The Packers could enter Sunday Night’s game against Minnesota with a chance to lock-up the one-seed, give Aaron Rodgers’ toe a two-week rest, get some Jordan Love reps in a no-stakes game, and secure home field advantage through the NFC playoffs. In order for this to happen, Green Bay will need some assistance from Arizona who play against the Dallas Cowboys. FiveThirtyEight gives Arizona only a 31% chance to win at Dallas, so it’s more likely than not the Packers will have to win out, but it’s time to be big Cardinals fans at least for a week. Since Green Bay has already played Minnesota this year, you can basically look back at that article for the low-down of what the Vikings are, because frankly, not a lot has changed on that front. Justin Jefferson is still awesome, Kirk Cousins is still a weirdo, and the Vikings defense still isn’t very good and has no pass rushers. So instead of walking through the same old-same old, let’s walk through how each team wins.
Before we get into that, however, it’s impossible to not address the COVID situation that is beating up pretty much every roster around the league. So here is where we stand as of Thursday morning:
Packers players currently out due to COVID: Henry Black, Corey Bojorquez, Ben Braden, Oren Burks, Tyler Davis, Tipa Galeai, Shemar Jean-Charles, Kingsley Keke, Kevin King, Marcedes Lewis, Chauncey Rivers, Amari Rodgers, and Ty Summers.
Vikings players currently out due to COVID: Rashod Hill, Patrick Jones II, Olisaemeka Udoh, and
Sean Mannion Kirk Cousins.
Many of the Packers players could possibly be back for Sunday’s game, but it’s difficult to know if they will be. On the Vikings side, Udoh is the starting right guard and is out, but the big news came Friday morning with Cousins testing positive. He is out for Sunday, while Mannion returns to the active roster and will likely start. The Packers are heavily favored by our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.
How Minnesota Wins
You watched the Browns game. You know what I’m going to say. The Packers run defense has gone from not great but tolerable to abysmal over the past few weeks. Some of that may be due to Kenny Clark being either absent or not 100% as he was activated off the COVID list right before the game. The last two games have taken Green Bay from the 25th ranked unit (not good, but still a -.041 EPA per rush), to dead last (+.012 EPA per rush). Over the past two weeks, the Packers have been impossibly awful against the run, allowing +.374 EPA per rush. The best passing attack in the NFL this year belongs to Green Bay and is only producing +.274 EPA per dropback.
Green Bay’s defense the past two weeks has been a train wreck salvaged only by the bad quarterback play of Baker Mayfield. Minnesota has not been anywhere near as strong as either Cleveland’s or Baltimore’s, as they rank 23rd in EPA-per-rush. Dalvin Cook does not rank particularly high in DVOA, at 31st, and Alexander Mattison is even worse at 35th. This has not been a good rushing team, but Green Bay might be so awful against the run that Minnesota can still end up churning out solid offense on the ground.
In the passing game, Justin Jefferson is an absolute monster. He is one of the most efficient receivers on a per-target basis in the league while being an absolute target magnet. In the last matchup, Green Bay was unable to do much against him as he torched the Packers for eight catches on ten targets for 169 yards and two touchdowns. If Minnesota is going to win this game, they’ll need something close to a repeat of this performance. There is no Adam Thielen as his season is over.
In the Vikings win earlier this season, Kirk Cousins had an elite performance under virtually constant pressure, which is far less predictive than performance in a clean pocket. Furthermore, it is even more unlikely that Mannion could repeat that performance, given his career passer rating of 57.5. If Green Bay can get similar pressure in this meeting, particularly with Kenny Clark meeting his favorite center Garett Bradbury once again, that could make that hard for Minnesota to pull off. If Minnesota can stalemate the front, Green Bay will be in trouble.
Of course, the Packers disastrous special teams has been a nightmare this year and that always exists as a way for Green Bay to blow several points. Defensively, the Vikings don’t have a lot of options to really slow down Green Bay’s offense, but the turnover game, especially if Zimmer can fool Rodgers once or twice, is one of Minnesota’s best bets to slow Green Bay down.
How Green Bay Wins
If the run defense can go from terrible back to just not great, that’s a massive win for Green Bay. Kenny Clark matching up against Garrett Bradbury is one of my favorite events of the year as it is 50-60 snaps of professional football player being figuratively shown his own ass. While Green Bay has generally struggled to get a lot of pressure this year, getting it up the middle will be helpful. Maybe this is the week Rashan Gary learns to not lose the edge, who knows!
Regarding the pass defense, it’s hard to overstate how awesome Green Bay’s corners have been playing. Rasul Douglas is the top ranked corner by PFF over the past month and Eric Stokes is ranked tenth. If this combo (probably mostly Stokes), can just keep Jefferson as a moderately efficient receiver, the Vikings don’t have many other options in the passing game.
On offense, Green Bay largely just needs to stay out of their own way. The Cleveland game never should have been as close as it was. Davante dropping two conversions in the fourth quarter and running a pitch play in short yardage on a heat check after it worked earlier killed two put-away drives. Green Bay hasn’t even had the benefit of positive game scripts this year as they are a pretty mediocre “first 15 plays” offense this year after blitzkrieging teams last year.
The Browns scored on a touchdown on their opening drive for the fifth time in 2021 on Saturday. Since 2020, the Browns have been one of the league's best offenses on their first 15 plays.— Anthony Reinhard (@reinhurdler) December 29, 2021
This & more in my weekly analytics recap for @TheOBR subscribers: https://t.co/u0jHwQjqN0 pic.twitter.com/HNXvcwGqpJ
If the Packers front can keep Rodgers pretty clean and the weather doesn’t completely destroy any semblance of normalcy in this one, the Packers offense should continue to churn against a pretty mediocre defense. The big unknown is Aaron Rodgers toe. However, what our own Matub said on the Reporting as Eligible podcast is important to note, and I’ll paraphrase here: The Packers are the only NFL team that does not use Toradol, so there are basically two options for treating Rodgers’ toe: painkillers or a local anesthetic. Given that Rodgers has gone into half early for treatment a couple of times, local anesthetic seems like the likelier option, and the colder temperatures should, if anything, slightly prolong the effects of the anesthetic.
In the run game, this is what AJ Dillon was built for. A 245 pound battering ram plowing into cold defenders repeatedly. He had his breakout game against the Tennessee Titans last year in wintry conditions and has actually been the better running back this season between he and Aaron Jones. I’d expect Dillon to get a heavier dose of the carries, particularly if the surface is less cooperative to the outside zone game that Jones typically thrives in.
Green Bay is favored in this game, as they should be. They are the better team, they are at home, and they do have a formula offensively that should be able to handle the cold conditions. However, Minnesota wants to attack Green Bay’s primary defensive weakness, and they have some really talented players that can wreck the game. This will not be an easy game, and as we have seen twice over the past two seasons, Minnesota is not to be taken lightly.