As many of us know, sports has a cruel way of conditioning us to expect the worst. For every victory, there's almost always that unshakable feeling that a heartbreaking, swift kick to the nuts is lurking just around the corner. So you'd think with this recent string of wins by the Packers I'd be feeling borderline nauseous at the prospect of things getting pulled out from under the table. But here's the thing - I'm not. Because right now, the Packers are good enough. They're certainly good enough to make the playoffs and once there, they're good enough to win in the playoffs. Run defense and coaching and all that other stuff aside, I feel this way because of one reason I was reminded of during the Packers most recent shellacking - the quarterback. It's a league run by them and the Packers just so happen to have the very best one. And while it was easy to forget that fact last season as the Seahawks defense made mince meat of 2013's best quarterback, that outcome was the exception, not the rule. In today's NFL, quarterbacks rule. And right now, Aaron Rodgers rules them all.
Will the Vikings be able to derail the Packers this Sunday? Common sense says no. But again, there's always that swift kick just around the corner. Here are 5 things to watch:
The Master at Work
2011 Aaron Rodgers might have been more impressive on paper, but he was still early enough in his career that it felt like a young superhero just figuring out he can do things no one else could. Now a few years older and wiser, the Rodgers we're witnessing I'd argue is even more impressive. He's harnessed those powers to reach a level few athletes - even the elite ones - rarely, if ever, get to. Able to bend and shape and mold the game to his will, regardless of the talent around him. He's a complete virtuoso now, having achieved a total mastery of the game. Like Lebron in 2012. And like Peyton just last year. As Packers fans, we've been spoiled by Hall of Fame quarterback play for more than two decades straight. So you know it means something when, at this moment, you can definitively say - this is the best it's ever been.
The up and comer
The Vikings haven't been quite as fortunate as the Packers in the quarterback department. Favre gave them a couple swell years but besides that, it's been a revolving carousel of sadness behind center. And now that Adrian Peterson has effectively dumbass'd his way onto another team, it leaves rookie Teddy Bridgewater as the team's primary hope for the future. It's early into Bridgewater's career, but the initial results are promising. And while an excellent Packers pass defense likely won't do him any favors, he'll at least pose more of a threat than Christian Ponder did last time around. Then again, so would a vacuum cleaner. Nevertheless, the Packers should relish this one because something tells me in the not too distant future, we'll all long for the days when the Vikings were terrible at quarterback.
The freight train
Here's something that should probably send shivers down the rest of the NFC: Eddie Lacy has some momentum going. I don't typically subscribe to the theory that certain players get better as the season goes along (because getting smashed by 300 lb. linemen all year should have the opposite effect) but that's just what Lacy seems to be doing. What's scary is, he's not even doing it all from the backfield. He only had 10 carries against the Eagles, but he caught three passes, one of which that saw him motor through the defense like a runaway Humvee crashing through a row of orange barrels. It was the third game in a row that Lacy took a screen pass for 30+ yards, bringing his season total in reception yards to 322 (compared with 257 all of last year). For the Vikings, they'll likely put most their effort into stopping Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, but with Lacy running (and now catching) with a full head of steam, it won't be the only thing they'll have to worry about.
I'm not a big believer in "trap games" but you can understand a team struggling to find motivation against a lesser opponent. Take this Thursday's game for example. The Chiefs aren't the powerhouse offensive team the Packers are, but they showed up in Oakland with all the emotional investment of someone doing their taxes. In turn, Oakland got their first win of the season. For the Packers, they face the Vikings coming off the high of a big primetime win, with perhaps the AFC's best team waiting in the wings. Of course, all NFL players are fitted with PR Quote Master 3000 machines when entering the league so all we'll hear is how they're "focused on the Vikings" and, "taking things one game at a time." We'll see if that lip service translates to the actual field.
Their record doesn't show it, but the Vikings actually have a few things going for them. Yes they're massively overpaying Greg Jennings. And yes they're without their star running back. But the Vikings have quietly nailed a number of draft picks in the last few years. It'll likely take another year for that talent to fully blossom, but that doesn't mean they can't make things difficult in the mean time. Cordarelle Patterson has time warping speed and is especially dangerous on kick returns. And on defense, the Vikings possess two of the NFC's more exciting young players in safety Harrison Smith and rookie outside linebacker, Anthony Barr. Barr in particular has been especially impressive. On the season he's recorded 62 tackles (including 4 sacks), three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. The Packers offensive line has played about as well as you can ask, but players with Barr's athleticism are rare. If the Packers aren't mindful of what he can do, this game could end up being much closer than it should be.
My prediction: Packers 31, Vikings 14.
Enjoy the game, everyone!