Bay Packers need more from Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. Plus, some painful numbers on the offensive line, Tim Masthay's record season, deep looks inside the Vikings and much, much more in the biggest and best preview anywhere — guaranteed.

If the Green Bay Packers are going to beat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday — and, more importantly, use that victory to make an unexpected playoff run — it will be up to Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews to put their words to action.

“We’ve won a lot of games here,” Rodgers said after the Packers were destroyed 38-8 at Arizona last week. “When you play long enough, you’re going to be on the wrong side of it sometimes. But I have confidence in those guys and myself that when it matters for all the marbles, we’re going to show up.”

On Thursday, Matthews echoed Rodgers’ thoughts. The defense has been the strength of the Packers for most of the season but wilted under the pressure of the Cardinals’ elite offense.

“The guys on our team understand when it’s time to turn it on,” Matthews said. “Aaron made mention of it last week that, when it counts, we’ll show up. You never want that to be the case — you want to show up day in and day out — but we’ve been in this situation before, coming down to the last game playing for the NFC North, playoff seeding, byes. We find a way to rise up and win those meaningful games.”

Rodgers hasn’t had a Rodgers-esque season. He’s clearly been weighed down by the myriad of problems on offense — lack of game-breaking talent at receiver, inconsistency in the backfield, injuries on the offensive line and a change in play-caller. Without Rodgers, the Packers might be 5-10 instead of 10-5. However, he hasn’t donned a red cape and flown to the rescue, either. Rodgers, who entered this season ranked No. 1 all-time in passer rating, No. 3 in completion percentage and No. 3 in yards per attempt, checks in at No. 13, No. 27 and No. 31, respectively, in those categories this season. The offensive efficiency has gotten worse rather than gotten better as the season has progressed.

“You know what? I’ve prepared the same way, I’ve competed the same way,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “We haven’t had the same type of stats that we’ve had in years past, but we’ve rattled off 10 wins, another playoff berth. We’ve accomplished a lot. The individual stuff, I’ve kind of been-there, done-that. I’ve had those types of years that you can be really proud of. This year, I’m very proud of, as well. I’m proud of the way we’ve competed and I’m proud of the way we’ve kept it together through the adversity and through the ups and downs that have come at us this year. At this point, it’s all about winning games and making a run in the playoffs.”

On an undermanned offense, Rodgers has to carry the load. On the other side of the ball, Matthews has to be the defensive equivalent to Rodgers. Without question, Matthews is surrounded by better talent than Rodgers, but against playoff competition — when games often are decided by just a few key plays — Matthews has to be a force. On running plays, he needs to make the play. On passing plays, he needs to impact the quarterback. He’s done that for most of the season but has gone back-to-back games without a solo tackle.

“I need to find a way to be more impactful,” Matthews said. “Playmakers have to continue to show up. You can’t have games where you have one or zero tackles despite being disruptive. It’s obviously a stat that you don’t like hearing. I’ll just continue to do what I need to but, at the same time, be a little more impactful and be around the ball.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Matthews’ stats don’t “tell the full story.” However, since recording two tackles for losses in the Packers’ win at Minnesota on Nov. 22, he has just one tackle for loss in the last five games combined.

“He’s a disruptive guy,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “When he plays fast, it cleans things up for the rest of the guys. Do you want to see nothing on the (stat) sheet? No. And he doesn’t want that, either. But he needs to look forward to this weekend and being the same type of player he was in the first game, because that’s all that matters. Right now, we’ve got to stop 28 (Adrian Peterson) in the run game, limit the quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) and what he can do in the pass game and with his feet. This will be a big week for all of us.”

A FINE LINE MESS

Last year, the Packers surged into the playoffs and to the precipice of the Super Bowl on the strength of an indomitable and indestructible offensive line.

Over the final eight regular-season games, the Packers allowed the second-fewest sacks (nine) and rushed for the sixth-most yards (1,137) on the fifth-best rushing average (4.72). For Green Bay, the key was talent meeting continuity. Other than right tackle Bryan Bulaga missing the Week 2 game vs. the Jets, Green Bay’s offensive line started every game together. During the last six regular-season games, when Eddie Lacy was third in the NFL in rushing, plus the two playoff games, the Packers’ line missed a total of 18 snaps in eight games.

It’s been a different story this season. Green Bay’s starting five has missed a total of nine starts — Bulaga has missed four, center Corey Linsley has missed three and right guard T.J. Lang and left tackle David Bakhtiari have missed one apiece. Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton has played in every game but has been on the injury report for the past eight weeks with either a sore back or ankle. He hasn’t been a full participant at practice even once during that span.

