On Jan. 3, 2016, the Vikings faced the Packers at Lambeau Field in search of their first NFC North title since 2009 — which, not coincidentally, had been the year of their most recent victory in Green Bay.
Since then, the Vikings had gone 0-5-1 at Lambeau, losing by an average of 19.4 points in the defeats, which had included a playoff game after the 2012 season and spanned three coaches: Brad Childress, Leslie Frazier and Mike Zimmer, who’d watched his team lose 42-10 in his first road game against the Packers.
Zimmer said this week he learned the magnitude of the Vikings-Packers rivalry “probably the first time we went there and got our butts kicked” on Oct. 2, 2014. in what turned out to be Christian Ponder’s final start for the Vikings.
It was the win the next year, though, which gave the Vikings a division title and signaled things might be changing against their longtime nemesis.
“The night we beat them [to win the division] when Rodgers threw the ball in the end zone at the end of the game [was big], whenever that was,” Zimmer said. “They’re all big. Next week will be a big game too.”
How big? If the Vikings leave Lambeau Field with a win on Sunday, they will have fashioned their best run of success against the Packers since a streak that began while Brett Favre was a backup.
The Vikings have won four of their last five against Green Bay, matching their best run since they beat the Packers in four of Favre’s first five starts in the series. To find the last time the Vikings took five of six games in the rivalry, you’d have to tack on their season-opening win on Sept. 6, 1992, when Favre backed up Don Majkowski.
Essentially, the Vikings haven’t had this much success against the Packers since either a) Favre was a backup or b) Favre was a young, turnover-prone starter who had yet to reach his Hall of Fame level. Since then, in the Packers’ charmed run of elite quarterbacking, they simply haven’t been down for long. Apart from two three-game win streaks (the first spanning from the 2004 NFC playoffs to the Packers’ 4-12 season in 2005, the second stretching from Rodgers’ first year as a starter to Favre’s two wins against his old team in 2009), the Vikings haven’t been able to solve the Packers like this.
It should be noted, of course, that Rodgers played just eight plays against the Vikings last year, and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. But the Vikings have also won two of their last three against the Packers when Rodgers was healthy. A win on Sunday, especially if it comes with Rodgers on the field, would add another layer of significance to the Vikings’ recent success.
Here are some other notes and observations as the Vikings head into Sunday’s game:
2. One of the most fascinating aspects of this rivalry in recent years, to me, is the way Zimmer and Rodgers talk about one another. It’s clear both have a great deal of respect for one another, in part because they’ve both delivered their fair share of blows to the other. Here’s what they said this week:
Zimmer: “The guy is an unbelievable player. He’s obviously, I don’t want to say anybody’s the best but he’s pretty darn close to being the best guy. I mean his arm is unbelievable. I still remember when I played him in a preseason game in Cincinnati. He ducked under a guy, spun, rolled to his right and threw a 30-yard dart on the sideline over there and I said, ‘Holy crap.’ Since that day I’ve had the utmost respect for this guy. He can make every throw, he’s smart, he’s tough obviously. He’s a great player.”
Rodgers: “There’s no weaknesses in the defense. You look at all three levels — and a lot of times, when you’re playing a defense, just when you think about the team, you can maybe name three or four guys off the top of your head, that you know about, that you’ve seen play or heard about. It’s different with this team; you know most of them, because they’re big names. There’s a lot of big names on that team, a lot of guys that got paid second contracts and made a lot of plays for a number of years. And Mike is obviously a fantastic coach. He has those guys prepared, he has a great scheme that other people have tried to copy across the league. And I’ve said this most times we’ve played Minnesota: I think that’s the biggest compliment, the type of imitation that’s tried to go on with the stuff that he’s done for a number of years, in Cincinnati and now in Minnesota.”
3. The Vikings’ secondary is a rarity in the modern NFL: It has three starters who have intercepted Rodgers in their careers. Harrison Smith picked Rodgers off in the end zone as he threw deep for Greg Jennings on Dec. 2, 2012, Xavier Rhodes intercepted Rodgers’ fourth-down attempt to tie the game in the Vikings’ NFC North title game win over the Packers on Jan. 3, 2016 and Trae Waynes recovered from a rough night to seal the Vikings’ Sept. 18, 2016 win with an interception along the sideline on opening night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
4. When Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo got his first chance to call plays in the NFL, his boss was the man whose defense he’ll try to beat on Sunday: Mike Pettine, who worked with DeFilippo when both were with the Jets in 2009 and hired him to replace Kyle Shanahan as the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2015. Asked about the Vikings’ ability to diagnose the Packers’ defense in Pettine’s second game as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator, Zimmer said, “I’m sure they’ll have some new wrinkles. I mean, every team has new wrinkles every week. I’m sure they’ll have some. ‘Flip’ has probably seen a lot of his, because they were together, right?”
