Well now. Maybe Border Battle #119 has a little more riding on it than we all thought it would. Arizona’s stunning beatdown of the Seahawks in Seattle has the Packers dreaming about the NFC’s top seed and the Vikings two wins away from no worse than the five seed.
As amazing as it seems, if the Packers win out, all they’ll need would be a Seattle win at home in Week 17 to claim the #1 seed (though the way the Seahawks looked on Sunday, the Niners should come in pretty confident. Not to mention they’re down to their fourth string running back, with Carson and Prosise done for the season).
Neither fan base ever needs extra motivation when these teams clash, but with those enticing carrots within the teams’ grasp, it should make for quite a night at US Bank Stadium. While the Pack is 5-4 in its last nine games across the border, they’ve yet to cash in at the Bank and they come in to this matchup as healthy as they could dream to be in Week 16. Only Dean Lowry is listed on the injury report–questionable with an ankle injury–though he practiced all week and was a full participant on Saturday.
The Vikings are almost as healthy. Other than their top two RBs, every other starter is good to go. We know Dalvin Cook is out, likely until the playoffs. Alexander Mattison, dealing with an ankle, returned to practice on Saturday, but it expected to get another week to heal. Even if he goes, the Packers expect to get a healthy dose of second year back Mike Boone, who scored twice last week in relief of Cook and is a third string back in name only. He’s talented and will be a problem for the Pack’s defense. But it remains to be seen if he can help in the passing game, where Cook had been lethal of late. You have to believe the game plan shifts a little with Boone, Ameer Abdullah and CJ Ham leading the running attack. I would think Mike Pettine would throw a few blitzes at Kirk Cousins to see how prepared the backup backs are to handle them.
We also don’t really know what to expect from Adam Thielen. He played in half the snaps last week in LA in his first game back from that lingering hamstring injury. Will they unleash him on Monday night, or continue to be conservative, knowing there isn’t that much to gain by winning out. I have a feeling the Vikings tight ends are primary targets for Cousins–the Packers have struggled against tight ends all season. Does Irv Smith break out in this game, just the latest #84 to announce himself on Monday Night Football against the Pack?
If we get a typical performance by Green Bay’s defense, they’ll surrender big chunks of yards, allowing the Vikes to move fairly freely between the 20s. But they should stiffen in the red zone, as they have all season, with Minnesota lacking some of their biggest playmakers. If they can force them to trot out Dan Bailey a few times, the Pack’s defense will have done its job.
So what do we expect from the Pack’s offense? It’s probably out of the question to expect another 21-0 lead, but they’ve been very good in the first quarter of late. And step one in trying to spring the upset is jumping out to a lead and keeping the fans quiet and nervous. This has to be a game where Aaron Jones is featured. The Pack is 7-1 when he gets 15 touches. What that tells us he’s only gotten 15+ touches in eight of the 14 games. This needs to be #9; his week two performance against the Vikes opened everyone’s eyes on what he could mean to this offense.
The passing game will look different, with Allen Lazard and Jake Kumerow finally poised to pass MVS and Geronimo Allison on the depth chart. They’ve both earned extra targets and will allow the Pack to continue to move Davante Adams all over the place–he had more snaps from the slot last week than he has all season. The Vikings’ corners can be picked on–look for Rodgers to test Mike Hughes early and often.
This is a huge game for Bryan Bulaga. He’ll need help against Danielle Hunter on the fast track in Minneapolis. But if he can keep Hunter as quiet as he kept Khalil Mack last week, the Packers’ offense could be in for a big night. They’ll need to be much better on third downs than they’ve been in recent weeks. They rank near the bottom of the league in converting third and six or more yards and it goes without saying the place will be deafening if the Pack find themselves in third and long throughout the night.
We all know Kirk Cousins is 0-8 on Monday Night Football and you know that he and everyone in the Vikings organization would like nothing more than to end that narrative with a performance that would force the Pack to wait a week before they can pop the champagne with a division title, not to mention likely taking them out of the conversation as a top two seed.
I’m a bit surprised the line is 5 1/2, with the issues at running back on the Vikings. It does seem like the entire world likes the Vikes in this one, just like everyone in the world liked the Cowboys to beat the Eagles and the Seahawks to beat the Cardinals. the NFL is a crazy league sometimes. A Mason Crosby field goal wins it as time expires:
Packers 23 Vikings 21