Those injuries have shown up on gamedays. Over the past eight games, the Packers have allowed the second-most sacks (31) and rushed for the 11th-most yards (1,010) on the 13th-best average (4.17).

Offensive line coach James Campen preaches the value of practice to rep the opponent’s looks and to hone fundamentals. But injuries, he said, are nothing more than an excuse.

“I just don’t live in that world and I don’t think any of them would say that,” Campen said. “It’s just not acceptable.”

Last year, the Packers’ starting five played 93.8 percent of the snaps. This year, that group has played 83.4 percent of the snaps. Contrast that to Minnesota’s starting five. Center John Sullivan (back) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (Achilles) have spent the entire season on injured reserve. However, the Week 1 starters have started every game this season. While Green Bay’s front five has missed almost 900 snaps this season, Minnesota’s line has missed a grand total of 14 snaps — with half of those coming last week, when left tackle Matt Kalil missed the final seven plays of a blowout win over the Giants.

“Definitely, the best offensive lines play together week in and week out,” McCarthy said. “If you look at teams that are successful in offensive lines that play 16 weeks or so together, there’s a direct correlation to that, so that’s definitely been the case in Minnesota. It’s definitely a cohesive group.”

Minnesota’s defense is excellent. The Vikings are sixth in points allowed, sixth in sack percentage, fourth in the red zone and eighth on third down. Green Bay allowed nine sacks last week against Arizona — as many sacks as the final eight regular-season games of last season. Getting Bakhtiari (questionable) and Bulaga (probable) back for Sunday would provide a huge lift.

“They’re a very fundamentally sound football team,” Campen said. “It reflects the head coach (Mike Zimmer). You saw what he built there defensively in Cincinnati and now the last two years there (in Minnesota). They’re disciplined, they hustle, they do all the little things that put yourself in position to be a good defense. It is a big challenge. We as an offensive line have to perform a heck of a lot better than we did last week. We’re going in the right direction. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge and a lot of fun.”

MASTHAY NETS A RECORD REBOUND

In 2010, Tim Masthay’s first season as the Packers’ punter, he tied the team’s record for net punting average. He broke that record in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Then came last season — the second half of it, to be specific. After boasting a net average of 39.0 in 2013, Masthay had only one game with a net of better than 36.0 over the final 10 games (including playoffs) of 2014. He finished the season ranked 30th in the league with a net average of 37.0.

To no one’s surprise, the Packers signed Cody Mandell to challenge Masthay. Masthay looked forward to the challenge, saying repeatedly that he had let the team down. On Aug. 10, the Packers released Mandell. It seemed to be a premature ending to the competition but it’s clear they made the right decision.

With a net average of 40.3, Masthay is in position to obliterate the franchise record.

“All of the Green Bay Packers’ records mean a lot and it means a lot to me to be a Green Bay Packer,” Masthay said. “Any time I’m able to be a part of a record or a piece of history around here, it’s really meaningful to me. If our punt unit could finish out well on Sunday night and stay over 40 in net and break the record, that would be fantastic.”

Masthay’s net average ranks 12th in the league, with five of the punters ahead of him doing the bulk of their work in domed stadiums. Unbelievably, Masthay’s net average has gotten better as the weather has worsened. During the past four games, his net average of 44.9 ranks No. 1 in the league. Two of those games were in domes but the other two were in the rain against Dallas and at Oakland. Masthay had net averages of 44.7 vs. the Cowboys and 48.5 vs. the Raiders.

“Our guys covered really well, protected well, and I’m hitting the ball well,” Masthay said. “When you put those two pieces together, it usually goes pretty well.”

Masthay is quick to share the credit. It’s been a group effort, to be sure, with Green Bay ranking No. 1 in the NFL with just 4.0 yards allowed per punt return. In the last six games, the Packers have yielded 7 punt-return yards.

Masthay knows there’s work to be done. Minnesota’s special teams are one of the best in the league. Punt returner Marcus Sherels ranks 10th with a 9.4-yard average. That comes on the heels of ranking sixth in 2014 and second in 2013. Cold temperatures and the potential for treacherous footing only add to the challenge.

“It’s a huge game, tough opponent,” Masthay said. “Certainly the cold makes our jobs more difficult. We have a big challenge ahead of us.”

INSIDE THE VIKINGS

— Adrian Peterson is running nothing like a man who was suspended for most of last season and whose 31st birthday is approaching.

Peterson enters Sunday’s game with a league-high 1,418 rushing yards. He is 64 yards ahead of Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, putting him in position to be the second-oldest rushing champion in NFL history. In 2004, Curtis Martin was 31 when he won the rushing title with the Jets. 

