Cornerback's new cast on a broken hand gives him confidence for Packers rematch.
The Fox cameras caught a close-up of Vikings coach Leslie Frazier right before the Packers' 25th offensive snap of Sunday's regular-season finale at Mall of America Field.
Despite a 20-7 lead with 1 minute, 7 seconds left in the first half, Frazier wore the look of a father watching his 16-year-old back the family car out of the driveway for the first time.
No one outside of the Vikings bench knew it at the time, but cornerback Antoine Winfield's day had ended on the Packers' 24th snap three minutes earlier. The fractured right hand that Winfield thought he could play through with nothing more than a glove over a small pad was causing unbearable pain and looking like the belly of a snake that had swallowed a cantaloupe.
What Frazier knew then that the rest of us didn't was, like it or not, punt returner Marcus Sherels would finish the game as Winfield's replacement in a nickel package the team would use almost exclusively against Aaron Rodgers and his arsenal of receivers.
Sherels is the ultimate NFL scrapper, an overachiever who had to survive a weekend tryout before being signed as an undrafted rookie out of Minnesota in 2010. He's praised for his poise, intelligence and his skills to play in the slot, an obvious rarity among the team's current crop of big corners.
But Sherels also is the team's fifth-best corner. And, well, when it comes to experience, let's just say he was 12 when Winfield broke into the NFL as Buffalo's final first-round pick of the last millennium.
"Antoine makes a difference," Frazier said. "There's no question about that."
Amen to that. In the 18 snaps that Winfield played on Sunday, Rodgers completed seven of 13 passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Rodgers also was 0-for-1 in a first-half red-zone play in which the Vikings went with six linemen, three linebackers and two safeties.
With Winfield out for good, Rodgers completed 21 of 36 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns while challenging Sherels on multiple occasions, including one play that resulted in a 73-yard completion to Jordy Nelson. Rodgers also outscored the Vikings 27-17, yet still lost 37-34 in a game the Vikings needed to make the playoffs and the Packers needed to get this weekend off.
But the Vikings aren't finished with the Cheeseheads just yet. An angrier, healthier Packers team will await the Vikings when they visit Lambeau Field for Saturday night's wild-card playoff game.
With leading receiver Randall Cobb expected back from ankle and knee injuries this week, Rodgers will have his top four receivers and tight end on the field for one of the few times this season.
Meanwhile, the Vikings will be listing Winfield as questionable after he missed all of practice this week. But don't fret, says Winfield.
"Absolutely, I am not coming out of this game," he said. "I have the whole offseason to recover. I'll be good."
Winfield's optimism also comes from a cast that he's been fitted for. He can still use his fingers and thumb while the cast offers support at the wrist and a hard shell over the spot he fractured two weeks ago in Houston.
NFL teams also have been known to have plenty of pain medication available.
"Oh, absolutely," Winfield said. "I'll be numb. Plus, it will be cold."
But just in case Winfield can't play, the Vikings worked on a contingency plan that sounds like it might help them avoid having to use Sherels as heavily as they did last week (32 of 64 snaps).
A.J. Jefferson, who splits time with rookie Josh Robinson at the left outside corner position in the nickel, got some extra reps in the slot this week. Brandon Burton, a second-year player, also took extra reps in the slot, but he's an unlikely option. He has played only four games this season and was inactive the past seven games. Robinson will remain an outside corner exclusively, Frazier said.
"Don't worry about Antoine," cornerback Chris Cook said. "I think he's found the Fountain of Youth. He says he's not coming out, I believe that."
Frazier won't find out if that's the case until Saturday night. But Winfield's determination and confidence in his new cast seem to have brought a better sense of calm to the head coach.
"I feel better," Frazier said. "He said it felt great. So that was encouraging. Very encouraging."
|Toronto - LP: A. Loup||4||FINAL|
|Cleveland - WP: J. Outman||6|
|LA Angels - LP: H. Santiago||1||FINAL|
|Detroit - WP: R. Porcello||2|
|Atlanta - LP: G. Schlosser||3||FINAL|
|NY Mets - WP: J. Valverde||4|
|Seattle - LP: T. Wilhelmsen||2||FINAL|
|Miami - WP: M. Dunn||3|
|St. Louis - LP: S. Maness||2||FINAL|
|Washington - WP: R. Soriano||3|
|Milwaukee - WP: Z. Duke||3||FINAL|
|Pittsburgh - LP: J. Gomez||2|
|NY Yankees - WP: P. Claiborne||5||FINAL|
|Tampa Bay - LP: H. Bell||1|
|Minnesota - WP: P. Hughes||8||FINAL|
|Kansas City - LP: Y. Ventura||3|
|Cincinnati - WP: H. Bailey||8||FINAL|
|Chicago Cubs - LP: C. Villanueva||2|
|Chicago WSox - WP: E. Johnson||16||FINAL|
|Texas - LP: R. Ross Jr.||2|
|Houston - LP: B. Peacock||1||FINAL|
|Oakland - WP: J. Chavez||4|
|Philadelphia - WP: J. Diekman||10||FINAL|
|Colorado - LP: M. Belisle||9|
|San Francisco - WP: T. Lincecum||4||FINAL|
|San Diego - LP: R. Erlin||3|
|Arizona - LP: J. Collmenter||1||FINAL|
|Los Angeles - WP: J. Wright||4|
|Baltimore - LP: B. Matusz||5||FINAL|
|Boston - WP: E. Mujica||6|