Down to wire: Vikings and Packers meet for NFC North title
GENARO C. ARMAS
Dec. 31, 2015
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Unofficially, the playoffs start on Sunday for the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
Sure, border state bragging rights are on the line again in the regular-season finale. Another rushing title is within the grasp of Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Aaron Rodgers has one more shot to tune up the sluggish Green Bay offense.
This is all overshadowed, naturally, by a bigger priority for both teams: The winner claims the NFC North title and the right to host a home playoff game the following weekend.
"We haven't had the same type of stats that we've had in years past, but we've rattled off 10 wins, another playoff berth," Rodgers said. "At this point, it's all about winning games and making a run in the playoffs."
That's something the Packers (10-5) are used to doing. Even with all their issues on offense — from injuries to the inconsistencies with both the run and pass — they can still win a fifth straight division title.
The upstart Vikings (10-5) want to end that reign in the game that was switched to prime time. They're looking for their first NFC North crown since 2009.
"It would be great, but we have to go out there and prove it. We can't talk about it," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said.
They're on a pretty good run heading into Lambeau Field, having beaten the Bears and Giants at home in their previous two games by a combined score of 87-34. Before those two games, they lost 23-20 at Arizona, the same team that blew out the Packers last weekend, 38-8.
Bridgewater has been a difference maker with a 123.2 passer rating in that three-game stretch. The Vikings have bounced back since an embarrassing 38-7 loss at home to Seattle on Dec. 6.
"Yeah, it's definitely a different team," Bridgewater said. "It's a group of guys that don't want another Seattle performance to happen again."
The Packers are also 2-1 over their last three games, but their last game might have been their "Seattle moment" after getting bullied by Arizona.
"We've got to put that one behind us," receiver James Jones said. "We're on to Minnesota and let's get on playing some football."
Other notes and things to watch about Sunday night's game:
RUNNING MAN: Entering Week 17, Peterson had a 64-yard edge on Tampa's Doug Martin for the league rushing lead. The Buccaneers play Carolina on Sunday afternoon, so Peterson should know how many yards, if any, he needs to win his third career rushing title.
This is not a given either; the Packers held Peterson to 45 yards on 13 carries in Green Bay's 30-13 win at Minnesota on Nov. 22.
ON THE LINE: Rodgers was sacked eight times last week by Arizona, with the Cardinals front overwhelming a battered Packers offensive line. All five starters were on the injury report this week, including left tackle David Bakhtiari, who missed the Cardinals game with an ankle injury.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga did return to practice after leaving the Arizona game with his own ankle injury. Fullback John Kuhn, a trusted blocker, has been playing more of late.
The Vikings are tied for ninth in the league with 38 sacks, nine coming in the last two games.
BALANCING ACT: The Packers are at their best when there is balance on offense. It was the formula for their most impressive win of the second half of the season, the 17-point victory in Minnesota when they ran and passed 34 times each.
Running back Eddie Lacy has averaged 107 yards rushing on 23 carries in five career games against Minnesota. His bullish style seems perfectly suited for cold-weather football, as long as the offensive line is healthy enough to create rushing lanes.
JUST FOR KICKS: Vikings-Packers have all the makings of a down-to-the wire game, which means it might come down to the kickers. There will be a pair of good ones playing Sunday night in Minnesota's Blair Walsh and Green Bay's Mason Crosby.
Walsh was the NFC special teams player of the week after going 5 for 5 on field goals last week. Crosby has hit 84 percent of his field goals this season, including 4 of 5 from 50 yards or longer.
TOTAL RECALL: The Vikings under second-year coach Mike Zimmer aren't used to this kind of late-season pressure. The Packers thrive in these situations, having won the previous two NFC North times with final-game wins over Chicago (2013) and Detroit (2014).
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this story.
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