“No, it’s not a barrier,” Zimmer said. “He continues to amaze me with the things that he can do when he runs — the speed, the toughness, the cutting ability, the vision. He’s a special kind of guy and I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Peterson has rushed for at least 100 yards seven times this season, with Minnesota winning all seven games. In 16 career games against the Packers (including the 2012 playoffs), he has rushed for 1,792 yards — 112.0 yards per game and 5.32 yards per rush — with 13 total touchdowns. He’s topped 100 yards in eight of those games, though Minnesota is just 2-5-1- in those games.

The Packers kept him under wraps in the first matchup, with his 45 rushing yards tied for his lowest output and his 3.46-yard average being the second-lowest.

“At the end of the day — and I know you’ve heard it before — but it takes all 11 against that guy,” McCurley said. “You’ve got to be clean in your gaps, you’ve got to have great tempo, you’ve got to be able to play off of blocks and finish to the ball because, like his name goes, the ‘All Day’ thing, he runs every run with the same violence, whether it’s his first carry or whether it’s his last. You can’t take a play off, you can’t be soft in your gap and you’ve got to finish every play.”

— Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater won’t wow anyone with his numbers — his passer rating of 90.6 ranks 21st and he’s been a dink-and-dunker who relies on yards after the catch. Nonetheless, he’s coming off three consecutive strong performances, with 734 passing yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions equating to a second-ranked 123.2 passer rating. The Vikings lost the game but Bridgewater threw for 335 yards in a three-point loss at Arizona. Rodgers, of course, had a miserable game last week vs. the Cardinals.

McCarthy said Bridgewater — the final pick in the first round of the 2014 draft — plays with the experience of a veteran, a byproduct of starting 36 games at Louisville.

“I think he’s definitely one of the young, ascending quarterbacks in the league,” McCarthy said. “I’m very impressed with him. Very elusive, gets the ball out of his hand. It’s a very experienced quarterback. You can tell he’s played a lot of football, has managed an offense at the line of scrimmage. His cadence, his command is definitely ahead of the curve for a guy in his second year. I was impressed with his mechanics and mannerisms at the line of scrimmage.”

While Bridgewater doesn’t have to carry the load like Rodgers does, Zimmer didn’t dispute the notion that this is a big game in the arc of Bridgewater’s career.

“I guess you could say that,” Zimmer said. “I hope that he’s got a lot of big games and I hope he has a lot more. I hope it’s a big game for our whole football team. We don’t put everything on Teddy’s shoulders so it’s not like he has to be the centerpiece of our football team. We’re more about the team aspect of things — playing good special teams and defense and being efficient offensively. That’s how we’re built. It’s not really about just one guy.”

— Two of the league’s top special teams will play a big role in determining field position for what should be a season-ending slugfest.

Since Mike Priefer arrived as Minnesota’s coordinator in 2011, the Vikings are tied for the NFL lead with 11 special-teams touchdowns. In 2015, Cordarrelle Patterson ranks second in the NFL with a 30.6-yard average on kickoff returns. He has four touchdowns in three seasons, including scores of 105 yards vs. Chicago and 101 yards vs. Seattle this season. He had a 109-yard touchdown vs. Green Bay as a rookie. Adding to the challenge will be the January chill, which will limit the distance of Mason Crosby’s kickoffs.

“He’s the real deal,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “He’s playing Seattle and Seattle really does a great job against him the first four times and then that fifth time he’s to the house. You’ve got to fit the blocks right. When you’re running as fast as you can and you’re reading on the run, everything’s got to register and then you’ve got to make sure you fit it right. If you fit it wrong, it turns into big plays. This guy’s a big, strong guy. He carries people. He runs fast. I think he’s the best in the league.”

Sherels is no slouch on punt returns. He’s scored three career touchdowns, including one this season. He’ll be a major test for Tim Masthay and Co.

“They’re a return philosophy but they’ll pressure us,” Zook said. “Just like I would do, they’re going to check out the new center (Rick Lovato). They’re going to see if he can hold up to twists and so forth. He’s a good player. He’s fast, he’s shifty, he’s tough. Going into the game last time, he was their leading tackler on special teams. He’s a good football player.”

— When Lovie Smith took over as Chicago’s coach in 2004, he made it clear that knocking the Packers off of their NFC North perch would be his No. 1 priority. When Zimmer took over as Minnesota’s coach in 2014, he made no such proclamation.

“No, I never did that,” he said. “When I came here, it was all about trying to get this team better. That’s all I really cared about, and I figured that each game would take care of itself and, the better that we got, the better we have an opportunity to compete in the division.”

