In an ordinary season, the hype leading up to a Vikings-Packers game would be enormous. Last season, the Vikings needed a season-ending home win against Green Bay to go to the playoffs and set up a postseason rematch. It was one of the high points of the Minnesota-Green Bay rivalry.
Less than a year later, the Vikings are a non-factor in the playoff chase and the Packers are on the verge of falling out of contention themselves. After making an early statement with a 5-2 record to start to the season, Green Bay has lost its last three games without Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers and are currently in free fall.
The Packers were victim of the same confidence level the Vikings had in Christian Ponder last season. So confident were they that Rodgers would stay healthy, they cut every quarterback they had in training camp, signing veteran Seneca Wallace to be the only backup and stashing Scott Tolzien on the practice squad. For a team that had gone 20 years with Brett Favre and Rodgers as their weekly starters, having three different quarterbacks start the last three games has been shocking. Tolzien has run the offense as designed and has solid yardage numbers, but his one touchdown and five interceptions are a big reason why Green Bay has lost its last two games. The Vikings will need to pressure Tolzien, because he is struggling throwing into coverage and, if the Vikings can get him off his mark quickly, he will throw bad passes.
The most pleasant surprise for the Packers has been rookie running back Eddie Lacy. He struggled with an early-season injury, but, since his return following the Packers bye week, he has 22 or more carries in six of his last seven games, a pace that hasn't been maintained by a Packers running back since Ahman Green a decade ago. Rookie Jonathan Franklin and James Starks have both put together solid games this season, but the run offense has been turned over almost exclusively to Lacy. Fullback John Kuhn is also an important threat as a runner and receiver deep in the red zone and has a history of burning the Vikings.
The receiver corps has been depleted due to injury. At the start of the season, slot receiver Randall Cobb was being talked about as a 100-reception receiver, but he's missed the last month-and-a-half with a knee injury. Tight end Jermichael Finley may have his career shortened by a neck injury and he's gone for the season. James Jones has missed time with a knee injury as well, leaving Jordy Nelson as the only receiver who began the year as a starter that is still a starter. Jones is back, but the slack has been picked up by youngsters Jarrett Boykin and Myles White, and the tight end duties have fallen to Andrew Quarless, who, for his career, has been known more as a blocker than a receiver.
The Packers continue to have problems on the offensive line – a bugaboo of the team the last few years. Left tackle Bryan Bulaga was placed on injured reserve before the season started and rookie David Bakhtiari has replaced him. Complicating matters is that right tackle Don Barclay will miss Sunday's game, pushing Marshall Newhouse into the starting job. The Vikings should be able to take advantage of this unplanned weakness of the Packers O-line, because, as there have been concerns over Rodgers' health for the last couple of seasons because of the sacks he has taken, the O-line of the Packers once again appears to be weakened.
While injuries have taken their toll on the Packers offense, it's injuries to their defense that may end up being their undoing on returning to the playoffs. The team has suffered injuries at all three levels of its defense this season. Up front, Johnny Jolly hasn't practiced all week and is listed as doubtful at right defensive end, which will likely push unproven Mike Daniels into the starting lineup.
At linebacker, Clay Matthews has returned to action, but left OLB Nick Perry has been ruled out of Sunday's game and his primary backup (Mike Neal) has been limited in practice. When the Packers have been successful defensively, the linebacker position has been critical to that success. With Perry out and Neal dinged but expected to replace him, the Packers' 3-4 linebacker corps is reduced to just three backups – Jamari Lattimore and rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer. Another injury at that position could be catastrophic for the Packers' postseason hopes.
Even more disconcerting from the Green Bay perspective is the relative health at cornerback. Like the Vikings, the Packers have been decimated in the secondary. Green Bay has seven cornerbacks on the roster, but two of them (Casey Hayward and James Nixon) have both been ruled out and Sam Shields is listed as questionable, but didn't practice all week with a hamstring injury. When a starting cornerback isn't able to practice because of a hamstring issue and the game-time temperature is expected to be at or below 20 degrees, it's difficult to anticipate he can be counted on to play at a high level. The result is that the Packers will enter Sunday's game with just four cornerbacks – Tramon Williams, Davon House, Jarrett Bush and Micah Hyde. One injury would leave the depth razor thin and, with just four safeties on the roster, the Packers have to worry about special teams injuries impacting depth on the defense.
If there is good news from the Vikings' perspective, the Packers have all the looks of a rubber-legged boxer ready to get knocked out. With a Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit next Thursday, Green Bay is critically thin at key positions due to injuries and has two games in five days. If there is such a thing as looking past a team, it may be how the Packers are viewing the Vikings. They would rather be full strength against division-leading Detroit than risk injuries against the 2-8 Vikings. It's a strategy that, at face value, makes sense. But, if the Vikings pull out a win Sunday and the Packers don't rebound against Detroit Thursday, their playoff aspirations could be over.
From the looks of Green Bay's thinning roster, a Vikings win isn't that far-fetched.
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.
Preview: Packers thinned by injuries
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