A Week 13 loss in Green Bay helped the Vikings draw up their blueprint to win Sunday's rematch.
The 23-14 loss at Lambeau Field was barely an hour old, its sting still raw when Vikings running back Adrian Peterson began diagnosing all that went wrong.
It was obvious Peterson and his teammates were all having difficulty digesting such a bitter defeat.
Then came the question that really struck a nerve.
Peterson was asked whether the loss, which came a week after a 28-10 face-plant in Chicago, was further proof the Vikings didn't have the horses to compete at the top level in their division.
Peterson recoiled, scowling as if he'd just swallowed a triple shot of Wild Turkey.
"Do we not have the horses? Did you not see the game today?" he snapped. "Did you not see how that game ended? Turnovers. Penalties. That's why we lost the game. Guys fought today. We lost because we gave it to them."
Sure, that response carried added fury as the missed opportunity sunk in. But even now, four weeks removed and heading into a high-stakes rematch with the Packers, the Vikings remain convinced they dug their own grave in Green Bay.
"We gave one away," defensive end Jared Allen said Thursday.
Added fullback Jerome Felton: "We felt like we could have easily taken control of that game and we let it slip away. That loss really hurt."
So now what? To finish an improbable December rally and reach the playoffs, the Vikings need a home upset of Green Bay. And it's not just that they must avoid giving another winnable game away. They must also find a way to contain the NFL's reigning MVP, quarterback Aaron Rodgers. And they must scheme to beat a Packers squad that hasn't lost a division game in more than two years.
The good news: Green Bay has lost four times already -- to the 49ers, Seahawks, Colts and Giants. Each of those games has provided clues on how the Packers can be toppled.
Heck, even the Vikings' Week 13 failure at Lambeau Field drove home an understanding that Green Bay is beatable. The blueprint for Sunday must contain four key principles.1 RUSH FOUR, GET HOME
Rule number 1 against Green Bay: Blitz at your own peril.
Arguably no quarterback in the league handles extra pressure with as much moxie and aplomb as Rodgers.
Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams labels Green Bay's quarterback "a quadruple threat" who extinguishes blitzes like they're candles on a birthday cake.
"Wow, he's intelligent," Williams said. "He's seen all the looks. He knows what he's looking at. He gets the ball out of his hands. And when he doesn't get the ball out of his hands, he has an uncanny ability to move and avoid the rush and keep his eyes downfield and find open guys. And then when he doesn't do that, he's athletic enough to beat you with his feet."
Last week, Tennessee coordinator Jerry Gray went blitz-heavy. Rodgers, in turn, delivered a 55-7 reprimand.
Said Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Blitzing him is tough. Because they take so many chances. They're always trying to go vertical."
In short: After sending a dizzying combination of pressures at St. Louis' Sam Bradford and Houston's Matt Schaub, the Vikings will charge their defensive line almost exclusively with rattling Rodgers this week. But it's a formula that can be successful.
Sure, the world might always remember Green Bay's controversial 14-12 loss in Seattle in September for the M.D. Jennings interception that was ruled a Golden Tate touchdown catch by a replacement ref named Lance Easley. But in truth, the Packers' undoing began during a first half in which their offensive line was abused by Seattle's front four. In posting a first-half shutout, the Seahawks held Green Bay to 47 passing yards and delivered seven of their eight sacks without blitz help.
The Giants attacked similarly in their 38-10 blowout of the Packers two months later, keeping as many defenders as possible in coverage and limiting their blitzes. The result was a five-sack night, four coming from defensive linemen.2 ESTABLISH THE RUN
Sure, the Colts and Giants might have turned their quarterbacks loose to fuel their victories over Green Bay. In Week 5, Andrew Luck threw for 362 yards and two scores to rally Indianapolis to a 30-27 win. Eli Manning threw for 249 yards and three TDs in New York's romp.
But with the NFL's most dangerous back in Peterson, the Vikings are certain to stay true to their identity.