And now, that opportunity is at hand. By blowing out the Bears and Giants in back-to-back games, the Vikings have a shot at dethroning the Packers.

“That’s been our goal is to win that division and we’re in a spot where we can do that,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “That’s what we want to get done. Obviously, it’s not easy to win in Lambeau against a very good football team, but that’s where we’re at and that’s what we’re looking to accomplish.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— The Packers and Patriots are the only teams with seven consecutive playoff berths. That’s a lot of big-game success in the bank for the Packers that the Vikings just don’t have.

In a similar winner-takes-all battle for the NFC North crown, the Packers beat Detroit 30-20 in last year’s regular-season finale. In Week 17 of the 2013 season, Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone and hit Randall Cobb with a long touchdown pass in the final moments to give the Packers a 33-28 victory at Chicago to beat out the Bears for the North. In 2010, the Packers won their last two games — including 10-7 in the finale vs. Chicago — to get in the playoffs and set up their championship run.

“That’s how you want it, though,” Rodgers said. “That’s why we play the game. It’s for big games like this. It’s a playoff mind-set and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play.”

— The Packers swept their NFC North rivals on the road but are in danger of being swept at home, with an 18-16 loss to Detroit on Nov. 15 and a 17-13 loss to Chicago on Nov. 26. If the Packers can’t beat the Vikings, it would make some dubious history. The Packers haven’t gone winless at home against division teams since 1973, when they tied Detroit but lost to Chicago and Minnesota, and they haven’t lost every game to their division foes since 1968 — the first year of the post-Lombardi era.

“You look back at that Chicago and Detroit game, and it was bad football being played,” Bulaga said. “We’ve got to clean up a lot of things to get ready for this one. But we have plenty of confidence that we can play well and get the job done, but Minnesota is good team and playing well.”

The Vikings won’t be a pushover. After losing 20-3 in Week 1 at San Francisco and 23-20 at Denver in Week 4, the Vikings are 4-1 on the road and 2-0 on the road within the division.

“We’ve played good for the most part on the road,” Zimmer said. “It’s not really about where you play, it’s how you play. We’ve played pretty good wherever we’ve been, for the most part. We didn’t win them all, but we played pretty good, so it’s more about performing, performing under pressure, performing with the crowd noise and all the different things, and that’s kind of how we approach it. It doesn’t really matter where we play, it’s how we play.”

— With a win, Green Bay would win its fifth consecutive division championship — a franchise record and the longest streak in the NFC. In NFC North/NFC Central history, only Minnesota’s six consecutive division crowns from 1973 through 1978 is a longer run of success.

“We feel like it’s our division to lose. We take pride in that,” Sitton said. “Minnesota is obviously a very good football team. They’ve turned things around over there, and they’ve got a great squad, but we feel like this is our division. We’ve got to go take it.”

— Green Bay leads the series 59-42-2, including its 30-13 win at Minnesota on Nov. 22. Rodgers didn’t have a big day — 16-of-34 for 212 yards and two touchdowns — but in 16 career games against them he’s completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 3,976 yards with 34 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 115.7 passer rating. He’s topped a 100 rating in 10 of his last 13 vs. Minnesota.

NUMBERS WORTH NOTING

— What’s wrong with Green Bay’s offense? Plenty, obviously, but the first place to look should be first down. In a league in which teams average 5.45 yards per first-down play, the Packers are averaging a league-worst 4.45 yards. The run-pass split on first-and-10 is close to equal, with 182 runs vs. 210 passes and scrambles. Green Bay is averaging 3.40 yards per rush and 5.44 yards per pass.

Minnesota, surprisingly considering Peterson’s presence, is 30th with 4.87 yards per first-down play. On the other side of the ball, Green Bay ranks 16th with 5.47 yards allowed per first-down play and Minnesota is 24th with 5.72.

— Lack of success on first down means trouble on third down — and that plays into the success of these attacking defenses. Green Bay ranks fifth in the NFL with a sack rate of 7.51 percent while Minnesota ranks sixth at 7.35 percent.

That’s bad news for both quarterbacks, who have not benefitted from great pass protection. Green Bay has been sacked on 7.94 percent of its dropbacks, which ranks 24th. Rodgers has been sacked a league-worst 30 times since Week 8. Minnesota ranks 29th with a sack on 9.66 percent of its dropbacks.

“He’s a great coach,” Rodgers said of Zimmer. “He’s done some stuff that’s kind of translated across the league with his seven- and eight-man pressures and the variations behind it.”