Zimmer said the biggest difference with the Packers’ defense under Pettine is how many different variables they’ll employ in their fronts and coverage techniques. “It’s a lot more varied, I guess is the best way to say it,” Zimmer said. “A lot of different coverages, different looks, mixes the front up a lot. You get some bear fronts, some under [fronts], some over [fronts], some over with a hang, a lot of different things that way and a lot of different coverage aspects. They’ll rush three guys and play two-man [coverage] with a robber [safety technique] and a lot of different combinations.”
5. Cousins, who lived in the Chicago area before he moved to Michigan as a teenager, grew up watching NFC North rivalries. A few interactions with fans when he was out and about in Minnesota this summer, though, helped him grasp the magnitude of the Vikings-Packers rivalry pretty quickly. “You run into people and you are going to hear a lot more about the rivalry of the Vikings and Packers, or you are going to hear about your opponents in the NFC North, more than you are going to hear about some team in the AFC that you may play once only every four years,” he said. “I think that is when you start to feel it and it starts to build. You realize how important it is for this organization, for our fans. Just the math of needing to win your division to get a home playoff game. I think the math would say we want to win our divisional games.”
6. Guard Bryan Witzmann, who joined the Vikings on Monday, was born in St. Paul, but grew up across the border in Somerset, Wis. His parents are Vikings fans, he said, but he grew up with plenty of friends who are Packers fans. The trip to Lambeau Field on Sunday, then, carries an extra round of significance for Witzmann. “Obviously, I’m from Wisconsin, but I’m going to shove it in my friends’ faces and everything,” he said this week.
7. With Mackensie Alexander back this week, he could return to his spot at nickel corner. That could give the Vikings the opportunity to play Mike Hughes outside, where he finished the game last week. Zimmer said this week he thinks Hughes is more comfortable playing outside corner than he is in the slot at this point. ” The outside, other than the job description that you have [often covering a receiver with little help], it’s an easier job. The inside, you have more help, but there’s a lot more going on.
“I would said he’s probably more comfortable on the outside just because it’s easier. It’s harder but it’s easier if that makes sense.”
8. The Vikings used Jayron Kearse for 20 snaps at nickel corner last week against the 49ers, employing their new big nickel package after moving Hughes outside following Trae Waynes’ knee injury. Zimmer said this week there’s a chance for George Iloka to play the role, as well as Kearse. “We’re really just trying to use the pieces that we have and try to figure out ways how we can use them best to defend the team we’re playing,” Zimmer said.
9. This will be the Vikings’ earliest trip to Lambeau Field since the 2008 season, when they lost to the Packers in Rodgers’ first career start. As special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said, there should be about an 80-degree difference between Sunday’s gametime temperature and the conditions the Vikings faced in their last trip to Lambeau on Dec. 23. That should also mean a more consistent surface on Sunday for both teams’ specialists, especially after the Packers replaced the turf after last season. “The field conditions, they always do a really good job taking care of that field even when it’s bad weather,” Priefer said. “So the grass will be good, footing will be good. I don’t know what the winds will be like but practicing out here all week is really going to help us. We’ve had wind all week and we’ll continue to do so today. That’s going to help prepare us for the game.”
10. The Vikings had opportunities to try rookie kicker Daniel Carlson from 56 and 57 yards on Sunday, but passed up those chances when they decided to punt and pin the 49ers deep in their own territory. The first decision worked especially well, when punter Matt Wile pinned the 49ers at their own 4, setting up the Vikings’ drive for their first field goal. Priefer said the longer attempts would have been tough for Carlson’s first NFL field goal, but he praised the way the rookie battled his pregame nerves. “I think his nerves were evident pregame against San Francisco,” Priefer said. “He did a good job, got that game under his belt. Like any young kicker or punter or any young player you get a good game under your belt you’re going to gain some confidence.”