Against a division opponent playing for nothing but pride, there’s no need to invoke a famous, meme-able amphibious Star Wars admiral. Playing the Minnesota Vikings can never be a trap for the Green Bay Packers, no matter who comes next on Green Bay’s schedule. Despite the historic Chicago Bears rivalry, in the Favre-Rodgers era, there isn’t a team the Packers love to beat more than the Purple and Gold. If Mike Pettine and the Green Bay defense had been daydreaming about the NFC Championship rematch with the 49ers next week, Dalvin Cook’s four-touchdown performance gave them nightmares in Minnesota’s 28-22 upset win.
On the Vikings’ first drive, Cook previewed the day to come, accounting for 44 yards on 6 carries rushing it, as well as a critical third-down conversion through the air for another 13. In all, he accounted for 57 of the drive’s 78 yards and finished with 163 ground yards on 30 carries, adding another 63 yards through the air.
In a game where Kirk Cousins only attempted 14 passes, another allusion to the debacle in Santa Clara last January, Cook starred and the defense offered no answers. From shoddy tackling to poor run fits, the Packers defense offered minimal resistance allowing the Vikings to score on all four of their drives to start the game. In fact, Green Bay couldn’t muster a stop until the fourth quarter of a bizarre game in which the Packers punted only once, but only managed 22 points thanks to a pair of fourth down failures.
Aaron Rodgers started 9 for his first 9 before a slight overthrow to Adams in the end zone on the second drive. The stats in Houston belied some accuracy inconsistencies a week ago and with the wind howling, Rodgers missed the mark on a handful of big throws in Week 8, including what would have been a big play to Jace Sternberger with the Packers down 14 and in desperate need of a score.
The Packers extended their streak of scoring on their first drives, coming into the game as the only team in the NFL to do it in every game this season. Rodgers’ toss to Davante Adams on the out route looked like a practice rep. Creating stress-free touchdowns is now a hallmark of this offense. Jamaal Williams carried it seven times on that opening drive, but the balance the team displayed all season showed up once again, with six passes to go with Williams’ hammering power.
But after Adams tied franchise record in Week 1 with 14 receptions, the Vikings played two deep safeties and forced Green Bay to play underneath, cutting Adams’ catch total in half and limiting him to 53 yards despite 3 touchdowns.
Without a cadre of defensive backs, the onus fell even more burdensome on the Vikings’ defensive stars to play well and much like Week 1, Eric Kendricks answered the bell. He put up 8 solo tackles in the first half alone, including a play emblematic of his afternoon when he ran stride-for-stride with Adams down the middle.
A bizarre first-half kickoff looked like it might jumpstart the Packers defense, setting the Vikings up at the 15-yard line, but 37-yard run by Cook got Minny out of a hole and two questionable pass interference calls against Green Bay put the Vikings in position to take a 21-14 lead off Cook’s third rushing score of the game.
Neither team got a true stop until the Packers failed on 4th-and-10 after back-to-back drops from Equanimeous St. Brown, the first of which was definitely a play he would say he has to make. (Presumably Rodgers and LaFleur think he needs to make it too.)
Even still, the Packers had the ball with a chance to win the game after cutting the Vikings’ lead to 28-22 late. With 47 seconds left, Rodgers moved the ball into Minnesota territory, but a catch in bounds by Robert Tonyan, who led the team in receiving yards with 79, killed too much clock and the last play of the game amounted to a final heave by Rodgers which backup defensive linemen D.J. Wonnum scuttled with a fumble.
Whether this was truly a trap game or merely an uninspiring, undisciplined performance doesn’t matter to the standings or the confidence this team takes to San Francisco on a short week. The tackling and run defense will evince ghosts of the NFC Championship Game, appropriate for Halloween weekend, but a spooky harbinger of playoffs future for the Packers if they have to play the 49ers in January, or get a rematch with the Saints and Alvin Kamara (whom they also couldn’t tackle).
It’s one thing to say “just don’t be all-time bad” on run defense and believe that works over the course of a season, but in a one-and-done scenario like the playoffs, it’s not good enough. Fans and talk radio will no doubt focus on the performance of Mike Pettine and there’s deserving blame to go to the Green Bay coaches, but they can’t get off blocks or makes tackles for the players. If a tight end blocks Preston Smith to spring a touchdown, as Irv Smith Jr. did on a first-half touchdown, that’s not on Pettine.
Green Bay only has a few days to prepare for a Kyle Shanahan offense that lit them up twice last season, but that also means less time to think about this performance and move on. This isn’t college football where style points decide who makes the championship tournament. No one will remember how the Vikings game finished if the Packers take care of business against the 49ers. On the other hand, if LaFleur’s team had focused more, played more discipline, and executed better against the Vikings, Thursday night would matter far less.