— Despite what happened at Arizona last week, both teams are on the right side of the turnover coin at plus-5. Three of those giveaways against the Cardinals were from Rodgers, with an interception and two fumbles. Zimmer, however, holds Rodgers in the highest of regards, even though his defense held Rodgers to a season-worst 47.1 percent completion rate last month.

“He had a couple turnovers last week, but this guy is really something,” Zimmer said. “He’s amazing, the places he can throw the football, the arm strength he has, the vision, accuracy. He’s the real deal and whatever his stats say, I don’t really care. I just know when I watch him, it’s watching a different level guy than you see a lot of times. There’s good quarterbacks and there’s great ones and this guy is great.”

— Julius Peppers was shutout last week but enters this game with 9.5 sacks. He is seeking his ninth season of 10-plus sacks, which would tie former Vikings great John Randle for the fourth-most in NFL history. Bruce Smith (13), Reggie White (12) and Kevin Greene (10) lead that list.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

 Peterson has been great against the Packers. Lacy has been almost as good against the Vikings. In five career games against Minnesota, Lacy has rushed for 94, 110, 105, 125 and 100 — averages of 106.8 yards per game and 4.68 yards per carry. He’s rushed for five touchdowns and added a sixth touchdown through the air.

“He’s been running like that since he got in the league,” Smith said. “To me, I see the normal Eddie Lacy. Runs hard, runs downhill. He’s got a sneaky bit of make-you-miss in him that you wouldn’t expect from a big guy. He’s got a really good spin move to break tackles. You want to get a few guys around the ball.”

Lacy, who has been battling a rib injury, claims he is unaware of his success against the Vikings. He came up big last month with his 100-yard game — which came on the heels of 78 rushing yards over a five-game span. By our unofficial count, 77 of his yards came after contact.

“You’ve got to try and make him stop his feet,” Zimmer said. “He gets a head of steam and he can roll you. You’ve got to do a good job of being in the right place, getting off the blocks and getting more than one guy there. We can’t be, ‘You go make this tackle, I’m going to take care of my spot here.’ You’ve got to hit and get off.”

— While Lacy had a big game against the Vikings, Peterson was limited to just 45 rushing yards on 13 attempts. That led Zimmer to say the Packers “outphysicaled” the Vikings — a harsh word considering the style of team Zimmer is building.

“It’s not a hard thing to swallow because it’s the truth,” Smith said. “I guess it’s more embarrassing from a pride standpoint but it’s not a hard thing to swallow because that’s what we put on tape the last time. …

“No matter what happens, when it’s over, the other team should have known they were in a scrap, they were in a fight with us — in between the whistles, obviously. That’s something that we let him down the last time we played the Packers. That’s the identity that we want to have.”

— If defenses win championships, it’s fitting that these teams will be slugging it out for the NFC North. Minnesota has allowed less than 20 points in 11 of 15 games this season, tied with Kansas City for tops in the league. Green Bay is tied for fourth with nine such games but failed to play to that level last week against the Cardinals, particularly with their two-minute drill that resulted in a touchdown just before halftime.

“We have to take and learn from that,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Everybody you’re playing this time of the year are good teams. You have to find a way to make those plays that we didn’t get made in the game yesterday. I think our guys understand that. They know the challenge that we have this week with the Vikings coming in here. We have a lot of respect for the Vikings.”

According to STATS, the Packers have allowed only nine points on game-opening possessions this season, tied for the best mark in the league. They haven’t allowed a first-drive touchdown for 18 consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFL.

— Last week, the Packers used a fake punt with Masthay to pick up a first down. This week, Zook is on-guard for the Vikings to do the same. One from last November remains fresh in Zook’s mind. At Chicago, the ball was snapped to the personal protector, who handed the ball to the right wing, Andrew Sendejo, on the fly for a gain of almost 50 yards.

“They’ve got fakes ready for us, I’m sure,” Zook said. “They ran one against Chicago last year that I’m worried about for this week. It was snowing, it was a division game at the end of the season and it’s a tough, tough one to stop. Our guys have seen it that, hopefully, if they do run it we can react to it.”

THE LAST WORD GOES TO …

Rodgers, on the feeling of beating the Bears and winning the NFC North in Week 17 of the 2013 season: “Yeah, it’s exhilarating, it’s incredible. You know, especially after what we both went through with the injuries — his being that lower leg and obviously my collarbone. To be able to come back the same week and connect for two touchdowns that game in a must-win for us to get into the playoffs, host a home playoff game, that’s what it’s all about. Obviously, we didn’t play well the next week, but it’s moments like that, and obviously Detroit this year, which, you keep coming back for and you never know when it’s going to happen like that. That’s why you love the opportunity every week to go back out there and try and prove yourself.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.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.


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