Back in the early summer months at OTAs, the Minnesota Vikings had a goal clearly in mind – take ownership of the NFC North.
The Green Bay Packers have held sway over the division since 2011, winning the last four division championships and, with a win over the Vikings Sunday, they can make it five straight.
However, the last hurdle to their next division championship will arguably be the toughest. The Vikings have had their focus on taking out Green Bay all season and, with just two days until their showdown at Lambeau Field, the Vikings are relatively healthy and are trying to put up their biggest win in the last three seasons.
“Having healthy bodies is really important at this time of year,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “We’re trying to get healthy and play good football at the right time. We’ve done a lot of good things this season and we’ve had the goal of winning the division and getting to the playoffs. We’ve got one of those done. Now it’s time to win the division and get that accomplished, too.”
The game doesn’t have a do-or-die component to it – both the Vikings and Packers will be heading to the playoffs and potentially could play back-to-back games if the chips fall as certain way. The loser Sunday night won’t be eliminated, but it definitely will have a playoff atmosphere.
Safety Harrison Smith said the Vikings have had a successful season, but haven’t had that signature win that puts a stamp on the year. Given the lack of success the Vikings have had with the Packers in recent years, the big-game feel is built into this one and the Vikings will be ready to bring their best in quest of the NFC North title.
“It’s going to feel that way,” Smith said. “It’s a big rivalry for us and we’re both playoff teams. We’ve been on the losing end of things recently with them and we’re looking to change that. It should be that kind of atmosphere because the game is important for both of us moving forward. Our plan was to put ourselves in the position to be right here. We’re in that position and now we have to take advantage of it.”
Whenever a team has dominated its division for as long as Green Bay has, there is a natural resentment that takes place among the teams that have been chasing them. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd has seen enough of it and is ready to do his part to bring the division crown across state lines to Minnesota.
“We’re tired of losing,” Floyd said. “We’re tired of not being up there. We already know what it feels like to not have it. Let’s try something new. It’s a new year. Let’s do something that nobody believed we could do but us. It’s a fight. We’ve got to understand this isn’t an easy team or a layover team. They’re not going to quit in the fourth quarter. We’re going to have to play them hard for four quarters.”
Back when the team was sweating out under the summer sun at Winter Park during the initial minicamp phase, the seed was planted that this could be their year to knock off Green Bay. At the time, guard Mike Harris was hoping to solidify his spot on the roster. He had no idea that, heading into the most important game of the season, he would be making his 16th start of the year.
Those goals seemed distant back in the summer. With the calendar flipping to 2016, the Vikings are two days away from achieving the goal they set in the midway point of 2015 and Harris has to pinch himself at times to make sure it’s real.
“Looking back, I didn’t think I’d be in this position – the starting right guard for this team with a 10-5 record,” Harris said. “It’s what we set our goal to do and we’ve worked hard to get here. For this opportunity to be here, it’s a dream come true. It’s really about the best team winning and us going out and bringing our best to the field on Sunday. It’s awesome to be in position to get what we set our goals to get.”
For those who have been on the wrong end of the Vikings-Packers rivalry for most if not all of their pro careers, the chance to change the positioning of the teams in NFC North is a challenge the Vikings are looking to embrace, not just for their own purposes, but because they’re tired of seeing Green Bay win the division every year and hope time for change is now.
“It’s a great feeling,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “I’m sick and tired of watching Green Bay win the division for how many years it has been. I think it’s our time to finally take control of this division and get some momentum heading into the playoffs.”