Forgive the Minnesota Vikings if they are having a difficult time balancing the importance of their Sunday night matchup against the Green Bay Packers with the idea that can’t make this game “too big.”
They just aren’t that experienced in handling the big moments.
About half the players on Minnesota’s 53-man roster have four years of experience or more. On the other side of the equation, they have 11 rookies, including three full-time starters, and another first-year player that was promoted from last year’s practice squad. There are seven players in their second year, including Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater, and seven more in their third year, including Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes.
That 26 players that weren’t even in the NFL the last time the Vikings were in the playoffs. Back in January 2012, when the Vikings lost to the Packers in the wild card round, players like Floyd and Rhodes were preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine, not the NFL playoffs. Bridgewater was still at Louisville and Barr at UCLA, both a year away from even declaring for the NFL draft. Eric Kendricks, Stefon Diggs and T.J. Clemmings, the three starting rookies this year, might have wondered if they had the assets NFL scouts were looking for, and Clemmings was still a defensive lineman at the University of Pittsburgh, not an offensive lineman.
All of those players have no first-hand experience with how to react to a playoff-type atmosphere, and that’s exactly what Harrison Smith, who was a rookie in 2012, is expecting at Green Bay on Sunday night as the Vikings fight for their first NFC North title since Brett Favre was firing with a vengeance – and looking for vengeance – against his former team while wearing purple.
Like Smith, left tackle Matt Kalil was a rookie in 2012 when the Vikings were last a playoff team. And, like many of his teammates, Kalil said the young Vikings can’t try to make too much of their game Sunday night.
“The thing about Green Bay is just playing Green Bay like Green Bay. Don’t make it bigger than what it is,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re not a good team because they are. … Not giving it more than what it is – it is, we’re playing for the NFC North. But if we play our game and don’t beat ourselves, we’re a pretty tough team to beat, too.”
In November, Green Bay beat the Vikings badly, 30-13, but the Vikings had plenty of contributions to their own loss.
They entered that game as the least penalized team in the NFL. On the first play from scrimmage, Kalil was flagged for holding. All told, the Vikings were penalized eight times for 110 yards, and they weren’t limited to offensive mistakes or mistakes by generally inexperienced players. Terence Newman, the oldest player on the team, was flagged for a costly pass interference penalty that netted the Packers 50 yards on a third-and-17 play before halftime. Later in that drive, on third-and-9, Barr was called for illegal contact, and three plays later the Packers took a 16-6 lead on a touchdown pass to Randall Cobb.
Simply, put the Vikings weren’t equipped to overcome first-and-20 on offense and are only slightly better able to handle that now with an offensive philosophy switch that calls for Bridgewater to get rid of the ball quicker with more short-route options.
Several Vikings talked last week about not building up the opportunity they have and making the game too big.
“Coach Zimmer said something to us (last) week and he said, ‘Once we get in the playoffs, the only team that can beat the Vikings is the Vikings,’ and we don’t want to beat ourselves,” Bridgewater said after the Vikings secured a spot in the playoffs with a convincing win against the New York Giants. “We know that we have a big-time game coming up (against the Packers), but we don’t want to make the game bigger than what it is.”
Easier said than done for a team that is sprinkled with veterans like Chad Greenway, Brian Robison and Adrian Peterson. They have tasted the success of getting to the 2009 NFC Championship Game, but desperately yearn to take it a step further with a Super Bowl appearance before their careers are over.
The last time the Vikings faced the Packers, Zimmer had t-shirts printed up with the NFC logo and “North” printed on the front. On the back was a simple message: “Beat Green Bay.”
At least one player was wearing that t-shirt in the locker room after Friday’s practice, but Zimmer said there would be no new t-shirts this week.
The Vikings didn’t “beat Green Bay” on Nov. 22. Instead, they were badly beaten. The Packers entered that game without a sack in their last three outings. They made up for it against Bridgewater, sacking him six times, pressuring him numerous other times and hitting him five more times. He was knocked out of the game momentarily when one hit jarred his shoulder, sending him to the locker room before halftime for a quick evaluation before returning in an attempt to find enough time to loft a Hail Mary before the half. Even that was thwarted when he was flushed from the pocket and forced to throw the ball away under heavy pressure.
He ended with the game completing 25 of 37 passes for 296 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 100.7 rating. That was better than Aaron Rodgers, who completed less than 50 percent of his passes (16 of 34) for 212 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
This time, Zimmer is trying to play it low-key, despite the winner getting the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs and a home game in the first round and the loser having to travel. He said he hasn’t approached this week any different than another game.
“Pretty similar to how I am every week: Here’s what we have to do to win, this is what we didn’t do good last time,” he said Friday. “I’m usually pretty on top of them, so that hasn’t changed.”
But prior to that first matchup, Zimmer built it up. He wanted the t-shirts ordered. He was effusive in his praise of the Packers organization that has had staying power in the division and stocks their team on draft picks.
The temperature of the teams is similar to that first game. Vikings fans are feeling good about their team, just like they were when the Vikings entered Nov. 22 on a five-game winning streak. Packers fans are beside themselves after getting smoked in Arizona last week, just like they were when the Packers entered TCF Bank Stadium on a three-game losing streak.
Yet, despite the different feelings, both teams are 10-5. Both are set up to contend for the division for years to come.
The Vikings know they can’t make the same uncharacteristic mistakes that tormented them in the first meeting.
“We’ve got to play our game. I think we can beat anyone on any Sunday when we play our game,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “When you play a good team, you can’t shoot yourself in the foot, you can’t put yourself behind the sticks, you can’t turn the ball over. We’re going to go into a hostile environment there in Lambeau. We’ll get their best shot, but I do think our best shot is good enough if we play well.”
“I’ll just go back to say if we lose games like that, we’re beating ourselves,” Kalil said. “We had some bad plays. I had some bad plays. It’s just kind of about eliminating those, moving the ball and converting on third downs and just kind of getting in a rhythm. I felt like we never really got in a rhythm in that game.”
This isn’t a win-or-they’re-done game – both teams already have a reservation in the playoffs – but if the Vikings truly want to put Green Bay on notice their reign of division championship is over and could be threatened in the future, this is the game they need.
“You can’t rely on anyone to do your dirty work for you,” Bridgewater said. “That’s why we appreciate Coach Zimmer – that was his message, that we have to embrace the challenge that’s in front of us.”
It’s all there for the Vikings. The division. A home playoff game. An opportunity on national television to show that they’ve arrived.
It will be difficult not to build up the moment, but there are bigger moments ahead. Handle this and they have hope for this month and Januaries to come.