The stakes were high enough the last time the Minnesota Vikings Green Bay that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, one of the least gimmicky guys in his profession, ordered clothing for the organization to commemorate the occasion.
The NFC North logo adorned the front of the all-black T-shirts. Beat Green Bay was the message on the back.
Minnesota didn’t achieve that goal. Not even close.
This time, the game means even more than it did on Nov. 22, when the Packers brought their three-game losing streak, uncharacteristic struggles on offense and second-place status to Minnesota. They left with a 30-13 victory, some badly needed confidence, and control of the division.
The Vikings will take the unsettling memory of their performance that afternoon to Green Bay on Sunday night for the last game of the NFL’s 2015 regular season. It will decide the NFC North title.
Yes, the loser will still keep playing as a wild-card team, but the Vikings have seen enough of their fiercest rival dominating the division. They’re more than eager to beat the Packers for the first time in seven matchups and be NFC North champions with at least one home game in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“This is what it’s all about this time of the year. It’s time to buckle up and keep grinding. We know the opportunity is there in front of us,” said linebacker Chad Greenway, one of three players on the active roster who were around for that last division title.
So don’t expect to see any souvenirs around Winter Park this week. The motivational display that probably wasn’t necessary in November sure won’t be now.
“No T-shirts this week,” Zimmer said after the Vikings beat the New York Giants 49-17 to clinch their place in the postseason after a two-season absence.
There will be plenty of video, though, of that performance against the Packers six weeks ago.
“I’m going to talk to them about the things we didn’t do good in the last ballgame, and the things we have to improve on in order to win,” Zimmer said on Monday. “I don’t know that this is a big motivational kind of week. It’s more about preparation and doing things right and performing under pressure.”
If the Vikings (10-5) weren’t grounded enough after losing to Green Bay, they were thoroughly humbled Dec. 6 during a 38-7 loss to Seattle. Their response to the lopsided defeat by the Seahawks resulted in a loss, too, but they showed plenty of resilience in falling 23-20 at Arizona on Dec. 10. Since then, the Vikings have won twice by a combined score of 87-34.
“I think that we’ve learned the kind of mentality that we have to have these last four weeks,” Zimmer said.
Belief in an ability to win is part of that. So is the underdog mindset the demanding 59-year-old, who was passed over so many times for head coach positions in the past, has unabashedly tried to instill in his players.
“I don’t think anybody is really worried about us,” Zimmer said, assessing the daunting field that was set for the NFC playoffs on Sunday.
Why not, coach?
“There’s Arizona and Seattle and Green Bay and Carolina. There’s a lot of pretty good teams out there,” Zimmer said, matter-of-factly as usual. “They’re probably not really worried about us.”
Before they get there, of course, the Vikings have this rivalry rematch to focus on. Just what they would have hoped for when the season started.
“I kind of figured that the last game would always mean something with the Packers,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.