Week 17. Legendary Lambeau Field. Two-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers and a Green Bay Packers team looking to secure its fifth consecutive NFC North title.
The games don’t get any bigger than this … at least until a week from now.
The trick for Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings will be forgetting about all that.
“It’s a big game, but we can’t let the game become bigger than what it is,” the second-year quarterback said Wednesday, later adding, “We’re playing for a lot right now, but at the same time, we have to go out there and be ourselves. We don’t have to do anything extra. We don’t have to put any S’s on our chests, capes on our backs. We just have to do our job and do it well.”
In the three games following a 38-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks that he called an “embarrassment,” Bridgewater has played arguably the best football of his pro career. That gives the Vikings maybe their biggest reason for optimism heading into Sunday night’s winner-take-all showdown with the Packers.
He threw for a career-high 335 yards against an Arizona Cardinals defense that pummeled Rodgers last weekend. In the win over the Chicago Bears, he became the first Vikings quarterback since Fran Tarkenton to throw four touchdown passes and run for another score. On Sunday, he threw for 127 yards in the first half against the New York Giants before becoming a handoff machine in the runaway victory.
Overall, Bridgewater completed 70.3 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, no picks and a 123.2 passer rating, and the offense produced 100 points.
There have been a few factors in his recent surge. The Vikings have asked him to get the ball out in a hurry more often, giving his slippery wideouts a chance to chalk up yards after the catch. They have at times utilized a moving pocket, too, taking some of the strain off an offensive line that struggles in pass protection. And Bridgewater has simply been more accurate, particularly on crossing routes.
“He’s very well-coached. I think [offensive coordinator] Norv Turner, he’s done it as good as or better than anybody in his time in the league,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’ve been very impressed with Teddy Bridgewater.”
Bridgewater also has been more precise on the handful of plays when he has tried to attack defenses downfield. In the past three games, he completed five of seven attempts that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus. Two of them went for touchdowns, including his 28-yard strike to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the second quarter of the Giants game.
He threw an interception on a similar play last month against the Atlanta Falcons. This time, Bridgewater looked off the free safety in the center of the field and threaded the needle to Rudolph up the seam.
It was one play, but it showed the difference in his command down the stretch.
“It’s just trusting your guys. Landing it in an area where only they can get it,” Bridgewater said. “We have guys who can make plays, and I just have to give those guys a chance and that’s something we’ve been doing these past couple weeks.”
As well as Bridgewater is playing, the Vikings do not want to get in a shootout with Rodgers. So the key will be maintaining their recent offensive balance.
Rodgers has only averaged more than 6.2 yards per pass attempt once in his past seven starts, including the 30-13 victory over the Vikings in Week 11. Against the Cardinals, he was sacked eight times and threw for only 151 yards with three turnovers, including a pair of fumbles that were returned for touchdowns.
But the Vikings, who have only beaten Rodgers four times in 15 opportunities, are aware of what he can do even when playing behind a banged-up offensive line and throwing to wide receivers who haven’t consistently created separation.
“He just has that ‘it’ factor,” Bridgewater said. “You put the tape on and he’s in total control. … He’s always poised. He never gets rattled or anything like that.”
Bridgewater, meanwhile, played two of his best games of the season against the Cardinals and the then-undefeated Denver Broncos in Week 4. But there have also been high-profile games, such as that loss to the Packers, in which he struggled.
“You can tell when he’s really gunned up for a game, and he’s played good when he has been, and there’s been times where he’s maybe tried to do too much,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “It’s kind of like everybody.”
Sunday night will be the most important game of Bridgewater’s young career. It will also be his first career start at Lambeau Field. During his rookie year, he sat out the 42-10 Thursday night debacle there because of an ankle injury.
With the division title on the line, Bridgewater will have a chance to become the first Vikings quarterback since his boyhood hero, Brett Favre, to win in Green Bay. That was way back in 2009, the last time the Vikings won the NFC North.
But for the second consecutive season, Bridgewater has saved his best for last. In eight career games in December, Bridgewater has completed 70.1 percent of his passes with a 102.7 passer rating — about 20 points higher than the other months.
“Coach Zimmer always talks about ‘this is when teams become great.’ We’re trying to do something spectacular around here,” Bridgewater said. “But we know that it starts with us.”