When the first-place Vikings, fresh off their latest victory, walked into the Winter Park locker room Monday morning, they received a reminder of where they stand.
Placed in the locker stall of each player was a black T-shirt. On the front of each shirt was the NFC North logo. On the back, in bold capital letters, was the objective and perhaps this week’s rallying cry. They all read “BEAT GREEN BAY!”
“[You’re] making way too big a deal out of that. It’s just a T-shirt,” coach Mike Zimmer, the mastermind behind sending the design to the heat press, said later at his afternoon news conference. “You can go down to the store and print them up. It’s not a big deal.”
Besides their new T-shirts, the Vikings have the NFC North’s best record heading into Sunday’s showdown at TCF Bank Stadium. They have a crystal-clear identity, one that has helped them trample over five consecutive opponents. They have NFL’s leading rusher, the league’s second-ranked scoring defense and arguably its best special-teams group, too.
But those T-shirts said it all: The Packers are still the team to beat until the Vikings go out and do it.
Yes, even these Packers, the ones who have lost three consecutive games, the ones who are a mess offensively, the ones who actually lost to the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field in a game the lowly Lions seemed determined to hand back to Packers.
“The division goes through Green Bay,” veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway said.
A history lesson might not be needed, but the Vikings are 1-9-1 against the Packers in this decade, including postseason play, with the lone victory coming in the 2012 season finale. That one put the Vikings into the playoffs, and then they lost in Green Bay. The average margin of victory in those nine losses, five of them by double digits? 16.3 points.
After a 42-10 loss in Green Bay in Week 5 of last season with Christian Ponder making his final start with the franchise, the Vikings kept their next matchup close, though it never felt as if they actually had a chance to beat the Packers in that 24-21 loss.
The Vikings, embracing Zimmer’s smash-mouth style, are a different team now, though. Their young cornerstones are gradually growing up. Their players are comfortable playing close games. And the team is adaptable enough to win them in different ways.
Take Sunday’s 30-14 road win over the Oakland Raiders for example. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater passed for only 140 yards. No biggie. Running back Adrian Peterson ran wild for 203 yards, Zimmer’s defense shut out the Raiders in the second half and Cordarrelle Patterson broke loose for his first kickoff return touchdown since 2013.
“This is the vision we had for this team,” Peterson said after Sunday’s victory. “This is what Coach Zimmer talks about and preaches about — just taking it one week at a time, continue to fight on all phases and we’ll see how things unfold in front of us. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The complete win, which came three hours after Packers kicker Mason Crosby shanked a go-ahead field-goal try as time expired, moved the Vikings into sole possession of first place in the NFC North for the first time since the final week of the 2009 regular season.
The Packers, meanwhile, are in the unfamiliar spot of having to chase the Vikings after their surprising three-game skid. Losing a pair of road games to the then-undefeated Denver Broncos and still-undefeated Carolina Panthers was understandable. But the 18-16 loss to the Lions, their first loss to Detroit at Lambeau Field since 1991, was a complete stunner.
Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers passed for 333 yards, but it took him 61 attempts to get there. The Packers offense, still slowed by the preseason loss of deep threat Jordy Nelson, scored only three points in the first three quarters against one of the NFL’s worst defenses. Green Bay’s defense gave up the game-winning touchdown with 1:57 left.
Yes, the Packers are reeling right now. But the black T-shirts being worn at Winter Park were a reminder to the Vikings players that the Packers haven’t been dethroned in the division quite yet. Not that the reminder was needed.
“I think that our players will know that this is a big game,” Zimmer said. “I don’t think that I’m going to have to pull out any magic wands or anything like that.”