NFL Preview - Green Bay (11-4) at Minnesota (9-6)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's pretty simple for the upstart Minnesota Vikings -- win and they're in the NFL playoffs.
Coming off a franchise-worst 3-13 season, being in that kind of a position is a win in itself for the Vikings but getting to the next level isn't going to be easy.
Minnesota faces long-time rival Green Bay, the reigning NFC North champions, and a team which has won 12 consecutive games in division competition, including a 23-14 triumph over the Vikings in Week 13 at Lambeau Field despite a 210-yard rushing performance by MVP candidate Adrian Peterson.
This one takes place in Minneapolis at Mall of America Field, however, and the Vikings, who are looking to secure a playoff berth for the first time since 2009, are 6-1 as the host this season.
Minnesota has already matched the largest jump in franchise history from one year to the next after matching its leap from 1997-98 when the team also increased its win total by six games, going from nine to 15 wins.
The Vikings handled AFC powerhouse Houston, 23-6, last Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Peterson, who was named to his fifth Pro Bowl on Wednesday, carried the ball 25 times for 86 yards against the Texans for Minnesota, which has won three in a row overall and currently holds the final wild card spot in the NFC.
Peterson has now rushed for a career-high 1,898 yards on the season, although his string of eight consecutive games with 100 yards rushing came to an end in south Texas. A.P. now needs 102 yards to reach 2,000 on the season and 208 to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark of 2,105 set in 1984.
Limited quarterback Christian Ponder completed 16-of-30 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown in Houston.
"We're not done yet," Ponder said after his team upset the mighty Texans. "We still want to get to playoffs and we'll be extremely disappointed if we don't get there. But we've come a long way."
An emotional Vikings owner, Zygi Wilf, went even further in the locker room after Minnesota's big win.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," Wilf said while holding back tears. "I'm emotional because you guys are so great. We're going to win the next one and we're going on, guys. God bless you guys."
Aaron Rodgers and the Pack still have plenty to play for, though. A win in Minneapolis would clinch a first-round bye for Green Bay while a loss could mean a Vikings-Packers rematch at Lambeau Field in the first round of the playoffs.
In Week 16 Rodgers threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for another score, as Green Bay pummeled the Tennessee Titans, 55-7, at Lambeau Field. The 55 points matched the most ever by the Pack at Lambeau.
Rodgers finished an efficient 27-of-38 passing to go with four carries for 11 yards, while Ryan Grant rushed for 80 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
James Jones finished with seven catches for 100 yards and a score, while Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings each hauled in a touchdown pass for the Packers, who have won four straight overall.
"This was an important momentum game for our football team," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's important for us to finish out the season the right way."
This will be the 103rd regular season meeting between the two clubs with the Packers holding a 54-47-1 all-time advantage. Green Bay has dominated in recent years, winning five straight in the series and 10 of the past 13.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Vikings are about getting an early lead and riding Peterson to the finish line while Ponder plays caretaker. That plan has worked very well over the past three weeks as Minnesota has scored on its first possession in each of those games. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is very inventive with formations and can usually out-script the opposition early but tends to get repetitive as the game progresses, making things tougher on the limited Ponder.
"It's been impressive," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said when discussing his team's fast starts. "It's exactly what we've needed. We talked all along about being able to start fast on offense and defense and we've gotten that done as of late. We're going to need it again against a high powered offense and a very good defense."
The embattled Ponder simply can't play from behind at this stage of his career and the Vikings lost their lone real receiving threat when Percy Harvin went down with an ankle injury. Rookie Jarius Wright has added some juice in recent weeks and must be accounted for but this team is all about Peterson, who could be the best player in all of football.
"The best thing he can do is lead us to a win," Frazier said when talking about Ponder. "That would be huge for our football team. Just do a great job at the quarterback position like he's done over the last few weeks and for the most part through the season. Lead us to victory, that would be terrific."
Defensively the Vikings are much improved and rookie defensive coordinator Alan Williams has been picking up his game in recent weeks, throwing more looks at opposing quarterbacks. That will be essential against Rodgers, a player who will gash you again and again if you give him easy pre-snap reads.
Minnesota has been far too predictable in recent seasons, relying too much on soft Tampa-2 coverage against Rodgers, who has thrown 14 touchdown passes versus three interceptions and compiled a gaudy 122.6 passer rating during Green Bay's five-game winning streak against the Vikings.
That has to change since the Packers are 27-0 when Rodgers has a 115-plus rating.
Minnesota's pass rush was on against the Texans even without underrated left defensive end Brian Robison, who was out with a sprained shoulder. Robison figures to be back in this do-or-die game and could help Pro Bowl selection Jared Allen and the emerging Everson Griffen put the heat on against an average Packers offensive line.
The return of lengthy cornerback Chris Cook from a broken arm last week is also key, since it makes the Vikings much deeper on the edges and gives them a better chance to slow down Green Bay's talented receiving corps.
If the Vikings bring the same pass rush they had in Houston last week on the fast turf in Minny, the team will be on its way to the postseason. If Rodgers feels comfortable, however, the Packers will continue their march to the playoffs unfettered and earn a first round bye. This is a big test for both Ponder and Frazier and the guess is, Minnesota finally solves the Pack.
"We'll see what happens on this Sunday, but obviously this is a big game for this organization and for my career," Ponder said.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 21, Packers 17
12/27 12:58:19 ET