Sunday, January 03, 2016

NFL Week 17: Packers vs. Vikings for NFC North Championship

It's taken many Packers fans -- including yours truly -- a good week to get over the "Debacle in the Desert"...the embarrassing loss by the Pack to the Arizona Cardinals. Readers of Packer Fans United will know that we picked agains the Pack last week, so the loss itself was not a surprise. The way the Packers lost, and to the extent they lost, yeah, that was shocking.

But, it's done. More important matters confront the Pack this evening at Lambeau Field in the form of a rising Minnesota ViQueens team.

The Packers are going to have to find a way, again, to stop Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson from taking over the game.
(Photo by Jim Matthews/P-G Media)

The Packers had one of their better performances of the season -- certainly the second half of the season, anyway -- in their 30-13 win over the 'Queens in Minnesota on Nov. 22. They held RB Adrian Peterson to a mere 45 yards rushing. It would be wonderful if the Packers are able to do that again this evening. Truth be told, if the Packers wish to have a shot at winning tonight they'd probably be happy to keep Peterson under 100 yards for the game. The Packers defense will likely have both B.J. Raji and Mike Neal back in the lineup which will go a long way towards making that a possibility. LB Clay Matthews hasn't had a sack in the last few games and admitted this week that he needed to be more "impactful." Well, frankly, yes. This is exactly the type of game -- for the NFC North Division Championship -- that you need your best players to perform like your best players.

We haven't seen that out of many on this Packers squad in recent weeks. It's been pretty much a train wreck on both sides of the ball, although the fact that the defense has been carrying this team for most of the second half of the season has been what's gotten them to the 10-5 record; the offense, following the bye week in week 7, has been ineffective overall. Tonight would be a good time for that side of the ball to regain some of its mojo.

What needs to happen to win tonight?
Where shall we start? It's football, right? A simple game, really. Score more points than your opponent. Whether they come from plays by the offense, defense or special teams -- or, ideally, all three! -- more points wins.

On the offense, the banged up Packers line somehow has to hold off a fairly good defensive front, create running lanes for Eddie Lacy and James Starks and protect the franchise, i.e., Aaron Rodgers. Packers receivers, somehow, must get separation from their defenders. That hasn't been happening for a good part of the season and the lackluster results have been on display for all to see.

The passing scheme has to be actually somewhat similar to that of Minnesota which has a serviceable but not great offensive line: quick, short to medium yardage passes so that the line doesn't have to protect Rodgers for 5 seconds or more while he waits for a receiver to get open downfield. The Packers have continued to use their isolation sets despite receivers who can't get separation. Unless head coach Mike McCarthy changes up that scheme in this game, Rodgers will be under constant pressure and a good defense will get sacks it otherwise should not get.

It's going to be cold at Lambeau this evening: in the low 20s with windchills in the teens or below. The running game needs to dominate this game for the Packers to come out with a win. If the line is unable to open holes and the running backs are unable to pound the ViQueens defense continuously to open up the short to medium range passing game, the likelihood of a Packers win is not great.

Defensively, the Packers must, first and foremost, shut down RB Adrian Peterson. If he's able to run loose tonight -- and the Packers defense has give up some huge runs in the last few games -- it will again be a tough game to win. The Packers pass rush must also get pressure on second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater. Let's not forget that the 'Queens put up nearly 50 points last weekend against the Giants. Their offense has an ascending rhythm that we only wish the Pack had right now. Coverage of speedy receivers downfield and constant pressure on Bridgewater is key to a needed defensive performance.

The Prediction
The Packers are favored by 3 points at the time of this writing. Spreads have meant little of late in trying to assess the probabilities of a Packers win. Recall that twice the Packers were favored by a touchdown or more recently only to lose both games. It happens.

But we happen to think this spread is about right.

Some argue that the Packers might actually have an easier playoff run if they were to lose today. A Packers loss means a first round wildcard trip to Washington, potentially followed by a division-round trip to Carolina. In the minds of some, that's preferable to a wildcard home game against either a dangerous Seattle team (do we really want to play them again???) or trying to beat a team -- Minnesota -- three times in the same season, followed by a trip back to Arizona for a reprise of last week's debacle. Oy.

Still, you have to grab the brass ring that's in front of you. Right now, that means winning the division championship tonight and let the cards (just not the Arizona Cards, please) fall where they may.

We're calling this game 27-24 in favor of the Packers in a game that could go right down to the wire. This writer hopes that's not the case as the Packers have already taken years off his lifespan in this season alone.

Go Pack Go!!!