The Packers could leave U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night as NFC North Division champions. Or the Vikings could clinch a playoff spot and preserve their outside chance at a third division title in coach Mike Zimmer’s sixth season.
These high stakes must be what NFL schedule-makers envisioned when placing this storied rivalry on a Monday night in late December.
The prime-time stage feels right to Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph, the two-time team captain who has experienced the joy and pain of a 5-5-1 record against the Packers since the Vikings hired Zimmer in 2014. The 12th chapter Monday night might mean more than any clash since the Vikings won the division at Lambeau Field during the 2015 season finale.
“Every year is like this when we play Green Bay,” Joseph said. “Chicago had a great run. They did that last year, but previous years it’d always been between Green Bay and us. I feel like under Coach Zimmer and the whole scheme of everything, we came together and figured out how to win games and win close games. Green Bay has always been that down-to-the-wire game.”
The NFC North will be represented by the Packers (11-3) or Vikings (10-4) for the 11th time in 13 years, a run made by the lasting success of Zimmer’s defenses and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But 2019 has been somewhat of a plot twist.
The Packers’ ninth-ranked scoring defense would be Green Bay’s best finish since its Super Bowl season in 2010, while Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins should be considered a Pro Bowl snub. He’s having a career year, with a 111.1 rating and 25 passing touchdowns to eight turnovers.
The fact Rodgers, named to his eighth Pro Bowl this week, hasn’t eclipsed 250 passing yards since Week 8 hasn’t lowered Zimmer’s expectations.
“Rodgers is always a tough out,” Zimmer said. “They have a terrific runner in Aaron Jones and the defense is playing well. Should be a heck of a ballgame. They say get your popcorn ready.”
The Packers already have clinched a playoff spot. The Vikings could get in as soon as Saturday night if San Francisco eliminates the L.A. Rams (8-6) in their prime-time NFC West showdown. The Vikings need a win in their final two games or a Rams loss to clinch a spot.
Joseph likes what he’s seen from his Vikings defense — still above average, but surrendering its most yards since 2015 — after the Dec. 2 debacle in Seattle. Emerging defensive tackles Armon Watts, a rookie, and Jaleel Johnson have spelled Joseph, the 31-year-old star, since he underwent knee surgery in early November.
They’ve settled into an eight-man rotation with defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly off the bench.
“Great teams that make it to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl have a great rotation,” Joseph said. “Last couple years with the Vikings, we never really had that.
‘‘This is the first year I can actually say we have a great rotation to keep guys fresh, our young guys willing to learn and willing to be great. That makes it so much easier having guys that want to listen.”
The Vikings offense enters Monday on a roll, ranking highest in points (fifth) and yards (10th) since the 2009 team that lost the NFC Championship Game. Cousins and company might not have running back Dalvin Cook, who is nursing injuries to both shoulders, against the Packers.
But even when Cook isn’t playing, backups Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone, along with a dangerous play-action passing game, have progressed since the Vikings’ 21-16 loss in Green Bay in September.
“We’ve come a long way,” right tackle Brian O’Neill said. “We’ve been able to show we can win in a variety of ways. I think that’s important. We’re far from finished. Really the only thing I can focus on is how far can we get this offense to go from now until the game. There’s a lot of learning to be done still, and a lot of improvements to try to make based on the film from the last time we played them.”
O’Neill, the 2018 second-round pick turned reliable bookend, was a quick learner of the Vikings-Packers phenomenon after making his NFL debut at Lambeau Field last year.
“That was a special day,” O’Neill said. “You kind of get to understand how much around here people care about it. Obviously, there are a lot of their fans sprinkled throughout the state and our fans sprinkled throughout their state. So it means a lot to people around here and we’re going to try to get it done for all the Vikings fans here.”