Packers vs. Vikings: 5 things to watch and a prediction

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The Green Bay Packers will attempt to take full control of the NFC North when they travel to Minnesota to play the Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Vikings sit at 4-5 after an impressive win in Los Angeles last week, but a win by Matt LaFleurs’ team on Sunday in Minneapolis would give the Packers a five-game advantage in the win column and a commanding lead in the division overall with six games to go.

The Packers have won two straight games at U.S. Bank Stadium, including the division-clincher in 2019 and the season opener in 2020. Can LaFleur make it 3-for-3 in Minnesota?

Here are five things to watch and a prediction for Sunday’s showdown:

Big test for the passing defense

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The Vikings beat the Packers last year on the back of running back Dalvin Cook, but Minnesota’s passing game is to be equally feared this season. In fact, the Vikings rank first in the NFL in passing offense grade at Pro Football Focus in 2021. Kirk Cousins is having a terrific season, and Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen create a dynamic 1-2 punch at receiver. The weak spot is the pass-blocking offensive line, which needs to be exposed by the Packers front on Sunday. If Cousins has time to throw, the Packers secondary might get overwhelmed. He has completed 76 percent of passes and averaged almost 9.0 yards per attempt from clean pockets this season, per PFF. The Packers did a terrific job pressuring Cousins during each of the last two matchups in Minnesota.

Attack the interior

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Vikings offensive line might be weakest on the interior, especially in the passing game. Can Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and possibly Kingsley Keke create consistent disruption? Garrett Bradbury is expected to return at center for the Vikings, but he’s allowed the fourth-most pressures and committed the fourth-most penalties among centers this season despite only playing in seven games. At guard, Ezra Cleveland and Oli Udoh both have a worse pass-blocking grade than Packers rookie Royce Newman this season. This is a matchup the Packers need to win. Quick pressure from the interior will be key on Sunday because Cousins has been good about getting the ball out of his hands fast.

Can the passing game get going?

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The Packers passing game has hit a bump in the road and needs to get back on track as the stretch run approaches. Could this be the game everything starts to click? The Vikings have weak spots in the secondary, but the defense has done a strong job of manufacturing pressure while allowing a passer rating of just 87.0 to opposing quarterbacks this season. It doesn’t help that Aaron Rodgers hasn’t practiced this week, David Bakhtiari isn’t expected to return Sunday and Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling are all dealing with injuries of some sort. Last season, the Packers won in Minnesota with a devastating aerial attack led by the connection between Rodgers and the receivers. Expecting a similar performance on Sunday might be unwise.

Turnover battle

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Turnover margin is something Matt LaFleur stresses every week and something we talk about every week. It’s especially important in this matchup. The Vikings are plus-six in the turnover department this season, just one spot behind the Packers (plus-seven). Both teams have been excellent at avoiding turnovers. In fact, the Vikings are first in the NFL with only six giveaways, including just two interceptions thrown by Cousins. Can the Packers force Cousins into a rare mistake that turns the game? The team that has won the turnover battle has won three of the last four games in this series, including each of the games last season. Overall, the Packers have five turnovers in their two losses but only four total in their eight wins in 2021.

Special teams challenge

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The Vikings have a pair of dangerous returners and a special teams coordinator willing to pull out trick plays, creating a big challenge for the Packers’ underwhelming third phase. Dede Westbrook produced a 45-yard punt return last week, Kene Nwangwu had a kickoff return for a touchdown two weeks ago, and the Vikings have called a fake punt in back-to-back games, although last week’s attempt was stopped by penalty. Maurice Drayton’s crew has a lot to worry about this week. Amazingly, the Vikings might even have the more reliable kicker at moment, given the struggles of Mason Crosby and the Packers field goal unit recently. The Packers can’t let the Vikings steal a win because of a special teams advantage on Sunday.

Prediction: Packers 20, Vikings 17 (6-4)

The Vikings are 4-5 but shouldn’t be overlooked, even if Mike Zimmer’s group is hard to figure out. They’ve been in every game this season because of a great passing game. The Packers offense hasn’t scored 30 points and the defense hasn’t allowed more than 22 points since September, so a shootout here is probably unlikely. A low-scoring game packed with field goal attempts – much like the 2019 meeting in Minneapolis – is the safer bet. The guess here is that a strong game from A.J. Dillon and a late takeaway allow the Packers to escape U.S. Bank Stadium with a third-straight win at the venue.

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