EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. The Minnesota Vikings earned their spot as a playoff team this season, finishing a seven-win turnaround from last year and taking the final four games in must-win fashion to advance to Saturday"s NFC playoff opener at Green Bay.
Minnesota proved it can play with anyone in beating four playoff-hopeful teams over the past four months. And as the NFL has seen in recent years, beware the hot team come playoff time. The New York Giants won three of their final four games last year to resuscitate their playoff hopes and won the Super Bowl. A year earlier, the Packers got hot at the right time in winning the Super Bowl.
The Vikings hope the trend continues. Five things to watch as Minnesota tries to become the latest team to surprise in the playoffs:
1. The maturation of Christian Ponder.
Like it was during the Vikings surprising start, the biggest key to the late-season push was the play of Ponder, Minnesota"s inconsistent second-year starting quarterback. Running back Adrian Peterson"s big season really got going in Week 6, but the Vikings lost four of five games during a stretch in which Peterson had eight straight games over 100 yards rushing. What made the difference in winning the final four games was Ponder"s progress after a series of bad games in the middle of the season.
Minnesota outlasted Green Bay last weekend in a shootout because Ponder made big throws on third down and had his best game as a pro with 234 yards passing and three touchdowns. The Packers chose not to blitz Ponder last week, and he had the time to find the holes in the secondary. Peterson will be the defensive focus again, but Green Bay has to make sure Ponder doesn"t make the big plays he did last week. Ponder was the difference in the two previous meetings. He threw two interceptions in a Packers win at Lambeau Field. He made the necessary plays last week.
2. Trying to slow down Aaron Rodgers.
The Vikings aren"t likely to stop Rodgers, maybe the single most important player in Saturday"s game. In 11 career games against Minnesota, Green Bay"s reigning MVP quarterback has a 116.4 quarterback rating, passing for an average of 258.2 yards per game with 24 touchdowns passes and four interceptions. The Vikings" defense will just need to slow Rodgers down enough that Minnesota"s ground-and-pound offense can stay with the Packers big-play offense.
One key aspect to limiting Rodgers is the health of Vikings veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield. Winfield is a savvy player who knows how to play Rodgers and his receivers, even if he doesn"t have the size or speed to match up with the likes of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones. Winfield gets by instincts and playing physical, which will test his pain tolerance with the broken bone in his hand. Winfield will wear a hard cast on Saturday after he wore just a small pad last week and was forced out of the game.
When Winfield was in the game last week, Rodgers was 8 of 15 for 57 yards and a touchdown to Jennings on the play Winfield aggravated his hand injury trying to jam Jennings at the line of scrimmage. After Winfield left, Rodgers was 20 of 25 for 308 yards and three touchdowns, particularly picking on Winfield"s replacements, A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels. Taking Winfield"s spot in the slot, Sherels easily surpassed his season high with 32 snaps on defense. According to Profootballfocus.com, Sherels was targeted 10 times by Rodgers on Sunday and gave up nine catches for 162 yards. On Green Bay"s final offensive drive, Jefferson gave up three catches for 21 yards and a touchdown and was called for two pass interference penalties, one of which was declined. Winfield is as critical to his team Saturday as anyone outside of Rodgers.
3. Another 200 for Peterson?
Saturday marks the third game between the two teams in 34 days, and for the third time the Packers are saying they won"t let Peterson run all over them. Peterson had five straight 100-yard rushing games heading into the first game at Lambeau Field, and Green Bay focused on stopping the Vikings" only offensive threat at the time. Peterson still ran for 210 yards. Last week, the Packers said it wouldn"t happen again. Not quite, but Peterson still had 199 yards rushing. His 409 yards rushing is the fourth-most in a single season against an opponent by anyone in NFL history.
So, of course, Green Bay is saying much of the same this week. As Peterson has shown this season, against more teams than Green Bay, talking about stopping Peterson is easier than doing so. Saturday"s game, philosophy-wise, should be the same. The question becomes which team is able to follow through on the talk.
4. Handling the cold?
Minnesota has lost all five of its outdoor games this season, including games earlier this season at Green Bay (45 degrees at kickoff) and Chicago (41 degrees). The Vikings have the type of power, running team that should thrive in any element, but they"ve still struggled and haven"t played a game in the cold temperatures expected Saturday in a few years. The Packers have the experience but not the type of team that would typically flourish in cold weather. Even Jennings said this week that he"d rather be playing indoors.
Snow isn"t expected, but temps will range in the low 20s for Sunday"s game, which could cause slipperiness with the ball and the field. Saturday will be the coldest game Ponder has ever played after growing up in Texas and playing at Florida State. Same goes for Minnesota"s poised rookie kicker Blair Walsh, who is from Florida and played at Georgia. Saturday"s game could very well come down to how both of them handle the cold, the feeling of the ball and the footing. The team better able to handle the weather likely will win the game. Turnovers have defined the Vikings" season. When they are even or better in turnover differential, they are 10-0. Of course, that means they were 0-6 when they turned the ball over more than their opponent. Minnesota finished minus-1 in turnover-differential this year, while the Packers were plus-7.
5. The return of two playmakers.
Green Bay gets back two of its biggest playmakers for Saturday"s game. Veteran safety Charles Woodson missed both of the earlier games this season while trying to return from a broken collarbone. He"s been cleared to play Saturday and adds a different dimension to the Packers" defense. He"s the veteran leader of a relatively young secondary. He"s smart and instinctive and can take advantage of young quarterbacks like Ponder. He intercepted Ponder twice in one game last year. Woodson had 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one interception before missing the final nine games.
Cobb had six catches for 62 yards in the first meeting with Minnesota but missed last week with knee and ankle injuries. He returned to practice this week and is expected to play Saturday. Cobb had a breakthrough season for Green Bay with a team-leading 80 catches and 954 yards receiving. He was second on the team with eight touchdowns. Cobb, though he might not immediately step back into the return roles, averaged 25.4 yards on kickoff returns and 9.4 yards on punt returns. He"s become an emerging, big-play weapon in the Packers" offense and just adds another weapon for Rodgers.
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