The Green Bay Packers’ four-year reign atop the NFC North is over.
It seems only a matter of time before this bitterly frustrating season is over, as well.
The Minnesota Vikings used a strong defensive effort to beat the struggling Packers 20-13 on Sunday night at Lambeau Field. The Vikings (11-5) have won three consecutive games to earn the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, and they’ll host No. 6 Seattle (10-6). Green Bay (10-6) lost its second in a row, fell to the No. 5 seed and will play at No. 4 Washington (9-7), the NFC East champ. Both games will be played on Sunday, with the Green Bay-Washington game set for 3:40 p.m. Central.
“We’re a playoff team,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “There’s six NFC teams in the playoffs. We’re the fifth seed. We had an excellent opportunity at home to be the third seed. Didn’t take care of it. There’s not a big difference, trust me, between one and six.”
It took two years for Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to turn Minnesota from a five-win doormat into a division champion.
“I’m proud of this football team,” Zimmer said. “You know, we started out two years ago trying to build something special. These guys fight, they work hard, they do things right. Like I told them last night, it’s not a surprise that we are where we’re at. They’ve earned this opportunity and we have to go take it, and I think that we played with a lot of heart tonight.”
Aaron Rodgers helped Green Bay rally from a 20-3 deficit to pull within 20-13 with 5:35 remaining in regulation. Vikings returner Cordarrelle Patterson broke into the clear on the ensuing kickoff, but kicker Mason Crosby stripped the ball around the Green Bay 30, and Packers safety Micah Hyde recovered at the 23.
A 17-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Randall Cobb, a 37-yard long ball to wide receiver James Jones and a 13-yard screen to fullback John Kuhn made it first-and-goal at the 10. A completion for no yards, a 3-yard sack by defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and an incompletion made it fourth down from the 13. After the Packers burned their second timeout, Rodgers' end-zone pass to Jones was intercepted by Xavier Rhodes.
“It was just going over the Packers all week” on film, Rhodes said. “Aaron Rodgers getting out of the pocket and then guys scrambling, going deep, so I just stayed on my man, turned around and I was just in the right place at the right time.”
The Vikings almost gave the Packers another chance on the next play from scrimmage, with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson botching the exchange, but Peterson pounced on the loose ball. Minnesota punted, and Green Bay took the ball at its 42 with 58 seconds to play and no timeouts.
Rodgers converted a fourth-and-10 with a 12-yard completion to tight end Richard Rodgers. A subsequent 1-yard completion to Richard Rodgers made it fourth-and-2. The Packers managed to snap the ball before time expired, but Aaron Rodgers' Hail Mary was deflected in the end zone as the Vikings clinched the victory.
"When you look at the tape, you understand that you left plays out there," Jones said. "Give credit to their defense. But when you look at the plays, there’s some plays that we could’ve played that could’ve changed that game and we didn’t make them. Their defense did a great job, but that’s over, man. We’re in the playoffs, we punched our ticket, we did our job to get a ticket into the playoffs and now we’ve got to take it from there."
The Viking scored the game's first touchdown with 10:32 left in the third quarter. Taking possession at their 42 after the defense forced a three-and-out on Green Bay's opening possession of the half, Bridgewater hit receiver Jarius Wright for 11, Peterson ran for 10 and receiver Adam Thielen gained 26 on a fly sweep. On third-and-2 from the 3, Peterson appeared to be jammed up at the line of scrimmage but kept churning to get to the goal line for a 13-3 lead.
Given the inept state of the Packers' offense, the margin seemed insurmountable barring a big Vikings mistake. And that was exactly what Bridgewater did. On third-and-5 midway through the third quarter, Bridgewater faced pressure from linebackers Mike Neal and Joe Thomas before throwing a left-handed to receiver Mike Wallace. Hyde made a one-handed, backhanded interception at the Minnesota 43.
It didn't matter, though. On third-and-12, Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen beat left tackle Josh Sitton and swatted the ball away from Aaron Rodgers. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn scooped up the loose ball and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown that gave Minnesota a 20-3 lead with 4:28 to go in the quarter. It was the third defensive touchdown against the Packers in the past two games.
Green Bay finally put together a scoring drive after going empty on six consecutive possessions, with Aaron Rodgers hitting Richard Rodgers for a 16-yard touchdown, making it 20-10 with 13:27 to play in the fourth quarter.
The Packers got a stop as the Vikings briefly went without Peterson (back) and got right back to work on offense. A 25-yard completion to Jones was the big play, but Griffen sacked Rodgers on third-and-3 to kill the drive. Crosby's 43-yard field goal brought the Packers within 20-13 with 5:35 remaining.
“We came out and kind of threw caution to the wind and took some shots down the field and made some plays,” Rodgers said of the comeback.
The Vikings led 6-3 at halftime, sparked by their special teams and a defense that held Green Bay to 104 yards and 1-of-6 on third down.
Minnesota struck first, keyed by a 41-yard run by Thielen on a fake punt. Thielen, the personal protector, took the direct snap and ran to the left for easily the biggest play by either team in the half. The drive stalled, though, as the Vikings called three consecutive passes, with Bridgewater sacked on first down and throwing deep incompletions on the next two before kicker Blair Walsh booted a 39-yard field goal.
Green Bay retaliated with a 15-play scoring drive for the tying field goal. The Packers ran the ball 10 times, including running back Eddie Lacy bulling ahead for a gain of 2 to convert a fourth-and-1 from Green Bay's 41.
The defenses settled in from there, with both teams punting twice and getting one first down apiece, before the Vikings took the lead on Walsh's 32-yarder with 2:55 left in the half. Bridgewater hit Thielen for 16 and running back Jerick McKinnon for 15 to start the drive, and a personal foul on linebacker Clay Matthews moved the ball to the 11. On third-and-8, Matthews sacked Bridgewater to force the kick.
Linebacker Julius Peppers’ second-quarter sack gave him 10.5 for the season. He has nine career seasons of 10-plus sacks, tied with John Randle for the fourth-most in NFL history behind Bruce Smith (13), Reggie White (12) and Kevin Greene (10).
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.