One down, two to go.
The Green Bay Packers won the first of three consecutive NFC North games on Sunday, taking care of the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. They're now two games ahead of the Vikings in the Wild Card race, and continue to control their own destiny in the division after their 23-14 victory.
With the Vikings focusing on the Green Bay passing attack, which included Greg Jennings for the first time since Week 4, the Packers put together arguably their best rushing performance of the season. Alex Green and James Starks split carries, and the Packers managed 152 yards on 36 carries as a group during the game.
The biggest story of the game was, stunningly, the two kickers. Mason Crosby barely made a 30-yard field goal after it bounced off the upright, shanked a 53-yarder at the end of the first half, and put the opening second half kickoff out of bounds. In the 3rd quarter, Mike McCarthy appeared to have lost all faith in Crosby and decided to keep his offense on the field during 4th and 7. The Vikings were caught out, and had to call a timeout to get the right personnel on the field. During the timeout, McCarthy changed his mind and trotted out Crosby, who made a 47-yarder.
Late in the game, Crosby made another kick to ice the contest and put the Packers up two scores. With two minutes remaining, the Vikings got down into Packers territory and needed a field goal to get back within one score, but Blair Walsh missed what should have been a routine kick, essentially ending the game.
Even though Jennings made his return to the Packers on Sunday, he was slightly limited in his snaps. Green Bay started the game with three wide receivers, but without Jennings on the field. A great series of short gains and multiple first downs eventually led to a touchdown, with James Jones making a brilliant catch over the top of A.J. Jefferson. The Packers were gifted a free play when the Vikings jumped offside, and Aaron Rodgers took advantage with a throw into the end zone for a 32-yard score.
Minnesota went three-and-out on their first drive, and Crosby's 30-yard field goal came on the ensuing Packers possession. The Vikings improved after that, and used Kyle Peterson and Adrian Peterson to move the ball very well on their next two drives. Their second drive, a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, featured seven runs by Peterson and four passes to Rudolph, including a 7-yard touchdown score. Ponder was perfect on that drive, but would struggle for the rest of the game.
The rest of the first half belonged to Minnesota, who went into the locker room with a 14-10 lead. That second touchdown came via Peterson, who ripped off an absolutely spectacular 82-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The Packers got into field goal position one more time, just before the end of the half, but Crosby was unable to convert.
Green Bay's injury luck has been awful this season, and got a bit worse during the first half. Both T.J. Lang and Jordy Nelson went down with injuries and were unable to return to the game. Don Barclay stepped in for Lang, and gave a respectable performance at right tackle.
Still, despite the Packers' wide receiver depth and Barclay's solid play, the offense struggled for most of the second half. They were bailed out by Ponder, who was horrendous from the touchdown pass to Rudolph until the end of the game. He set up Crosby's 47-yard field goal with an interception thrown to Morgan Burnett, completely throwing away a 48-yard run by Peterson that got the Vikings into the red zone.
The Packers took the lead just before the end of the 4th quarter, after a Rodgers' armpunt actually happened to work out in their favor. Rodgers made a poor decision to throw into double coverage as part of a passback trick play with Randall Cobb, and was picked close to the end zone. His defense forced a three-and-out, and got the ball back right at midfield. It took just four plays for the Packers to turn that opportunity into a touchdown, with James Starks pulling out a spectacular 22-yard touchdown run.
With the final play of the 4th quarter, Ponder threw another pick to Burnett, giving the ball back to the Packers in their own territory. That supposedly poor field position turned out to be a bad thing for the Vikings when the Packers put together the longest drive in the NFL this season, eating up 11 minutes of clock.
The 18-play, 74-yard drive had four 3rd-down conversions, and was capped by a short Crosby field goal that made the score 23-14. On the ensuing Vikings drive, with just over two minutes remaining, Ponder completed a pass to a wide receiver for the first time on the day. He did his job well enough, getting his team into field goal range in under two minutes, but Walsh failed to make from 42 yards. Down two scores with under two minutes to go and only two timeouts, the Vikings had no chance to get back into the game.
Ponder finished the day with 119 yards on 12/25 passing, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Only three of those 12 completions went to wide receivers, and all three came in the final three minutes of the game. His poor play (and the great play of the Packers defensive backs) completely nullified Peterson's remarkably brilliant 210 yard day.