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NFL Preview - Minnesota (2-6) at Green Bay (8-0)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Green Bay Packers have put together a perfect record through the first eight games of this 2011 season, in large part because Aaron Rodgers' play has been nearly spotless.
The defending world champions put their unblemished mark on the line, while Rodgers will attempt to further an already strong case for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award, in Monday's NFC North clash with a Minnesota Vikings team that'll be seeking to build off a much-needed win its last time out when it heads to Lambeau Field.
Rodgers is on pace to deliver a season for the ages, and his team may be as well. In leading Green Bay to an 8-0 record at the halfway point, the deadly- accurate quarterback has become the first player in NFL history to amass over 2,600 passing yards and throw for at least 24 touchdowns over the first eight games, while his current 129.1 rating would shatter Peyton Manning's single- season league record of 121.1 if it holds up.
The Super Bowl XLV MVP also leads the NFL with a sensational 72.5 completion percentage and has been intercepted a mere three times on the year.
"His decision-making is clearly at the highest level that I personally have been a part of, just his command of the offense and going away from the defense," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers. "If the defense tilts one way, he goes away from it. We have the firepower to give them options, and he has just been very disciplined with the ball placement. I think his decision-making is top notch right now."
Rodgers was spot on once again in his most recent assignment, making good on a crisp 21-of-26 pass attempts for 247 yards and four touchdowns without an interception in lifting Green Bay to a wild 45-38 victory at San Diego last Sunday. His performance enabled the Packers to increase their league-best scoring clip to an average of 34.4 points per game, and the team's current win streak to a franchise-best 14 consecutive contests when including last year's postseason.
The Packers have often needed their prolific offense to light up the scoreboard, as they're 30th in the NFL in total defense and are surrendering a shade under 300 passing yards per game. Only New England has given up more yards through the air this season.
Green Bay permitted 375 passing yards and 460 total to the Chargers, though the defense did get interception returns for touchdowns from safety Charlie Peprah and cornerback Tramon Williams that helped stake the club to a 21-7 early lead.
The Packers also allowed their share of yards in a matchup with the Vikings back on Oct. 23, with Minnesota accumulating 435 total yards and star running back Adrian Peterson ripping off 175 rushing yards in that meeting at the Metrodome. Green Bay was still able to register a 33-25 win, however, behind a 335-yard, three-touchdown effort from Rodgers.
That game marked the first career start for Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, with the 2011 first-round pick throwing for two scores in a losing cause. He was also intercepted twice, however, and completed just 13- of-32 attempts.
Ponder was considerably sharper in his subsequent outing, compiling 236 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers on 18-of-28 passing in a Week 8 showdown at Carolina. More importantly, the 23-year-old helped Minnesota rally from a seven-point third-quarter deficit by engineering two late scoring drives that led to a 24-21 triumph over the Panthers, which provided the last-place Vikings with some positive reinforcement heading into last week's bye.
For him to have the poise and composure to do the same things he does in practice in a game, he is light-years ahead of where you think he would be in some of those situations," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said of Ponder.
The Packers and Vikings have squared off 100 times previously during their long and storied regular-season rivalry, with Green Bay owning a slim 52-47-1 overall advantage. The Packers have taken the last three bout between the divisional foes, hanging on for a 28-24 win at Lambeau Field in Week 7 of last season and walloping the Vikings by a 31-3 score at the Metrodome last November in addition to the above-noted eight-point verdict in Week 7. The Vikings have lost in four of their last five stops at Green Bay, with the lone victory over that period a 38-26 decision as part of a season sweep of the Pack in 2009.
The teams' only postseason matchup to date was the Vikings' 31-17 upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field in the 2004 NFC Wild Card Round, a game best remembered for a broadcast overreaction by FOX announcer Joe Buck as Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss performed an end-zone celebration.
McCarthy has an 8-3 record against Minnesota during his time as the Packers' head coach, while Frazier lost his only prior encounter with both Green Bay and McCarthy with last month's defeat.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Though Ponder (554 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) has given the Vikings more of a threat in the passing game than Donovan McNabb since replacing the declining veteran under center, the Minnesota offense is clearly built around the considerable talents of Peterson (795 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 10 total TD). The powerful running back hasn't been fazed by defenses keying on him, as he's generated the fourth-highest rushing total in the league thus far and churned out three 100-yard efforts on the season. Peterson has also reached the end zone in four straight contests and had both a rushing and receiving score in the late-October win at Carolina. Ponder is completing under 52 percent of his throws during his brief pro audition, but the impressive rookie has shown the ability to come up with big plays. His first pass against the Packers back in Week 7 was a 72-yard hookup with wide receiver Michael Jenkins (29 receptions, 3 TD), who finished that game with a career-high 111 yards and a touchdown on three catches, and he's done a better job of getting veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (23 receptions, 2 TD) more involved as a receiver as well. Peterson was also a factor as a pass-catcher in the Carolina game, with the four-time All-Pro netting a personal-best 76 receiving yards on five grabs that day. Versatile wideout Percy Harvin (31 receptions) is the best playmaker among an otherwise nondescript receiving corps, though the 2009 first-round pick's contributions have been curtailed by a nagging rib injury.
