GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Vikings’ push to be kings of the NFC North for the first time since 2009 finally got rewarded Sunday night as they survived a furious fourth-quarter rally by the Green Bay Packers to win 20-13 and claim the division title.
The Vikings relied on stingy defense to take a 17-point lead into the final quarter, but that group barely had enough left to hold off two-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field. Rodgers heaved two long-distance throws into the end zone at the end of the game, but one flew beyond the end line, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes knocked down a final Hail Mary as time expired.
“I’m proud of this football team,” said coach Mike Zimmer, wearing a gray NFC North champions hat. “We started out two years ago trying to build something special. … I told them [Saturday] night, it’s not a surprise that we are where we’re at. They’ve earned this opportunity, and we have to go take it [in the playoffs].”
The Vikings appeared to pull away with 4 minutes, 28 seconds left in the third quarter when cornerback Captain Munnerlyn returned a Rodgers fumble 55 yards for a touchdown that made it 20-3. That game-changing play came shortly after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was intercepted by Packers safety Micah Hyde in Vikings territory after he threw an ill-advised pass with his left hand while being tackled by Packers defensive end Mike Neal.
On Munnerlyn’s score, defensive end Everson Griffen swatted the ball out of Rodgers’ hand just as he attempted a pass and the cornerback scooped it up and headed for the end zone. After an official review determined it was a fumble and not a forward pass, the touchdown was upheld.
“I never heard a whistle,” Munnerlyn said. “And if you don’t hear the whistle, keep playing. And I ended up getting a touchdown.”
But of course Rodgers, who threw for 291 yards, and the Packers had another furious comeback left in them.
They pulled back within two scores when Rodgers connected with tight end Richard Rodgers on a 16-yard touchdown pass with 13:27 left in the game. The Packers converted on fourth down earlier in that possession to keep the drive and their fading title hopes alive.
Green Bay would make it 20-13 on Mason Crosby’s 43-yard field goal with 5:35 remaining.
Cordarrelle Patterson returned the ensuing kickoff 70 yards into Packers territory. But Crosby, the kicker, forced him to fumble and Hyde recovered.
A 37-yard completion to James Jones moved the Packers into Vikings territory again and a dump-off pass to fullback John Kuhn got them to first-and-goal at the 10-yard line. But Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd sacked Rodgers on second down, and Rhodes intercepted Rodgers’ rushed attempt into the end zone on fourth with 2:18 to play.
The Packers got the ball back with 58 seconds left. But Rhodes and the Vikings defenders, exhausted from the home team’s hurry-up attack, came through again.
As the celebration spilled into the bowels of Lambeau Field, linebacker Chad Greenway gave Zimmer a celebratory Gatorade bath.
“It felt good. It was a little sticky,” Zimmer said. “The last time they did that was my first game here. And I told them they couldn’t do it again until we won a championship.”
The victory, their first in Green Bay since 2009, gave the Vikings their first division title under their second-year coach. They were 1-10-1 in their past dozen games against the Packers, including playoffs, since then.
With the victory, Vikings will play host to the Seattle Seahawks, who thumped them 38-7 at home last month, in the wild-card round at noon Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We’re happy to get another crack at them,” Munnerlyn said. “They came out last time and embarrassed us. We know it’s going to be a tough task. Those guys are the defending NFC champs. They’ve been to the Super Bowl the past two years.”
The Vikings came away with three points on their opening drive after a gutsy fake punt on fourth-and-3 from their 38-yard line. Fourth-string wide receiver Adam Thielen, their unlikely offensive sparkplug Sunday night, caught a direct snap, ran around left end then wove downfield for a 41-yard gain.
After the Vikings started a second-quarter drive on their 43-yard line, Bridgewater, who threw for only 99 yards, moved the Vikings deep into Packers territory with completions to running back Jerick McKinnon and Thielen. Eventually, Blair Walsh booted a second field goal to make it 6-3.
On their first drive on the second half, the Vikings marched down the field to set up a 3-yard scoring run by Adrian Peterson. The touchdown, which made the score 13-3, was preceded by a 26-yard run by Thielen on an end-around.
Peterson, who had the NFL rushing title locked up before kickoff, rushed for 67 yards. He briefly exited the game because of a lower back injury in the third quarter and returned late in the game but could not run out the clock, giving Rodgers and the Packers one last gasp.
“A lot of drama. Any time you’re going to play a division rival for the division championship, you’ll have that,” safety Harrison Smith said. “Guys are fighters on both teams. They played hard and we played hard and got the win.”