Episode 102 - Week 2 Preview: Packers and Vikings at a Turning Point?
I’ve been thinking a lot about turning points lately. If you look back, it’s easier than you might expect to identify turning points in your life. Those moments where you decide to take a job or leave a job, move to a different city, talk to this person or that person. When you add up the cumulative effect of a lot of those kinds of decisions, you can get a pretty clear picture of how you got to where you are.
In a lot of ways, the Packers and Vikings rivalry, such as it is, is about turning points, especially over the last decade or so. The moment when the Packers decided to trade Brett Favre was a definitive turning point, one that ended up affecting several years of Packers/Vikings games, even though he didn’t go to Minnesota right away. Favre’s decline also led to changes in Minnesota, which in turn begat more changes which led to Mike Zimmer and the current run of good play we’ve seen to the west of Wisconsin.
Last year’s first Packers/Vikings game certainly represented a significant turning point. In one single play, the Packers’ season changed completely, and the ripple effects spread throughout the league. At the very least, it gave Minnesota a virtually uncontested run at the NFC North title and a playoff berth, which they ultimately squandered in spectacular fashion.
It’s possible, I think, that this week’s game could also be a bit of a turning point. The Vikings have had the Packers’ number lately. Three times in their last four tries they’ve handled the Packers with relative ease. Other than their pre-Christmas meltdown in 2016, the Vikings have more or less controlled every game against the Packers for the better part of two seasons.
Maybe Minnesota has already moved past the Packers for good and the Packers are trying to play catch-up. Maybe it’s the Packers that are trying to make a turn and there’s more to this weekend’s game than just trying to get revenge for last season. Maybe three years from now, we’ll be looking back at this weekend as the turning point in a new era of Packers dominance over the Vikings. Maybe that’s too big of an ask for a Week 2 game with an injured quarterback.
But maybe that’s why this game feels a little bit more important, in addition to all the narrative baggage from what happened last year in Minnesota. Maybe there’s a turning point in the works, and all it will take is another gutsy performance from a one-legged quarterback.
Five Things to Think About During Sunday’s Game
1 - The Minnesota Vikings have a formidable defense led by a quality secondary. But that secondary has a healthy respect for Aaron Rodgers, no matter how many healthy knees he has. Xavier Rhodes, one of the leaders of that group, wrote at length about Rodgers in a piece for The Players’ Tribune this week. He concluded with this: “Rodgers just has it. And he can do it from the pocket, outside the pocket, running left, running right, while he’s getting tackled … this guy has no weakness. He doesn’t get frazzled. He’s so accurate, always on the money. And the worst part? He knows it. His demeanor — his swagger — he’s so confident in his game that it actually bothers you. And you can’t even talk trash about him. You have to respect him, because he’s one of the best to ever play the game.”
2 - Just because he didn’t write a piece for The Players’ Tribune doesn’t mean you should count out safety Harrison Smith, though. He’s racked up five of his 18 career interceptions against the Packers, including three in his last two games.
3 - The Packers and Vikings rivalry has been characterized by cold weather, and for good reason: when it comes to playing at Lambeau Field, most of the games recently have been late in the season. This is the first time the Packers and Vikings have played at Lambeau Field in September since 2008, which also happened to be Aaron Rodgers’ first start for the Packers.
4 - The Packers currently have nine former first round picks on their roster, but in a departure from previous seasons, two of those former first rounders weren’t picked by the Packers. Muhammad Wilkerson was a first round pick for the Jets in 2011 while Marcedes Lewis joined the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round in 2006.
5 - Mike Zimmer’s reputation as a defensive mastermind is well earned. The Vikings ranked 32nd in the league in scoring defense in 2013, but after Zimmer took over the next season, they’ve never ranked lower than 11th, including three consecutive top ten seasons and the top spot in the league.
Who Could Be an X-Factor This Week?
Assuming Aaron Rodgers plays (and if he doesn’t, does it really matter who the X-factor is?), the Packers will probably try to spread out the Vikings’ defense. Going that direction could help the Packers attack the Vikings’ secondary, but could put more stress on the offensive line. That could be a problem, since the defensive line also happens to be one of the Vikings’ strengths, especially along the interior, where Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson have teamed up to create one of the best interior pairs in the league. Justin McCray will have to have a much better game this week if the Packers hope to employ a spread strategy to any reasonable effect.
What Happened the Last Time the Packers and Vikings Played?
If there’s an emblematic game to the Brett Hundley era in Green Bay, it’s the Packers’ 16-0 loss to the Vikings in Week 16. Playing on a soggy field on a wet night just before Christmas, the Packers actually gave the Vikings a hard time. Between Hundley failing to come away with points’ in the red zone twice and failing to move the ball at all on other drives (including five drives with no first downs), the outcome may have been different. Instead, it was just a slog of a game that ended with a disappointing, dispiriting loss.
Who’s Going to Win?
The Vikings have the better team on paper, and early in the season sometimes that’s all that matters. Much like last week when I predicted the Packers would be farther along in their team plan than the Bears, I think the Vikings are in a similar position over the Packers. Their deeper, more well-rounded roster will make the difference this week, but even with a hobbled Aaron Rodgers I think the Packers keep it relatively close. I think the Vikings win 24-20.
More than 60% of respondents to our survey ranked their confidence at a 2 or lower (out of 4) that the Packers will win this week, which is significantly lower than how people felt about the Packers’ chances going into Week 1.
After Week 1, people are down on Mike McCarthy. 24% of respondents said they felt “somewhat negative” about his performance as coach, an increase over last week where just 8% felt the same.
Generally, people are still feeling pretty good about Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator. 97% of respondents were either somewhat or very satisfied with his performance so far this season this week, but it’s interesting to note a slight shift towards negative feelings. Last week 53% of respondents said they were only somewhat positive about his job so far. This week that number was up to 60%.
Finally, 66% of respondents ranked their confidence at a 2 or lower (out of 4) that the Packers would come back and win last week when Aaron Rodgers returned to the game trailing 20-0. 24% rated themselves a 4. That seems high, but I like the confidence!
One Last Thought
Mike McCarthy gets dinged a lot for his inability or unwillingness to adapt, but I think he’s more aware of his shortcomings than people realize. In The Athletic this week, a Packers writer shared a great quote by McCarthy that I think reveals a lot about his mindset.
Maybe he doesn’t change quite the way people would like him to, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of growth. With Aaron Rodgers banged up already, maybe McCarthy will surprise us all and truly embrace the quick hitting, ultra-modern approach we saw on offense last week. That would be some growth, and a great opportunity for McCarthy to learn.