Christian Ponder will have to do better if the Vikings hope to take a Lambeau Leap. (Getty Images)
For the second time in six days, and the third time this season, the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings will face off. This time, the stakes are higher for both teams, and having split their NFC North series so far, the longtime rivals will see who advances in the second playoff game of wild-card weekend. The Packers beat the Vikings, 23-14, at Lambeau Field on Dec. 2, and Vikings returned the favor, 37-34, at the Metrodome to get into the postseason. As the two teams head back to Lambeau for the ultimate decider, a few interesting aspects could decide this one.
When the Packers have the ball
As usual, the success or failure of the Packers is almost entirely in the hands of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Despite an inconsistent-at-best offensive line, injuries through the season to just about all of his receivers, and a rushing attack that has been hit-and-miss, Rodgers had another spectacular season. He didn't match the statistical marvels of 2011, but he's been very hot of late, including that loss to the Vikings, in which he completed 28 of 40 passes for 365 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. In his last three games, Rodgers completed 78 of 114 passes for 998 yards, 10 touchdowns and no picks. He hasn't thrown more than one interception in any game this season, and the bad news for the Vikings is that his receiver corps is about as healthy as it's been all season.
Do-it-all deep threat Randall Cobb will be back on the field after head coach Mike McCarthy held him out of the regular-season finale with ankle and knee injuries, and Jordy Nelson, whose 73-yard score against the Vikings was the team's longest play from scrimmage this season, is expected to play despite suffering a knee injury in the Vikings game. The connection with Cobb is most important – per ESPN Stats & Info, Rodgers connected on 78.4 percent of the passes he threw to Cobb this season, the second-highest catch rate for any quarterback-receiver tandem in the league (Peyton Manning/Brandon Stokley). In that Week 13 win over the Vikings, Rodgers went 6-for-6 on passes to Cobb.
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Even without Cobb, however, Rodgers can always air it out and make defenses pay, evidenced by the 34 points the Packers scored in the final 34 minutes of that loss to Minnesota. What Rodgers doesn't have is a running attack that helps his efforts. The Packers haven't had a 100-yard game from any of their backs since Brandon Jackson in Week 5 of the 2012 season. The reclaimed Ryan Grant had the team's season high with 80 yards in Week 16 against the Tennessee Titans, and in three different games, the team's leading rusher collected 35 yards or less. In the Packers' 30-22 Week 1 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, their leading rusher was Rodgers.
The other challenge Rodgers faces is a Minnesota pass rush that can bring pressure with four, especially against a Green Bay offensive line that has seen its share of problems this season. The Packers finished 31st in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric – only the San Diego Chargers' line was worse – and Rodgers was sacked a league-leading 51 times. Per Pro Football Focus, Rodgers was pressured on 29.9 percent of his dropbacks, but as it's been for years, he's even better when you flush him out of the pocket. When he was hurried and harried, Rodgers threw for eight touchdowns and one interceptions on 191 dropbacks. If the Vikings want to pressure Rodgers, they'd better get home.
When the Vikings have the ball
The Packers' defense is under no illusion as to their primary focus. Likely NFL Most Valuable Player Adrian Peterson gained 409 yards in his two games against Green Bay this season, and even with Clay Matthews back in the picture of late, there doesn't look to be anything the Packers can do about it. The secret to beating the Vikings this season seems to be the understanding that Peterson will get his yards, no matter how many guys you put in the box, so focus on rattling quarterback Christian Ponder.
The Packers did that well at Lambeau, limiting the second-year man from Florida State to 12 completions in 25 attempts for just 119 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. It was part of a five-game stretch in which Ponder failed to amass 200 passing yards in any game, and Ponder couldn't even manage 100 passing yards in three different games this season. However, he's been better of late, and Ponder was the difference in the Vikings' win last Sunday. He minimized his mistakes, managed the offense and threw for three touchdowns with no picks. It was a rare occasion in which Peterson got some help from the passing game, and he'll need that again if the Vikings are to pull off the upset.
The problems this year haven't been all Ponder's fault since he doesn't have an A-level receiver. Percy Harvin, who was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 5 with an ankle injury, ranked 37th in FO's cumulative efficiency metrics this season in just nine games in 2012. In Harvin's place, Ponder has had targets like Michael Jenkins, who ranked 74th in FO's metrics, and Jerome Simpson, who ranked 81st. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has been Ponder's most consistent target, but even Rudolph has his issues. He put up a 56 percent catch rate in 2012, far below average for his position.
Ponder's biggest flaw is his inability to deal with pressure. He completed just 40.6 percent of his passes and threw six interceptions to three touchdowns on 176 dropbacks when hit or hurried. He's also not much of a deep thrower, completing just eight of 36 attempts of 20 yards or more in the air for one touchdown and two picks. Compare that to Rodgers' deep ball efficiency (26 completions in 62 attempts for 11 touchdowns and two interceptions), and the differences between average and elite become clear.
However, Ponder doesn't have to be great -- he just has to be good enough, because the Packers will be keying on Peterson all day. They have no choice.
"If anything, people have a tendency and we probably did some of that ourselves on Sunday, you overplay the runner," McCarthy said this week. "It's important for us to focus on playing run defense. That's something I kind of felt that during [that] game and I think the film definitely illustrates that. He had a fine performance – statistically and the film speak for themselves – he's had a great year, but we're really just focused on playing run defense and doing things the right way."
How it could go: Ponder isn't a good cold-weather quarterback, but he does have the confidence gained by last Sunday's game. Green Bay will assume that it can stack the box and focus on Peterson, which means that Ponder will have the same opportunities he's had all season with the deep ball, and drive-sustaining plays out of play-action. If he can't get those plays going, it could be a long day for the Vikings, and a quick end to their surprising season. On the other hand, if Ponder can retain that efficiency and force Rodgers to put everything on his back, the Vikings have a chance to avenge their earlier Lambeau loss. However, it's a slim chance, and there have to be doubts that Ponder is ready for that level of challenge.
Prediction: Packers 27, Vikings 20
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