The Packers head into Monday night’s NFC North showdown leading the host Vikings in victories and, apparently, in number of fans whining about their quarterback.
In a rare twist of Border Battle QB narratives since Brett Favre swaggered north from Atlanta 27 years ago, it’s Green Bay who has the guy more people seem to be complaining about as the Packers (11-3) and Vikings (10-4) meet as playoff teams still fighting for the division title.
… Is Aaron Rodgers holding the ball too long!? Does he trust his receivers?! And what in the name of Canton, Ohio, is up with this future Hall of Famer ranking 18th in completion percentage for an offense that ranks 21st overall, 17th in passing and a really-un-Packer-like 14th in scoring!?!? …
“I think he’s playing at a really high level,” said Green Bay rookie coach Matt LaFleur, whose team would clinch the NFC North with a victory Monday night. “It’s just like anything. Quarterbacks get too much blame when things aren’t going right and too much credit when they are going right.
“It takes all 11. I think there are some plays that obviously we need to make, and guys need to step up around him and make those plays because if we make a couple of those plays, I don’t think anybody is saying anything [bad about Rodgers].”
You won’t hear a bad word coming from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Asked if he sees Rodgers playing any differently, Zimmer said: “He still has all the attributes. … I think he’s him. I think one of us needs to get out of the division. Either him or me. I don’t care who or which one.”
Meanwhile, in the Land of 10,000 worries, it’s Vikings fans who are struggling — for now, at least — to find something to complain about in the leader of a top-five scoring attack on a team that clinched its third playoff spot in five seasons when the Rams lost at San Francisco on Saturday night.
Yes, Vikings fans are perpetually leery of good times. But Kirk Cousins is riding a 10-game stretch in which he’s gone 8-2 with 22 touchdown passes, four turnovers and seven games with a passer rating of 111.4 or better. His career-high 111.1 passer rating has some suggesting that Rodgers’ eighth Pro Bowl selection should have been Cousins’ first Pro Bowl nod.
“He’s playing fast as far as making quick decisions, understanding what the concepts are,” Zimmer said when asked how Cousins has improved since a 2-2 start that included a couple of road clunkers at Green Bay and Chicago.
“I think all that stuff at the beginning is what we were trying to get him to understand. It was a tad foreign to him even though it was a lot of the same system for him.”
LaFleur, who was Cousins’ position coach for two years in Washington, said he notices an extra comfort level that comes with Cousins being back in a ball-control offense that emphasizes bootlegs and play-action.
“I feel like he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and he’s showing it this year,” LaFleur said. “If the play’s there, he’s making the play. Period. Every time. He’s so accurate. He’s extremely intelligent. And he knows what he’s looking for, so when he sees it, there is zero hesitation in his game. He is extremely decisive.
“And I think what is really separating him right now is just how well he’s taking care of that football.”
Cousins has only eight turnovers this season. The fewest he’s had in a full season is 14, when he became the starter in Washington in 2015.
Of course, Cousins threw a season-high two picks at Green Bay, including an ill-advised fourth-quarter lob into the end zone that essentially sealed the 21-16 loss. He’ll need to do better than that to improve his 0-8 record on “Monday Night Football.”
“You can’t change the past,” Cousins said of his O-fer on MNF. “But you certainly have a great opportunity Monday night.”
Monday’s meeting at U.S. Bank Stadium will be just the second of 119 meetings in which both teams have at least 10 wins. The first one came only four years ago, when the Vikings clinched the NFC North at Lambeau Field in the 2015 season finale.
The Packers are 0-3 at U.S. Bank Stadium. And Rodgers — the NFL’s career leader in passer rating at 102.9 — has an 88.3 rating in road games against the Vikings since Zimmer became coach in 2014.
“Sometimes, Zimmer gets into his head before the game even starts,” said Ben Leber, former Vikings linebacker and current sideline reporter for the team’s radio network. “He’ll never admit it. But I think he respects [Zimmer’s] scheme, he respects his disguises and always knows there’s going to be something new that Zimmer’s been holding back, and he’s waiting for that to happen in the game.
“I think [Zimmer] is in his head, especially [in Minnesota]. He’s much more analytical, and I think he plays a little bit slower, and makes mistakes.”
The Vikings still respect the 36-year-old’s ability to buy time in the pocket, break contain and run or throw long darts outside the pocket.
“I do feel like he’s holding the ball a little bit longer as far as compared to what I can remember throughout his career,” defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “There are going to be times that he gets the ball out quick. But we drool over things like that. We like guys who hold the ball.”
Despite the criticism, Rodgers still has a passer rating of 100.4, 24 touchdown passes and two interceptions, the last of which came eight games and 265 passes ago.
Former Packers receiver James Jones said he loves the way Rodgers has responded to LaFleur’s new system, which is more committed to the run, while complementing an improved defense that’s ninth in points allowed (20.2) and seventh in takeaways (23). With Aaron Jones pacing the running attack with a league-high 14 rushing touchdowns, Rodgers is on pace to throw his fewest passes (541) in a full season since 2014.
“Being the superstar that he is, he understands that he needs a lot of pieces around him to be successful,” James Jones said. “It’s not always having to be on him to make a play. But if it comes down to that, we all know, and we’ll put our money on him making the play.
“When he makes plays, you still see the arm talent, you still see the mobility, you still see him making those special throws. You might not see as many, because they’re running it a little bit more. But that doesn’t mean that he’s declining or slowing down.”
Staff writer Ben Goessling contributed to this report.