In Week 1, San Francisco pounded away with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to the tune of 153 yards on 25 carries against Green Bay. The 49ers' physicality in getting the ground game going set an early tone and fueled a 30-22 victory.
Heck, Peterson himself did major damage to the Packers' defense in the teams' first meeting, turning 21 carries into 210 yards. That should have been enough to close the deal and would be welcome Sunday.
Which leads to the next principle ...3 GET THE QUARTERBACK TO MAKE PLAYS
Even more importantly, command Christian Ponder to avoid catastrophic mistakes.
It's not just that Ponder threw two costly interceptions to thwart second-half scoring drives at Lambeau Field. It's that with four minutes left, he had completed five passes for 36 yards and had gone more than 38 game minutes between completions.
Make no mistake, Ponder isn't Luck. But like Indianapolis' prized rookie, Ponder has mobility he can use to his advantage. That might mean buying time, then regrouping to make improvised but calculated throws. Or it might mean Ponder needs to identify open running lanes and bolt for positive yardage, such as last week in Houston when he aided the Vikings' final TD drive by beating an all-out blitz with a 29-yard run.
Noted offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave: "Another case where our players are playing where our chalk ends."
And yes, the Vikings are confident Ponder still vividly remembers and understands the consequences of his two woeful interceptions at Green Bay.
"I think we can get those out of our system," Musgrave said. "I think we've sensed from the last three games that he's definitely learned from those."4 KEEP THE FAITH
The Colts wouldn't have beaten Green Bay if they didn't believe a second-half rally from 18 points down was possible. Seattle used Russell Wilson's contagious calm on the final drive to produce their "Fail Mary" miracle.
So for the Vikings, retaining belief Sunday will be key -- even through the inevitable ups and downs of what will be an emotionally charged game.
As hard as it might be to believe, coach Leslie Frazier came away from his team's 23-14 loss in Green Bay feeling encouraged. Not with his team's execution on the whole, but certainly with the unity and grit they showed.
"I had talked to them the night before the game about playing together as a team and playing for one another," Frazier said. "And I remember watching them in pregame and how they were going amongst themselves and encouraging each other like I hadn't seen throughout the season. That was a good sign."
And when adversity and frustration surfaced, Frazier loved seeing his players' camaraderie and fight.
"It made me feel like as a team we were really coming together the way you need to in the month of December," Frazier said. "I just sensed that we were really bonding. Which is the intangible when you're going through some adversity and about to play some really, really tough teams ahead."
That loss in Green Bay could have killed the Vikings' season. Instead, they regrouped with convincing victories over the Bears, Rams and Texans, retaining a belief that they belong in the postseason.
|Baltimore - LP: K. Gausman||4||FINAL|
|Detroit - WP: J. Nathan||6|
|Aug 8 - vs. Oakland||7 pm||X||10-6|
|Aug 16 - vs. Arizona||7:30 pm||X||30-28|
|Aug 23 - at Kansas City||7 pm||X||30-12|
|Aug 28 - at Tennessee||7 pm||X||19-3|
|2014 regular season|
|Sep 7 - at St. Louis||Noon||X||34-6|
|Sep 14 - vs. New England||Noon||X||30-7|
|Sep 21 - at New Orleans||Noon||X||20-9|
|Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta||3:25 pm||X||41-28|
|Oct 2 - at Green Bay||7:25 pm||X||42-10|
|Oct 12 - vs. Detroit||Noon||X||17-3|
|Oct 19 - at. Buffalo||Noon||X||17-16|
|Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay||Noon||X||19-13 ot|
|Nov 2 - vs. Washington||Noon||X||29-26|
|Nov 9 - Bye|
|Nov 16 - at Chicago||Noon||X||21-13|
|Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay||Noon||X||24-21|
|Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina||Noon||X||31-13|
|Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets||Noon||X||30-24 ot|
|Dec 14 - at Detroit||3:25 pm||X||16-14|
|Dec 21 - at Miami||Noon||X||37-35|
|Dec 28 - vs. Chicago||Noon||X||13-9|