Their tempestuous 24 hours in Wisconsin started with the team charter, after a safe landing at Appleton International Airport on Friday evening, getting stuck in the snow while taxiing to the tiny terminal. Hours later, a fire engine removed Vikings coaches and players, two at a time, from the plane.
Perhaps that was when cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman finalized their decision to disregard head coach Mike Zimmer’s game plan, which called for Rhodes to chase top Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
With Rhodes and Newman going rogue in the first half, the once-mighty Vikings defense got shredded at Lambeau Field by Aaron Rodgers, who tossed three touchdowns and rushed for another before halftime. He later threw his fourth touchdown pass as the Packers cruised to a 38-25 win.
Their second blowout loss in a six-day span dropped the Vikings below .500 for the first time this season and eliminated them from playoff contention.
“We’re just not good enough,” outside linebacker Chad Greenway said. “You can’t excuse things away at the end of the day. It’s a body of work after 15 games. And you are what you are now. And we’re a below-.500 team now. You probably wouldn’t [predict] that 10 weeks ago but that’s the NFL.”
The Packers struck first, with Rodgers throwing a 21-yard touchdown pass to Nelson. After a Vikings field goal, they quickly answered with their second touchdown. Rodgers hit wide receiver Davante Adams for a 20-yard score three plays after throwing a 48-yard completion to an uncovered Nelson.
Rodgers and the Packers tacked on another touchdown after Vikings center Nick Easton’s botched snap gave the home team the ball and a short field. Rodgers found Nelson again, in the end zone, to increase the lead to 21-6.
The Vikings pulled back within a score, to 21-13, after quarterback Sam Bradford heaved another deep ball to wide receiver Adam Thielen, who ran untouched to the end zone while two Packers defensive backs ran into each other. The 71-yard touchdown was the team’s longest pass play of 2016.
The Vikings were in position to score again late in the first half but Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews blew right by left tackle T.J. Clemmings to sack Bradford, who coughed up the football on the big blindside hit.
The Packers capitalized on the turnover with yet another scoring drive. This time Rodgers opted to run in for the score instead of throwing for another one. His 6-yard touchdown scramble increased their lead to 28-13.
“That was a huge swing in momentum,” said Bradford, who had 231 yards at halftime but was unable to go touchdown for touchdown with Rodgers. “We had some positive plays to kind of get us going and [then] that happened.”
Rodgers was 19-for-22 for 268 passing yards and three touchdowns in the first half, at that point giving him a near-perfect passer rating of 157.0.
Nelson was on the receiving end of seven of those passes for 145 yards and two scores, in part because Rhodes and Newman decided to remain on their respective sides instead of having Rhodes follow Nelson around the field.
“Us as [defensive backs] felt like we could handle him,” Rhodes explained. “That’s how we felt as DBs that we could stay on our side and cover him.”
The surprisingly insubordinate corner followed orders in the second half and Nelson was held to only two catches for nine yards with Rhodes on his tail.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Packers made it 31-13 with a 48-yard field goal from Mason Crosby. Rodgers later threw a fourth touchdown pass.
Rodgers finished the afternoon with 347 passing yards, becoming the first quarterback to throw for more than 300 against the Vikings this season.
“He’s the best quarterback in the league,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “I don’t care what nobody says. I think he’s the best quarterback in the league as far as being able to do things with his feet and his arm.”
It was a second straight no-show by the defense, which got stampeded six days earlier in an embarrassing 34-6 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
With this game out of reach, Bradford, who threw for a season-high 382 yards, tossed late touchdowns to wide receiver Stefon Diggs and Thielen, who finished the game with 202 yards, to make the score look respectable.
“I don’t think they played good. But I thought they fought,” Zimmer said.
His freefalling Vikings, who have lost eight of their past 10 games, will close out this lost season next Sunday at home against the Chicago Bears.
Then this soap-opera season will mercifully end for the Vikings, who lost their quarterback in late August, made a blockbuster trade for Bradford, saw their offensive coordinator resign and Zimmer have emergency eye surgery in November before the bizarre scenes that unfolded this holiday weekend.
“This year has been crazy. I’ve never seen nothing like it,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “That just put the icing on the cake. Man. Wow.”
Matt Vensel covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org