The Green Bay Packers return home on New Year’s Day to face the division leading Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. The Vikings are 12-3 and have already clinched the NFC North title and a playoff berth.
The Packers are coming off a 26-20 win over the Dolphins last Sunday. The Packers are now 7-8 and can still make the playoffs if they win their final two games and get a little help down the stretch. The Vikings helped the Packers last weekend by beating the New York Giants 27-24 in Minnesota.
The Packers lead the all-time series between these two teams 63-56-3. The two teams first met when the Vikings entered the NFL in 1961. These division rivals have split their only two postseason meetings. The Vikings have won three of the last four games between the teams including the season opener this year by a 23-7 margin in Minnesota.
Here is a look at six key factors that will determine who wins Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field:
- Contain Justin Jefferson
Jefferson is one of the most dangerous receivers in the game today. He has already caught 123 passes for 1,756 yards and eight touchdowns and has a chance to go over 2,000 yards receiving for the season if he gains 244 yards in the final two games of the year.
Jefferson is fast, elusive and smart and he has a history of big games against the Packers. In the season opener, the former LSU star caught nine passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns and was the biggest reason for Minnesota’s victory.
The Packers played mostly zones against the Vikings in Week 1 and had difficulty passing receivers off as they crossed from one zone to another. Jefferson ran crossing patterns throughout the game and the Packers never figured out how to stop them.
This week, defensive coordinator Joe Barry could try to have Jaire Alexander, his best cover corner, match up with Jefferson, or he could go back to the zone defense with the hope that the adjustments they made in the second half against Miami continue against Jefferson and the Vikings other two dangerous targets in Adam Thielen and T.J. Hockenson.
If the Packers can’t slow down Jefferson, a repeat of Week 1 become much more likely.
- Get Pressure On Kirk Cousins
The Vikings offensive line has allowed 44 sacks so far this season and is vulnerable, particularly on the interior. Tackles Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill have played well this season but the center and guards have been inconsistent and the Packers need to take advantage of that.
Kenny Clark, Jarran Reed and Devonte Wyatt will need to provide some push from the inside. The Packers may also blitz Quay Walker, De’Vondre Campbell or one or more of their safeties to try to exploit the Vikings weakness on the interior of the line.
Preston Smith and Kingsley Enagbare are giving the Pack more push from the edge in recent weeks with recent addition Justin Hollins also providing depth off the edge.
If the Pack can get pressure on Cousins, they can take away the deep pass and force him into some untimely turnovers.
- Protect Aaron Rodgers
The Vikings have a pair of dangerous rushers off the edge in Danielle Hunter (10.5 sacks) and Za’Darius Smith (10 sacks). Both are experienced and skilled rushers who know how to get to the quarterback. Smith will have even more motivation facing his former teammates and the team that released him this past offseason.
The Packers offensive line has injury questions. David Bakhtiari returned to practice Wednesday but was limited. His status is still uncertain as he returns from an emergency appendectomy. Starting right tackle Yosh Nijman left the Dolphins game early with a shoulder injury and was also limited in practice on Wednesday.
The Packers really need at least one of their starting tackles to play on Sunday. Rookie Zach Tom has done a solid job filling in for Bakhtiari in recent weeks but if Tom and Royce Newman are the starters, the Packers will be at a major disadvantage against Hunter and Smith.
If Rodgers has time to throw, he can still be effective and should be against a vulnerable Vikings secondary which is presently ranked dead last in the league in yards allowed per game with 281.5.
- Take Advantage of the Vikings Vulnerable Secondary
As mentioned above, the Vikings secondary has not played well this season except for Patrick Peterson who has enjoyed a bounce back campaign.
Cam Dantzler, Harrison Smith, Camryn Bynum and ex-Packer Chandon Sullivan can be exploited.
Look for Romeo Doubs, Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb to make plays against this secondary. If Christian Watson (hip) can play, the Packers could make some big plays downfield and strike quickly. That could also open more plays up underneath for all the Green Bay receivers.
- Score Touchdowns in the Red Zone
The Packers red zone offense has struggled all season and last week was no exception. The Green Bay defense created four turnovers but the Packers didn’t convert any of them into touchdowns. Three times they kicked field goals and once turned the ball back over to the Dolphins.
The Packers need to find a good balance between run and pass in the red zone and convert opportunities into touchdowns. A.J. Dillon bulled his way into the end zone last week and now has five rushing touchdowns in the last four games. A healthier Aaron Jones would also give the Packers offense more options in the red zone.
Minnesota has an explosive offense with Dalvin Cook and their talented receiving corps and the Packers need to keep pace.
The Vikings are tied for 15th in the league in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns 55.6 percent of the time. The Packers red zone offense, however, 24th in the league and produces touchdowns only 51 percent of the time.
The Pack needs to mix in some runs and the appropriate time and possibly get tight end Robert Tonyan more involved in the red zone offense. Tonyan has only one touchdown catch all year after catching 11 in 2020, the last full season he was healthy.
- Win the Turnover Battle
Winning the turnover battle was a key to the win last week in Miami and the Packers will need to do that again to have a chance to beat the Vikings.
Minnesota is 5th in the league at plus-six this season while the Packers are now even on the year in turnover differential.
Giving the offense a short field is a surefire way to increase your chances of winning games, especially with an inconsistent offense like that Packers had for most of this season.
The Packers took another step forward last week, beating a quality opponent on the road and overcoming a 10-point deficit to do it.
The Vikings are a talented team but they’re not as good as their 12-3 record. They have scored just five more points then they’ve given up all year and their expected win rate according to pro-football-reference.com is just 7.6-7.4 or roughly 8-7.
Still, Minnesota has found ways to win close games all season. In fact, the only game they won by more than one score all year was the season opener against Green Bay.
The Packers have the momentum now and more to play for than the Vikings. They will need to play their best to beat a confident and talented Vikings team but playing outdoors in Green Bay will help just enough for them to pull it off.
Packers 31, Vikings 28
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