The rivalry between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers is one that has always sparked high emotions among the fans of both teams. A border war with a line drawn when Minnesota and Wisconsin meet, Packers Week is always one that is met with high expectations and added excitement.
Vikings rookie Eric Kendricks is still new to the rivalry, but he has caught the vibe of the rivalry and, given what’s at stake Sunday, he’s quickly picking up on the importance of the rivalry. It’s not that he is unaccustomed to rivalries. He’s been part of them since his formative years, but has come to quickly realize that there is something special about the Vikings-Packers rivalry.
“Rivalries between teams are something you always have,” Kendricks said. “In high school, there’s the team or two that are your top rival. At UCLA, we had some pretty big rivalries with a few teams, but, when I got to Minnesota, it was pretty obvious that your division teams that you play twice a year are rivals, but Green Bay is the one everyone talks about. To me, every game is big, but it seems the attention around a Vikings-Packers game is always a little bit more and you know that this is a rivalry that runs deep.”
When Kendricks arrived in Minnesota as a second-round draft pick, he was immediately the topic of discussion of being the Vikings starting middle linebacker. The point was cemented early in the season when the Vikings traded away his primary competition, Gerald Hodges, to make way for Kenricks.
As he hits the most important portion of his rookie season – a chance to win the NFC North Sunday as a prelude to the playoffs – Kendricks is still feeling healthy and ready to go.
In the world of the NFL, coaches and analysts always talk about the “rookie wall” that some players hit. With the longer schedule and the increase in violent hitting among the elite football players in the NFL, many rookies who were full-time starters have a tendency to wear down in their first 20-game (or more) NFL season.
Kendricks is aware of the rookie wall, but said it isn’t anything he has encountered.
“I heard a lot about that before I got here that the rookie wall thing happens to some guys,” Kendricks said. “Everyone is banged up this point of the season, not just the rookies. I don’t feel anything different. We have a big game coming up and you don’t think about the little aches and pains. We’re excited about our opportunity to be in the playoffs and the chance to win our division this week. Nobody feels great, but we’re all working toward a goal and that’s where all our focus is at.”
His focus on the Packers is different from the majority of his teammates. He’s only met them once, so he doesn’t know the sting of being defeated again and again and again by the Packers. He comes to Sunday’s game with a clean slate and doesn’t know the misery that many of his teammates have gone through.
He is new to the party and hasn’t endured the pain of losing. All he knows from his career is that he got drafted by a playoff team and, rookie wall be damned, he has known nothing but success. He thinks the Vikings deserve to be where they are because, from his experience, the team has earned its spot.
“We’ve put the work in,” Kendricks said. “The NFL is hard. It’s all about how hard we’ve worked and how hard we’ve practiced that everything has come together. It’s always difficult when you’re missing some of your best defensive players, but we’ve had a lot of guys step up and make plays that have helped us win games.”
Every player who has come to the Vikings since 2010 hasn’t known the taste of winning a division title. That has been the private domain of the Packers for years. From Day One with the team, he has known that, if the Vikings want to achieve their goals, beating Green Bay has to be a major component of it.
On Sunday, they have the chance to reach that goal and finally take their place on top of the division and earn a home playoff game the following week against Seattle.
Kendricks is unfamiliar with the repeated sting of losing to the Packers in big games. He’s only done it once. But the goal is in sight and it’s theirs to take. That’s motivation enough.
“It’s been what we’ve been talking about since the start of the season and now it’s within our reach,” Kendricks said. “All we wanted was a chance to play for this opportunity. We are pushing and working hard now that we’ve got that chance and we’re just looking to make the most of it.”