Vikings defenders say they won’t get caught sleepwalking at Lambeau Field.
If putting behind a self-described “lethargic” game and a 28-point loss to the Colts wasn’t enough motivation, a loss on Christmas Eve vs. the rival Packers (8-6) would end the Vikings’ (7-7) playoff dreams and place Green Bay one win away from an NFC North title.
“I just feel like if you can’t get excited for this game, why are you playing football?” linebacker Eric Kendricks said.
Consecutive Vikings wins in the Packers rivalry feel like a distant memory after the defense was waxed for 411 yards and 34 points last week in a loss to the Colts. The first of those wins, at Lambeau last January, gave the Vikings a division title and their third consecutive win to end the 2015 regular season.
A year later, the Packers are surging as winners of four straight with an MVP-caliber quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, who hasn’t thrown an interception since Nov. 13. This Vikings defense, which drew early comparisons to some of the NFL’s all-time greats in a 5-0 start, hasn’t forced a takeaway in three of the last four games.
“Timing is everything in the NFL,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We’re both fighting for our lives. We got a very slim chance, and they still have a chance to win the division. They’re in a good place right now; we’re not.”
Timing was an issue vs. the Colts as they marched up and down the field on the Vikings with a power running game and precisely aimed targets at linebackers and safeties. It was a rare letdown from the defense, which is still the NFL’s sixth-ranked scoring unit allowing fewer than 19 points per game.
As the Vikings trend in the opposite direction as the Packers, Minnesota’s cornerstones remain from last year’s division title save for a hobbled Harrison Smith (ankle) and Adrian Peterson (knee/groin). Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has not faced the Packers without Smith, the secondary’s versatile leader who returned to practice Thursday.
They could use him against Rodgers, receiver Jordy Nelson and a handful of other budding Packers weapons. Nelson, who caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in the Vikings’ Week 2 victory, enters Saturday leading the league with 12 touchdown grabs for what Zimmer summarized as an evolving Packers offense. The most intriguing change has been receiver Ty Montgomery’s success at running back, which included 162 rushing yards vs. the Bears on Sunday.
“They’re playing really well right now,” Zimmer said. “I think they’ve changed quite a bit offensively. A lot of personnel groups. They’ve got some motions. They’re huddling now.”
The Vikings want to be the same defense that held Green Bay to just 14 points in September, but it’s difficult to recapture without Smith roaming the secondary and swooping down to stop runs. His replacement, Anthony Harris, has seen growing pains in his fledgling starts.
“He’s been OK,” Zimmer said. “Struggled a little bit last week. Some coverage things he struggled with.”
Another Packers target has emerged alongside Nelson, who is averaging nearly 10 targets per game in the 4-0 run. Davante Adams has two 100-yard games and three touchdowns in that stretch.
Either cornerback Terence Newman or Trae Waynes, should he clear the concussion protocol, will likely see a lot of Adams if cornerback Xavier Rhodes follows Nelson throughout the game as expected.
“Adams is doing an awesome job,” Rhodes said. “You see Aaron has found a new target he’s throwing to in certain downs and distances. Adams is getting better.”
Vikings defenders know playoff chances are slim. They could win and still be eliminated Saturday if the Buccaneers defeat the Saints that afternoon. But chances at disrupting the Packers’ timing and own playoff hopes are enough motivation for some.
“If we can’t go, they can’t go,” Munnerlyn said. “That’s how we’re going to look at it. We’re going to try and spoil their parade, put them in a bad situation.”