The 299.6 passing yards per game and 16 touchdowns through the air the Packers have allowed this season is somewhat concerning, though the defense's No. 31 overall ranking versus the pass is also a bit misleading. Teams have often been forced to throw the ball at will on Green Bay due to being behind in games, and the Packers do lead the NFL with 16 interceptions and are tied for second with 19 total takeaways. Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson (32 tackles, 1 sack, 7 PD) had two picks of Ponder in the Week 7 meeting and is tied for tops in the NFL in that category (5), while Peprah (38 tackles, 4 INT, 5 PD) and fellow safety Morgan Burnett (52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) have combined for seven interceptions already this season. More troubling is Green Bay's lack of success against Peterson in last month's matchup and an inability to mount a consistent pass rush. Accomplished outside linebacker Clay Matthews (23 tackles, 5 PD) has just three sacks to date after recording 13 1/2 during an All-Pro campaign in 2010, while young counterpart Frank Zombo has battled injuries all throughout the year and is doubtful for Monday's test with a hamstring issue. Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (76 tackles, 4 sacks) and nose tackle B.J. Raji (16 tackles, 2 sacks) anchor the Pack's eighth-rated run defense (100.0 ypg) and will be trying to keep Peterson under wraps this week.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Green Bay boasts the NFL's third-highest passing yardage total (312.0 ypg) and No. 4 overall offense (416.4 ypg), as well as the game's unquestioned best player through the first half in Rodgers (2619 passing yards, 24 TD, 3 INT). The standout signal-caller has been carving up defenses with surgical precision on a weekly basis and has made very few mistakes while doing so, as he's been intercepted just once over the last four games and hasn't lost a fumble all year. He's the triggerman for a lethal aerial attack that also contains a wealth of quality receivers to throw to, with Pro Bowl honoree Greg Jennings (48 receptions, 723 yards, 6 TD) the headliner of the group. The dangerous wideout has given the Vikings fits in recent years, having torched Minnesota for 152 yards and three touchdowns on seven receptions in a road victory last season and coming through with a seven-catch, 147-yard outburst when these teams faced off last month. He's far from the only deep threat on the roster, though, as wide receivers Jordy Nelson (39 receptions, 570 yards 5 TD) and James Jones (20 receptions, 4 TD) are each averaging over 17 yards per catch. Tight end Jermichael Finley (30 receptions, 5 TD) needs to be accounted for as well, as the athletic fourth-year pro has a touchdown in two straight games and can be a matchup nightmare for enemy defenses. Though Green Bay doesn't run the ball an awful lot, leading rusher James Starks (440 rushing yards, 1 TD, 19 receptions) has performed well when called upon and had 75 yards on just 13 carries in the club's last encounter with the Vikings.
Count on the Vikings doing everything they can to apply pressure on Rodgers and protect an injury-ravaged secondary that's been a liability for the most part this season. Minnesota is giving up an average of 273.6 yards per game (30th overall) through the air and yielded eight passing plays of 40 or more yards this season, the second-highest total in the NFL. The backfield should get a boost from Monday's expected return of savvy cornerback Antoine Winfield (35 tackles, 1 INT) from a neck injury that forced him to miss the last four games, though talented cover man Chris Cook remains away from the team due to a felony assault arrest last month. Fortunately, Minnesota does have one of the league's premier sack artists in end Jared Allen (34 tackles, 1 INT), whose 12 1/2 quarterback takedowns this season are tops among all players, and the high- motor pass-rusher had two of the defense's four sacks of Rodgers in the earlier loss. Brian Robison (17 tackles, 4.5 sacks) has also made an impact in that area lining up opposite Allen, and the Vikings' 24 sacks as a team are tied for fourth overall. Minnesota is also adept at stopping the run, with linebackers Chad Greenway (65 tackles) and E.J. Henderson (42 tackles, 1 sack) and decorated defensive tackle Kevin Williams (11 tackles) the leaders of a crew that's held opponents to 94.4 rushing yards per game (5th overall) and 3.8 yards a carry.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Since the Vikings will be hard-pressed to beat the Packers in a track meet, their best chance of pulling off the upset here would be to control the clock with Peterson and hoping their formidable pass rush can get the ever-composed Rodgers off his game. Allen was able to make his presence felt in the first meeting and the Packers are still without stalwart left tackle Chad Clifton due to a hamstring injury, so a matchup with lightly-tested replacement Marshall Newhouse is one Minnesota can possibly -- and is going to have to -- exploit.
Green Bay's defense will need to do its part as well to keep the team's tremendous streak ongoing, and that means making sure Peterson isn't taking over the game like the sensational running back is capable of. The Packers don't want Rodgers and his receivers standing on the sidelines for 35-40 minutes, but it's up to Dom Capers' unit to prevent Minnesota from being successful in its ball-control game plan.
Needless to say, the Vikings aren't going to win this game if they're turning the ball over, especially since they can't count on Rodgers doing so. That means Ponder has to play as efficiently as he did against Carolina and keep the rookie mistakes to a minimum. The young quarterback has shown promise in his two starts, but playing in Lambeau Field on a national stage will be his biggest test yet.
Though this season has proven on a few occasions that heavy favorites can be beaten, it's still hard to think that a two-win Minnesota team with a rookie quarterback and considerable defensive issues can go into Lambeau Field and pin a loss on a Green Bay juggernaut that hasn't tasted defeat in 11 months. What's been most remarkable about the Packers, other than Rodgers' weekly dominance, is their ability to show up ready to play each and every week. It's become evident that this both a team and a quarterback on a mission, and there's not much evidence to suggest the rebuilding Vikings have reached the level to put a serious scare into the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 37, Vikings 20
11/12 10:13:38 ET