Episode 129 - Week 12 Preview: Salvaging the Season in Minnesota

 A season-defining poor call against Clay Matthews snatched a win from the Packers in Week 2.

A season-defining poor call against Clay Matthews snatched a win from the Packers in Week 2.

I love the Lord of the Rings series, and in The Two Towers (the middle book) there’s a scene I really enjoy.

The heroes are pressed up inside the keep of Helm’s Deep. There’s an army trying to break down the door. In the movie version, King Theoden turns to Aragorn distraught. He doesn’t know what to do. The odds are too long. The hope is so slim. He’s tried his best to save what he can of his people, but it’s not going to work.

“What would you have me do?” he asks.

“Ride out and meet them,” Aragorn responds.

It plays out a little bit differently in the book, but the general feel of the scene is the same. We’re about to go down, but if this is the end, we’re going to go down swinging. We have seen the enemy and we are prepared to meet them.

I thought about that scene a lot this week. The Packers are backed into a similar corner. Since their bye week they’ve lost three of four games, and each of those losses has been a different kind of disappointing.

Ty Montgomery fumbled away a close game against the Rams. The Patriots handled the Packers easily down the stretch. Then the Packers got in their own way against the Seahawks.

Now, they need to win six straight or get some serious help if they’re going to make the playoffs. Every game from here on out is pretty much a must win, and as they prepare for the first one, you have to wonder what the attitude is like in the Packers’ locker room.

Have they resigned themselves to their fate? Is anyone already making offseason plans? Maybe a few are thinking about impending free agency.

Or are they saying “Yes! Let’s ride out and meet them. Let’s take the fight to our opponent this week, next week, and every week.”

I hope it’s the second one because even as a fan, there’s something exciting about the playoffs essentially starting now.

The symbolism of this game is phenomenal. The Packers are returning to the place where last season -- and really everything since then -- began to unravel. They go there knowing the need to win or their season essentially comes to an end. Short of a playoff game, that’s about as good as it gets.

I hope the Packers are ready to ride out and meet them on Sunday.

Five Things to Think About During Sunday’s Game

1 - The Vikings made the ultimate splash in the offseason when they signed Kirk Cousins to a then-record setting $84 million contract, all of it guaranteed. The thinking behind the signing was clear: we need a quarterback to contend, and if Cousins is at least as good as he was in Washington, that’ll be good enough.

Well, half of that equation has been almost exactly true. Kirk Cousins is basically the same as he was during his three years in Washington. Those three seasons he completed 67% of his passes, threw touchdowns on 4.8% of his passes, and was intercepted on 2.1 percent of his passes all for a passer rating of 97.5.

This year, Cousins is completing more of his passes and throwing slightly fewer interceptions, leading to a slightly higher passer rating of 99.3, but he’s also throwing fewer touchdowns. More importantly, the Vikings are just 5-4-1, and Cousins has come up small in losses to the Bears and Bills.

2 - On the other sideline, Aaron Rodgers’ struggles (or maybe perceived struggles) have been well-documented, but he’s been excellent in one area: Rodgers refuses to throw interceptions. He’s thrown just one in 385 attempts so far this year and is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw that few interceptions in that many attempts. And bear this in mind: his one pick this year was on a tipped pass.

3 - Though other issues with scoring points have grabbed more attention, we can’t forget that Mason Crosby has not come through for the Packers in a couple key spots this year. He’s missed six field goals this year, and all six of his misses arguably had significant consequences. The Packers lost by three last week in a game where Crosby missed a very makeable field goal early and his four misses against the Lions all but took the Packers out of contention. But the kick that definitively cost the Packers a win came against the Vikings. On an 80-degree afternoon with minimal wind, Crosby failed to convert a 52-yard field goal on the final play of regulation. The Packers and Vikings ultimately tied in overtime.

4 - Dalvin Cook is the big ticket item in the Vikings’ offensive backfield (other than Cousins), but don’t sleep on Latavius Murray. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry on 96 runs this year, the most he’s averaged per carry since his rookie season. His last two weeks haven’t been all that special, but on the whole he’s been effective this season.

5 - The Minnesota Vikings have done well to lock up their defensive core, especially their stars. But even on a team with Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Sheldon Richardson, there’s always room for new stars to take on bigger roles. Enter Danielle Hunter, who the Vikings re-signed at the start of this season. All he’s done since signing that five-year, $72 million make it look like a bargain. He opened the season with eight sacks in the Vikings’ first seven games and has 11.5 so far this year and is definitely someone the Packers need to watch closely.

Who Could Be an X-Factor This Week?

The Packers’ pass catching corps is a well-known commodity at this point of the year, but a new face could be playing a bigger role. With Jimmy Graham limited, it’s possible we may finally see Robert Tonyan get significant reps. He made the most of his one target last week, and with Marcedes Lewis a limited player at this point in his career and Lance Kendricks operating more like a fullback, it could be time for Tonyan to get a real look. With the Packers’ backs collectively against the wall, getting help from an unexpected source would be a big benefit.

What Happened the Last Time the Packers and Vikings Played?

The Packers and Vikings tied the last time out, but the Packers really did the Vikings a few big favors. First there was Clay Matthews roughing the passer, but after that the entire defense seemed to fall apart. Kentrell Brice took a bad angle on a touchdown pass, the offense didn’t salt things away when they could, and Mason Crosby missed a game-winning field goal as we discussed earlier. All in all, it was a game the Packers really deserved to lose and they should have counted themselves lucky to escape with a tie.

Who’s Going to Win?

There are head picks and there are heart picks. In my head, the Vikings are the better team. They are. They should handle the Packers.

But like the Packers, they’re also hugely inconsistent and have wallowed through a disappointing season. The Packers have to win this game and every other game on their schedule to make it to the playoffs, and if there’s any fumes remaining from the running of the table in 2016, they need to ignite right now.

I think they can do it. I don’t have a lot of evidence for this. I don’t really, truly have any evidence for this. But I think it can be done. At least for one week, the Packers are going to give themselves hope. Give me the Packers in a nail-biter, 31-30 the final.

One Last Thought

Calling back to running the table one last time. The last game the Packers played before starting their run that season was a nationally televised loss to the Washington Redskins. Aaron Rodgers put up good stats in that game, but the Packers came up short as Jared Cook fumbled late and the defense gave up a couple big plays to Kirk Cousins.

The Packers put things together the next week in another nationally televised game and they were officially off on their run.

Now, the Packers are again coming off a nationally televised loss. Aaron Rodgers put up big numbers, but the team as a whole came up short when it mattered most. Now, they’re headed into another nationally televised game with their season on the line, and Aaron Rodgers says they need a galvanizing moment. If it’s going to happen, now’s the time. Let’s hope we see it Sunday night.