There were an unlimited number of key moments in the Green Bay Packers’ 29-29 tie with Minnesota on Sunday that one could point back to as potentially game-clinching. In a frustrating game in which the Packers could not put the Vikings away, penalties, field goals, timeouts, and drops could be looked at as several deciding factors.
But the true turning point of the ball game may have come in the form of short third down attempts in two possessions sandwiched around the end of the third quarter.
The third down stats as a whole were not stellar for Green Bay. The defense surrendered a 50% conversion rate (7-14), while the offense earned a new set of downs on just four of 13 third-down opportunities. But a defense that had played impressively for a good chunk of three quarters could not make a stop when it needed to down the stretch, beginning with a Vikings drive that started with 3:19 to play in the third quarter.
Leading 20-7, Green Bay forced Minnesota into two critical third-and-one situations on a drive that covered nine plays and 71 yards. On the first, the Vikings executed a perfect fullback hand-off up the gut with C.J. Ham for five yards to continue the drive. It was the kind of play that Packers fans have watched Green Bay run for years with John Kuhn and Aaron Ripkowksi with minimal success, but the Vikings converted. Four plays later in the same short-yardage situation, Kirk Cousins connected with Kyle Rudolph on a crossing route to the right that went for 23 yards as the quarter expired. The same play concept would burn the Packers throughout the second half, but possibly no more than on this drive.
Just a few plays later, the inability to stop Minnesota on third down proved detrimental for the Packers as Cousins and Stefon Diggs connected on a three-yard touchdown pass on second-and-goal to narrow the gap to six points. It was not a third-down play, but one of the short-yardage goal line variety, as Diggs was run in motion several times across the line before finally accelerating up to full speed and catching a sideline pass that Tramon Williams had no chance to stop. It was that creative, Arena League type of play that helped the Vikings convert with ease against the Packers and pull back momentum.
Meanwhile, on the very next possession for Green Bay, the Packers put together an impressive six-minute, 42-second drive that chewed the game clock all the way down to 7:35 remaining in the game. After gradually moving down to the Vikings’ 12-yard line, the Packers faced an important 3rd-and-2. Reaching the end zone on this drive would have significantly raised Green Bay’s chances of coming out victorious by giving the team a two-touchdown lead.
After Minnesota crowded the box with eight defenders against the Packers’ one-back set (Ty Montgomery), Aaron Rodgers burned a timeout, evidently not seeing what he liked ahead of the pivotal snap. When Green Bay came back to the line, Rodgers lined up in the shotgun with Jamaal Williams to his left and Minnesota again stacked the box with seven defenders. Presumably yelling “kill” to call off a pass play in favor of a running call, Rodgers handed off to Williams who was stopped for a negative gain by an untouched, slanting-to-the-right Everson Griffen. Facing a 4th-and-3, the Packers were forced to settle for a 31-yard Mason Crosby field goal rather than six points.
That proved costly, as Minnesota scored immediately on its next possession when Cousins hit Diggs for a 75-yard touchdown and again closed the gap, this time to just two points at 23-21. At this point, the Packers seemingly lost all hold on the game and the momentum.
Offensively, could the Packers have been more creative on their own third-and-short plays much like how the Vikings employed Diggs? Could they have used a tight end crossing pattern of their own to put a large Jimmy Graham in space to move the sticks? It seemed to work on the very first play of their next drive with Graham darting across the middle, catching the ball, and hurdling a defender en route to a 16-yard gain. Maybe even the read option, which Rodgers tried to utilize in overtime, would have been a way to keep the Minnesota defense from guessing correctly on the fairly-predictable Williams run play.
The Packers had a real opportunity to seal the game if even one of the three third down plays above had turned out differently. For the offense, one that has repeatedly failed in short-yardage downs the past several seasons, it was an all-too-familiar outcome on Sunday as it could not close the door on an opponent. For the Green Bay defense, it was a matter of situational defensive struggles that were seen far too often under Dom Capers.
In the end, recurrent issues on third down contributed to the Packers coughing up a commanding lead and settling for a lucky tie with a divisional rival.