Winning the NFC North title didn’t come easy for the Minnesota Vikings Sunday night in their 20-13 win over the Green Bay Packers. Entering the fourth quarter with a 20-3 lead, they had held Green Bay’s star quarterback Aaron Rodgers to un-Rodgers-like numbers – 15 completions on 23 attempts for 125 yards.
But before they locked down the crown, they had to withstand a classic Rodgers assault that brought the Packers close to coming all the way back from a 17-point deficit.
After opening the game with a 15-play drive on their only possession of the first quarter, discounting a kneel-down to end the first half, on the six possessions Green Bay had in the second and third quarters, four of them lasted just three plays, one went five plays and the other was just six plays long. In that span, the Packers gained just 52 yards of offense.
Then came the fourth quarter.
“It wasn’t fun, to be honest with you,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “It was nerve-wracking. Rodgers is a great quarterback. The Packers are a great organization. Mike McCarthy is a hell of a coach. We were just fortunate to win tonight.”
After running just 24 plays in the second and third quarters combined, Rodgers was forced to open things up once his team got behind 20-3 with 4:28 to play in the third quarter and the Packers responded. In four drives in the final 4:28 of the third quarter and the fourth quarter, the Packers gained 233 yards on 38 plays. In the first 40 minutes of the game, Green Bay had run just 39 plays for 117 yards and had been thoroughly dominated.
The last 20 minutes provided a different story.
Rodgers came out slinging on the drive following Captain Munnerlyn’s 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown and made plays with his arm and his legs, converting four first downs while driving his team 80 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-10.
After the Vikings took three minutes off the clock in a short drive, Rodgers was back at it and, after being clamped down for three quarters, he began gun-slinging. He drove the Packers 59 yards in four plays, taking them from their own 16-yard line to the Minnesota 25. Thanks to a third down sack by Everson Griffen, an incredible individual hustle play that dropped Rodgers for a 5-yard loss that forced Green Bay to kick a field goal, the Vikings still had a 20-13 lead with 5:35 to play.
But when Cordarrelle Patterson brought a kickoff return back 70 yards, it appeared as though the game was over. However, kicker Mason Crosby punched the ball loose and gave it back to the Packers when Micah Hyde fell on the loose ball.
At that point, Zimmer was legitimately concerned that his defense might be too gassed to shut down the Packers.
“I didn’t know,” Zimmer said of whether his defense could withstand the onslaught. “We had some timeouts and I was going to use them if I needed to. We had some guys banged up, so we didn’t have guys going in. We were sucking (air). The no-huddle offense puts a lot of pressure on you. We were only two of (15) on third down, so that hurt us. We didn’t sustain enough drives. We fumbled on the kickoff right after we stopped them and gave them an opportunity to get back in the ballgame when we could have kicked a field goal to put it out of reach. They handled the adversity extremely well.”
Rodgers needed just two plays to get Green Bay back into scoring position – a 17-yard pass to Randall Cobb and a 37-yard strike to James Jones, but, facing a fourth-and-goal from the 13-yard line. Xavier Rhodes intercepted Rodgers and snuffed the drive.
The Vikings averted disaster when a fumbled exchange between Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson was recovered by Peterson, but the Vikings gave Rodgers one last chance with 54 seconds left and no timesouts.
He got his team all the way to the Minnesota 35-yard line, but, unlike his Motown Miracle Thanksgiving night, his game-ending Hail Mary pass was batted down by Anthony Barr and the Vikings came away with the 20-13 win.
It wasn’t pretty and there weren’t a lot of fingernails left chewed by the time it was all over. But the Vikings came away with the win and became the first NFC North team in five years to knock the Packers off their throne as the kings of the division.
Following the game, Zimmer told his players that there is still a lot of work to do, starting with trying to get revenge on a Seattle team that handed them their lunch at TCF Bank Stadium when the teams first met. But, for a moment, he had a chance to reflect on what his team has accomplished and how quickly they have been able to turn things around in Minnesota.
“I’m proud of this football team,” Zimmer said. “We started out two years ago trying to build something special. These guys fight, they work hard, they do things right, they’re good guys off the field. I told them last night that it’s not a surprise that we’re where we’re at. They’ve earned this opportunity and we had to go and take it.”