As the Vikings prepare for the Green Bay Packers Sunday, it will be the first time in more than 20 years that they haven't had to devise a game plan dealing with either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers. Unheralded Scott Tolzien, on the practice squad less than a month ago, will square off against underachieving Christian Ponder – a far cry from the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady matchup that will cap off the NFL's Sunday slate of games.
The Packers have dealt with significant injuries in recent years. Just about every key offensive and defensive player has been hurt and missed time at some point. The year the Packers won the Super Bowl, they led the league in players on injured reserve and still found a way to win a championship.
But when Aaron Rodgers went down in the opening minutes of their Week 9 game against Chicago at Lambeau Field, all of that changed. The Packers were able to survive and even thrive without Clay Matthews, Jermichael Finley, Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb. But, as Matthews pointed out Wednesday, a franchise quarterback in the NFL is a different commodity and the three losses Green Bay has suffered since Rodgers heard a snap in his collarbone is testament to that.
"I think everybody knew how valuable he was when he won the MVP," Matthews said. "He's a leader of this team. That starts with quarterback, even more so with his playmaking ability and what he's able to do each and every week. Obviously, there's going to be a little bit of a dropoff, but that's no excuse for dropping three straight."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy echoed those sentiments, pointing out that the new world of the NFL requires quarterbacks to be able to throw passes accurately in the short, intermediate and deep portions of the field because rules changes have tilted the game in favor of the offense and he's been lucky enough to have Rodgers out there every Sunday when a game begins … until the last few weeks.
"It is a different game now," McCarthy said. "The ability to throw the ball to all quadrants of the field is definitely a priority. I would clearly say from experience, to win a championship, it definitely helps having a franchise quarterback and we're blessed to have Aaron Rodgers."
Tolzien, who was pulled up from the practice squad to be the backup to Seneca Wallace – the Packers have been on the front edge of keeping just two QBs on the active roster, which was viewed as a justified gamble – was forced into the fray when, like Rodgers, Wallace got injured in the first quarter of a game and forced the Packers to go with an untested backup for the second time in two weeks.
Tolzien's numbers have been quite pedestrian other than yards thrown for (619 in two games) – he has just one touchdown in 73 passes and five interceptions, which helps explain his dismal QB rating of 68.2. But McCarthy said he's seen more positives than negatives – other than the glaring interception stat.
"Scott Tolzien has played two games for us and I think he's done a lot of good things," McCarthy said. "The one (downside has been) the interceptions, so that's an area of focus for us."
The Packers have unexpectedly faced the prospect of multiple quarterbacks under center from one game to the next – and within individual games. Christian Ponder got a one-week reprieve and will get the start Sunday, even though many think that, barring a career-type game, Josh Freeman will be the man in December.
The Packers are preparing for the Vikings with the expectation that they have to contain Ponder in the pocket, because, when he's on the move, he can make plays and be dangerous.
"He can make plays with his feet, I think that's what we worry first and foremost about," Matthews said. "When the pocket collapses or when he doesn't find his read, he's been able to get some yardage against other teams. He's very athletic and that's going to be our No. 1 priority – to keep him in the pocket and force him to beat us with his arm."
A win for the Packers Sunday won't change their goals and won't change the eventual outcome of the Vikings season. But a win for the Vikings would go a long way to derailing the Packers season before Rodgers can make it back for the stretch run. For that reason, McCarthy is taking the Vikings very seriously in hopes of ending the Packers three-game losing streak since Rodgers went down.
"We're focused on beating the Minnesota Vikings," McCarthy said. "You get into these division games in November and December, they're big-time games – regardless of the record. We're fully preparing and planning to get ready to win this game."
Given that the Packers play on Thanksgiving Day, it seems unlikely Rodgers will be risked – even in a critical division game against the Lions. If the Packers can win Sunday, they can roll the dice on Tolzien for one more game, give Rodgers an extra 10 days of rest and try to make a four-game run at the end of the regular season to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive. They're frustrated in Green Bay right now, but, nothing is lost until the final whistle blows.
"I don't think you ever come to terms with losing," Matthews said. "You strive to win each and every week. We understand we have to play better. We have a great opportunity in front of us. We're 5-5, that's the reality of it, but we've got two division games with the Vikings and a quick turnaround with Detroit on Thanksgiving. Right now we need to hit this (nine-day) stretch hard and that starts with the Vikings. We're 5-5. That's where we're at, but we can turn this around and we need to start that this week."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Packers looking to keep Ponder contained
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