EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers areboth coming off losses, but are still in the thick of the NFC playoff race, adding to the significance of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.
Both teams need a win on Sunday against each other. Chicago (8-3) still leads the NFC North, with Green Bay (7-4) and Minnesota (6-5) right behind. The Packers are penciled into a Wild Card spot entering the weekend, with Minnesota on the outside because of losses to Tampa Bay (6-5) and Seattle (6-5).
Besides the usual rivalry (that has been lopsided in Green Bay's favor with four straight wins), Sunday's game is full of playoff implications. A Packers' win could essentially put a stranglehold on a playoff spot and drop the Vikings into a precarious position. A Minnesota win would again strengthen its relevancy a season removed from a 3-13 record and give the Vikings an inside line to a playoff berth. Here are five things to watch Sunday as Minnesota renews its rivalry with the Packers:
1. Which team shows up healthier?
The Vikings have been among the healthiest teams in the NFL this season, but few absences are as damaging as the loss of leading receiver Percy Harvin to Minnesota's offense. Harvin is doubtful after missing practice Thursday and Friday and is likely to miss his third straight game. The Vikings have a list of key players on the injury report, but all of them, running back Adrian Peterson, defensive end Jared Allen, cornerback Antoine Winfield, tight end Kyle Rudolph, right tackle Phil Loadholt, safety Harrison Smith and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley included, are expected to play.
Perhaps no team has been hit harder by injuries than Green Bay. The Packers are likely to get receiver Greg Jennings back this week. Jennings has been out since Week 3. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Sam Shields, linebacker Clay Matthews and run-stuffing defensive end C.J. Wilson have already been declared out. Those losses are ontop of running back Cedric Benson, tackle Bryan Bulaga and linebackers Desmond Bishop and Nick Perry, who are allon injured reserve. Receiver Donald Driver is listed as questionable. Starting defensive end Ryan Pickett, left tackle Marshall Newhouse and safety M.D. Jennings are probable.
Even without Harvin, Minnesota probably wins at least in terms of the health of several key players.
2. Can Allen and his defensive linemates re-acquaint themselves with Aaron Rodgers?
Earlier this week, Allen, the runner-up in last year's defensive player of the year voting, and Rodgers, last year's MVP, expressed their mutual admiration and the fun they've had going against each other over the years. If Rodgers would have it his way, the two will only catch up after the game. Allen wants the chance to greet Rodgers a bit earlier and follow up on the three sacks he had against Green Bay last season. Allen has 13 sacks, tied for his second-highest total against one team, in nine career games against the Packers.
Allen, along with defensive end Brian Robison, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion and pass-rush specialist Everson Griffen will need to get to Rodgers Sunday. Green Bay has allowed 37 sacks this season, the second-highest total in the league, and as Rodgers noted earlier this week, much of the damage has come with opponents relying simply on their defensive line to apply pressure. Allen had 13.5 sacks at this point last season when he finished with a league-high 22. After going three games without a sack, his longest streak since October 2010, he's tied for 19th with seven sacks. Rodgers has had success against Minnesota (a 116.5 quarterback rating, 19 touchdowns to three interceptions) and has the receiving options to make the Vikings' 13th-ranked pass defense suffer.
3. The Vikings know how to use Percy Harvin; would they know how to contain him?
Because they will essentially get their chance in matching up against Green Bay's mulit-talented receiver Randall Cobb, in many ways a Harvin clone. Cobb is one of those weapons for Rodgers, but he does more than catching the ball (a team-high 58 catches for 613 yards). Like Harvin, he also can run the ball and is moved all over the offense to create matchup problems. He's also a dangerous returner, averaging 11 yards per punt return and 26.1 yards per kickoff return.
Cobb and Harvin are two of the most unique, dynamic offensive playmakers in the entire NFL and Cobb has come into his own in his second season as perhaps the Packers' top offensive threat outside of Rodgers. Playing inside in the slot in three-receiver sets, Cobb will probably be covered most often by veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, unless Minnesota chooses to line up rookie cornerback Josh Robison on Cobb to get a speedier, athletic matchup. Regardless, the Vikings will have to know where Cobb is at and hopefully have learned something from watching Harvin in practice the past few years.
4. Has Minnesota cured its dropsies?
A focus this week was trying to solve the issues that receivers had in last week's game dropping passes. The Vikings had seven dropped passes last week by five different players. Receivers took extra time after practice this week, even catching passes from the "Jugs" machine to solve the problem. Especially without Harvin, quarterback Christian Ponder needs someone he knows he can rely on to catch the ball in big spots. No one other than Harvin has proven to be that guy.
Green Bay has received some strong play from its young secondary, especially rookie Casey Hayward, who has five interceptions, and second-year cornerback Davon House. The Vikings receivers will need to gain separation and hold on to passes if Ponder is able to get it there. Minnesota showed in last week's loss to the Bears that the passing game is needed to sustain drives and keep opposing offenses off the field. Rookie receiver Jarius Wright is one player that is trying to step up and help the passing game. Wright did have one drop last week, but also caught seven passes for 49 yards. In his first two regular-season NFL games, playing without Harvin, Wright has 10 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown and has been the primary receiving threat at receiver for the Vikings.
5. What can Peterson possibly do for an encore?
It's hard to believe Peterson could do much more. He leads the league in rushing with 1,236 yards and has gone over 100 yards rushing each of the past five games. During that stretch, he's averaged at least 6 yards per carry in each game. Last week he had 108 yards rushing on 18 carries and added six catches for another 30 yards. But he did fumble once and was part of a missed handoff exchange another time in last week's loss. Green Bay is 11th against the run this season, giving up 103.8 yards per game while Minnesota owns the league's third-best rushing offense at 147.2 yards per game. However, the Packers are without Wilson, one of the team's top run-stuffers, an underrated option at defensive end and Ryan Pickett is another run stopper who was dealing with an injury in practice this week, even though he's listed as probable. Green Bay has allowed over 100 yards rushing bothof the past two weeks. Detroit's limited rushing attack managed 110 yards two weeks ago and the New York Giants ran for 147 last week. Peterson has had some big games against the Packers in the past, such as last year when he had 175 yards in the first meeting between the two teams at the Metrodome. And if Peterson is able to keep his current roll going, it would be a big boost to Minnesota's offense, and defense in keeping Rodgers off the field.
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