With the countdown clock running to the Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers showdown Sunday, steam is growing toward the battle Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Vikings have the opportunity to put the Packers two games behind them with just six to play and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn can’t wait for Sunday to come. He and his teammates are looking forward to the challenge the Packers, who have dominated the Vikings over the last five years, will bring to the team.
Just as the Vikings know they can work toward dismantling Green Bay’s hopes of once again winning the NFC North, Munnerlyn can see it from the Packers’ side. They are desperate having lost three straight and need to pull out of their current tailspin quickly.
“They can’t afford to lose this game,” Munnerlyn said. “They lose this game, they would be two games out, so we’re looking to go out there, compete and get this win.”
Munnerlyn is still relatively new to the border battle between the Vikings and Packers. While there was anticipation leading into divisional games when he played with the Carolina Panthers, he hasn’t been a part of a professional rivalry like this.
The Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers were always key games, but the buildup and the hype – especially this season – is something he remembers from college, but didn’t think he’d be a part of in the NFL.
“We had different rivals, but it wasn’t like this,” Munnerlyn said. “We always had Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa, but that was our division. This rivalry is different. It’s like a college game. It’s like a South Carolina-Clemson or Alabama-Auburn type of thing. It’s definitely a big-time rivalry.”
Munnerlyn cited a couple of reasons for the difference. Teddy Bridgewater is another year into his maturation as a NFL quarterback. Adrian Peterson, who has owned the Packers over the years, missed both games last year. But, more important to Munnerlyn, is the changes he has seen from his first year with the Vikings to his second.
He came in as a recruit of Zimmer’s to play slot corner and, like most of his defensive teammates, it took time for him to learn and get comfortable in Zimmer’s scheme. Much of the personnel is the same, but everything is clicking this year, as the Vikings routinely hold teams to 20 points or less.
He doesn’t see it as a huge departure from last year. It’s simply a matter of the players having a better handle on the defense and being able to understand their roles in it.
“I don’t think there’s a different vibe,” Munnerlyn said. “We’re just one day at a time, one play and one week at a time. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to get too high on one game. You get too high for one game, that’s when you go out and mess up and you don’t play as well. We’re just trying to keep it as a normal game.”
Zimmer’s defense has worked wherever he has been. He introduced it with the Cowboys more than 20 years ago and his last stop before coming to the Vikings was in Cincinnati. The Bengals had been an AFC also-ran for years before Zimmer’s arrival, but once his defense got keyed into it, the Bengals became a playoff regular.
Time has shown Zimmer’s scheme works and one of the keys that Munnerlyn has seen is that it runs at its best once Zimmer has the personnel ideally suited for the scheme.
It was the selling point that he bought into and he is seeing the work and comfort level players have with the scheme paying off now. It is a scheme built on accountability and responsibility and, as players have been able to more clearly define their roles, success has followed.
“He gets the players he wants that can run his scheme,” Munnerlyn said. “The scheme is a great scheme to have once you get it. Once you get it, the sky’s the limit for this defense. That’s what we’re doing this year. I think everybody is on the same page and we’re taking it and running with it.”
There is the very real possibility that a win Sunday could officially signal a changing of the guard in the NFC North. The Packers have held sway over the division for years, but the Vikings have been building a defensive arsenal of like-minded players who are working as a cohesive unit.
If the Vikings are going to take away the top spot in the division, it’s going to be largely due to an oppressive defense that no longer is 11 individuals. It’s one unit working together, hoping to make their own statement that Green Bay’s dominance of the division may well be over.
“We’re communicating well and when people are getting hurt, guys are stepping up,” Munnerlyn said. “That’s the key – everybody understanding their role. That’s something we’re doing. We’re understanding our role and we want to play at a very high level. Guys know that this is the year for us. We’ve been putting in the hard work. We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do. This is the time. The time is now.”