With their dominant 41-17 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Green Bay Packers continued their march to the playoffs and ensured that the two teams would split their series for the fifth time in eight years – preventing either team from getting a 2-0 record a third time.
As is tradition, the split nature of their series does not reflect their records or the closeness of the standings. Instead, it’s been a testament to the power of familiarity, stakes, and preparation.
Preparation seemed to be the difference; the Vikings were victims of bad luck, but they were greater victims of their poor execution.
The Minnesota Vikings Were Unprepared
No drive better encapsulates how unprepared the Vikings seemed than the Packers’ second drive of the third quarter, which they took into the fourth quarter. It started with a fumble caused by nose tackle Kenny Clark, who was lined up on right guard Ed Ingram. He bulldozed through Ingram, found himself against backup right tackle Oli Udoh and muscled his way through that to force a strip sack of Kirk Cousins, which he then recovered.
Cousins, who had been holding on to the ball for far too long, missed that star receiver Justin Jefferson was lined up against pass rusher Preston Smith and predictably broke open immediately.
The Vikings defense forced a third-and-ten and then lined up against a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback and several-time MVP in the middle of a career resurgence with only ten men on the field. The Packers converted.
Perhaps in an effort to make up for that, they followed that up several plays later on the next third down they saw with 12 men on the field.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, that’s illegal.
That penalty – which perhaps wouldn’t have mattered, as they also committed defensive offsides on the same play – pushed the Packers to the Minnesota 12-yard line when they could have forced a field goal. The Packers turned that into a touchdown two plays later.
That series wasn’t the lone series they couldn’t execute. The Packers ended up scoring in nearly every way imaginable. Keisean Nixon, perhaps the best returner in the league now that he’s taken over for Amari Rodgers, scored his first career return touchdown seconds after the Vikings put up the first points in the game.
Darnell Savage, benched a few weeks ago in place of Rudy Ford, picked off Kirk Cousins five minutes later and returned the ball 75 yards for a touchdown. The pick was one of the three that Cousins threw on the day.
The Vikings also saw a Mason Crosby field goal, a Rodgers rushing touchdown, an AJ Dillon rushing touchdown, and a Rodgers passing touchdown, caught by tight end Robert Tonyan.
On offense, Minnesota couldn’t get much going. The Packers decided to move cornerback Jaire Alexander around to follow Jefferson on a majority of snaps and bracketed him with a safety on top. That double team turned out to be effective, holding Jefferson to a career-low one catch for 15 yards.
Critically, one of Cousins’ interceptions came as his target, Jefferson, fell to the ground. It wasn’t the only time a Cousins target hit the floor before any contact, and it wasn’t because of injury.
Lambeau Field was slippery, and a number of Vikings, including Adam Thielen and T.J. Hockenson, had issues staying upright. The solution came in the form of different cleats – those with seven studs instead of the customary five.
That the Vikings had those cleats on hand wasn’t luck; the equipment staff, head coach, and players knew these cleats were necessary, with the coaching staff emphasizing these cleats early in the practice week.
But knowing how to prepare and preparing are different. Many players didn’t put on the cleats during the week and didn’t start the game in them. After a few bad series, they ended up changing cleats and playing with much surer footing. Players like receiver K.J. Osborn, who did wear the seven-stud cleats in practice all week and to start the game, never had issues with footing throughout the match.
Errors and changes in fortune can come about because of chance just as much as a lack of preparation. The first is excusable, but the second isn’t. The Vikings weren’t prepared to play a road game in January, an embarrassing fact for a team stocked with veterans and armed with the knowledge they needed in order to succeed.
The Green Bay Packers Are Poised To Roll in the Playoffs
On the Packers side, this result extends their winning streak to four and keeps them alive for the playoffs. They needed to win out to make it and, so far, have accomplished that goal. They still need a win next week against the Detroit Lions, who just put together a huge win over the Chicago Bears and themselves are a different team in the second half of the season.
But in this game against the Vikings, we saw why the Packers were favored. They played more efficient football on both sides of the ball, and they put together some of the exciting things we saw in the past few weeks.
While the point total overstates their offensive output, the offense still put up 27 points on their own before pulling their starters fairly early in the fourth quarter. The connection to Christian Watson wasn’t quite what it has been over the past few weeks, but consistent connections to Tonyan, Randall Cobb, and Allen Lazard were big for a team that got out to a big lead early and didn’t need the offense to do too much.
More importantly, the Packers’ defense showed up big. They benefited from two injuries along the Vikings’ offensive line, forcing Minnesota to play their third-string center and backup right tackle, but they took advantage of that opportunity.
Cousins was under constant pressure, whether it was from the strong interior now bolstered by a heavier snap count for T.J. Slayton or the improved depth brought on by bringing in Justin Hollins from the Rams. Eight quarterback hits and two sacks later, it’s easy to see why the offense was out of sync and could only score three points before the offense began pulling various starters.
Of course, devoting extra attention to Jefferson likely played the biggest role in the tepid Vikings offensive output – negative 0.20 expected points per play with negative 0.38 expected points per Kirk Cousins dropback – they also stuffed the run and capitalized on targets to other players. Whether it was recovering an interception that flew off tight end T.J. Hockenson’s hands or recovering the Cousins strip sack, the Packers saw mistakes from the Vikings and turned them into problems.
The Vikings, on the other hand, couldn’t get anything out of their opportunities. A blocked punt that brought the Vikings offense to the 1-yard line turned into a field goal, and a turnover on downs turned into an interception. They missed two field goals, which means they ended five consecutive drives in functional turnovers – off of missed field goals, interceptions, or fumbles, the Packers were handed the ball at their own 36, 40, 40, 24, and the Minnesota 45.
On those drives, they drove the ball 61 yards, 70 yards, 23 yards, 71 yards, and 45 yards. And that’s where the offense’s 27 points came from.
The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers Might Be on Opposite Trajectories
It’s hard to prove anything in one game. But certainly, the Packers-Vikings outcome suggests that the Packers’ recent revival is meaningful. It also raises questions about how the Vikings can handle themselves in the playoffs when they play so inconsistently.
Over the past three weeks, we’ve seen Cousins play some of the best football of his career. But that didn’t appear against the Packers, and it’s fair to wonder if that was just an anomaly.
Still, the Vikings have clinched playoff position and have the luxury of experimenting without too much risk. They have more latitude – and margin for error – on figuring out what’s wrong and finding a way to fix it by the time the postseason rolls around.
Hopefully, that fix includes counting to 11.