Since the NFL instituted flexible scheduling in 2006, to ensure it could showcase compelling games in its Sunday-night time slot every week, few matchups have been served to a national TV audience more frequently than Vikings-Packers.
The two teams will meet on Sunday night for the 11th time in prime time since 2006, renewing a rivalry that has become catnip to television networks because of high-stakes matchups like the NFC North title game between the teams in 2015, story arcs like Brett Favre’s return to Lambeau Field with the Vikings and pitched atmospheres that come with two fan bases that interact enough to get good and sick of one another.
The only matchups to wind up in prime time more often than Vikings-Packers over the past 13 years are Cowboys-Giants (14 times), Packers-Bears (13), Steelers-Ravens and Cowboys-Eagles (12 each).
“That was the game we always wanted to go to [as kids],” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “Being four hours away [in Detroit Lakes], we didn’t get down here too often. We were very selective with the games we went to, and it seemed like we always went to the Vikings-Packers game. I remember when I was real young, and Brett Favre was playing for them. He was slinging it around, and we had a pretty high-powered offense, too. It was definitely a fun game to be a part of.”
The latest offering will be compelling in its own right, though perhaps for a different set of reasons than NBC expected when it put the matchup on its Sunday night slate: The Vikings and Packers — owners of the past seven NFC North titles, and six of the division’s past seven trips to the conference title game — are both fighting for their playoff lives.
A Vikings loss to the Packers would put them third in the NFC North, 2 ½ games behind the Bears, who beat the Vikings last Sunday night and topped the Lions without quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on Thursday. A loss by the Packers — which would be their sixth in as many road games — would drop them to 4-6-1, likely requiring another run-the-table moment from Aaron Rodgers to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight season (and potentially save coach Mike McCarthy’s job).
“I definitely didn’t expect to be sitting where we’re sitting, but our record is what it is,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, Minnesota has a strong team. They’re probably surprised where they’re sitting as well. I don’t think either of us are out of the division picture.”
Tie a hint of things to come
The Week 2 meeting — which marked Kirk Cousins’ NFC North debut and Rodgers’ return against the team that knocked him out for the season a year ago — ended in a 29-29 tie that was equal parts entertaining and emblematic of the issues that have plagued both teams this season.
Cousins threw for 425 yards that day as the Vikings rallied from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit. But he tossed an interception with 2:13 to go that led to a Packers field goal, and had his next pass picked off before a dubious roughing-the-passer penalty on Clay Matthews spared the Vikings from what would have been a game-ending turnover. After ranking in the NFL’s top 10 in fewest giveaways each of Mike Zimmer’s first four years as head coach, the Vikings are tied with the Eagles for No. 26 this season.
“The most unfortunate thing, too, is a lot of them come at the most inopportune times: in the red zone, in a two-minute drill, when you’re trying to go down and win the game,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “That’s what we have to focus on: obviously, the turnovers, but especially the ones that come at the most inopportune times.”
But in Week 2, the Packers — who kicked three fourth-quarter field goals before Mason Crosby missed a game-winning attempt at the end of regulation — weren’t able to deliver the blow to put the Vikings away. Otherwise, they are 4-0 at Lambeau Field. On the road they blew leads in the final eight minutes of losses to the Rams and Seahawks, and gave up two touchdowns in the final eight minutes against the Patriots after being tied heading into the fourth quarter.
“If I was going to point to one pattern, it’s the finish,” McCarthy said. “We just haven’t finished games on the road, particularly of late. We’re definitely going to have to finish on Sunday to get the victory. When you play in these tough division games — and in particular, when we get together with the Vikings — the norm is there’s momentum swings at a pretty high rate, and a lot of energy spent.
“Of course, that game, it’s a loud environment, so that’s also taxing, and on top of it, it’s on national TV. This will be a great environment, and we’re definitely going to have to play four quarters — and hey, maybe even more than that, based on the last contest that we had.”
Handling the stage
The Packers opened the season with a Sunday night win over the Bears, delivering the early story of the year when Rodgers returned from a sprained knee to lead the Packers back from a 20-0 deficit. Since then, they’ve lost a pair of prime-time games in New England and Seattle, while the Vikings are 0-3 in night games after going 3-0 a year ago.
Zimmer has said all week there’s nothing inherently different about night games, and he can point to more success in the big spotlight than any recent Vikings coach; the team is 7-8 in prime time under Zimmer, after going 7-17 under Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier.
“I know we haven’t won any this year, but we won three last year, and it’s the same routine,” he said. “I think it just comes down to finishing the game. If you look at the New Orleans game, we fumbled the ball and threw an interception. This last week was kind of the same deal.”
The Vikings will have the day to clear their heads at the team hotel on Sunday afternoon, before stepping into an environment that figures to be a cauldron of emotions for reasons both familiar and strange to games against the Packers.
Any realistic chance of catching the Bears and hosting a playoff game for the second year in a row could depend on their winning Sunday night.
“In this league, your emotions are high every week,” Thielen said. “I really have never felt your emotions really change much for a bigger game. Once you get on the field, you know how important each game is. And it’s your job, so you’ve got to perform. Whatever you’ve got to do to get yourself going, you’ve got to do it — because if you’re not performing, they’re going to give your job away.”