NFL Playoff Preview - Minnesota (10-6) at Green Bay (11-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Adrian Peterson came just 27 feet short of achieving a spectacular personal goal but the MVP candidate didn't let his team fall short of anything, lifting the Minnesota Vikings back into the postseason for the first time in three years with his latest superlative effort.
Peterson fell just nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's NFL record for most rushing yards in a season, but still put up 199 on a career-best 34 carries while scoring two touchdowns to help the Vikings earn the postseason berth with a thrilling 37-34 last-second victory over the Green Bay Packers in Week 17.
His task this week?
Do it again but this time in historic Lambeau Field.
Peterson's final rush last Sunday -- a 26-yard burst to the Green Bay 11 with three seconds remaining -- set up Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal which snapped a 34-34 deadlock and earned Minnesota the conference's No. 6 seed after closing out the regular season with four straight wins.
Walsh's kick also forced a rematch between the two NFC North rivals in this week's wild card round, as Green Bay was denied a chance to claim the No. 2 spot and an opening-round bye after San Francisco defeated Arizona.
Exactly one year to the day of his surgery to repair a potentially career- threatening knee injury, Peterson finished his remarkable 2012 campaign with 2,097 rushing yards to become the seventh player in league history to surpass the 2,000-yard barrier.
"It's a bittersweet feeling inside," said Peterson of just missing Dickerson's standard of 2,105 yards. "The first thing that came to my mind when I heard that I was nine yards short was, 'It is what it is. It wasn't meant to happen.' Not to say it doesn't hurt, because it does.
"Ultimately we came in here tonight and accomplished the ultimate goal of getting a win and taking our team into the playoffs."
Christian Ponder aided Minnesota's cause by matching a personal best with three touchdown passes, including one to Peterson, while going an efficient 16-of-28 for 234 yards without a turnover. Rookie Jarius Wright finished with 90 receiving yards and a TD on three catches for a Vikings club in the playoffs a year removed from a dismal 3-13 season.
Aaron Rodgers threw for four touchdowns while amassing 365 yards on 28-of-40 passing for Green Bay, leading the Packers out of a 13-point first-half hole to tie the game twice in the fourth quarter.
"This is playoff football, and really, yes, we had every intention of winning the game in Minnesota. It didn't work," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I'm not just fluffing it by, but you have to, because the door is open for the playoffs to begin."
Greg Jennings hauled in two of Rodgers' scoring strikes while recording 120 yards on eight grabs but Minnesota halted a five-game skid against Green Bay and stopped the Packers 12-game run in division competition.
"It's disappointing. A lot of us wanted that extra week," said Rodgers. "We played tough and came back from behind. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We played a team who was desperate. They had an MVP-caliber player running the ball real well on that side. We made some plays down the stretch to get back in it, but they eventually took it from us."
The Vikings and Packers have met 103 times in the regular season with Green bay holding a 54-48-1 all-time advantage. The two teams have met just once in the playoffs when Minnesota stunned the Pack at Lambeau 31-17 on Jan. 9. 2005 behind four Daunte Culpepper TD passes and four interceptions of Brett Favre.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Packers were once 13-0 in postseason home games but have since dropped four of their last six playoff games at Lambeau so there is no more air of invincibility in the Badger State, especially against Minnesota which already pulled off the Lambeau upset in '05.
So much of this one will depend on who gets off to the better start. Green Bay won the toss last week in Minneapolis and deferred. That was a mistake against a Vikings team intent on building an early lead and riding Peterson to the finish line with Ponder playing caretaker.
"It's been impressive," Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said when discussing his team's fast starts. "It's exactly what we've needed. We talked all along about being able to start fast on offense and defense and we've gotten that done as of late. We're going to need it again against a high powered offense and a very good defense."
That plan has worked very well over the past month as Minnesota has scored on its first possession in each of its last four games. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is very inventive with formations and can usually out-script the opposition early but tends to get repetitive as the game progresses, making things tougher on the still-limited Ponder.
"He's so intelligent and so creative in what he does," Ponder said when asked about Musgrave. "Obviously with Adrian there are only so many runs you can create and do, but he still finds new ways to get him the ball and obviously that's working. In the passing game, finding ways to get guys open and create different throws and play actions and all these different things. He has such a great understanding of defenses. I think that's the biggest thing that impresses me."
Ponder has a limited receiving corps without injured star Percy Harvin (ankle) but has made some solid strides after a mid-season slump culminating with an ugly two-interception performance in Green Bay during a 23-14 loss on Dec. 2. Since then the second-year signal-caller has been playing with more confidence and a greater attention to detail when it comes to his footwork and mechanics.
"The plays he made, that's what you need to be able to do at that position to win a championship," Frazier said when talking about last week's game. "We were really able to open the playbook up. He did what you want to see your quarterback do in big ball games. He played at a high, high level for us."
Wright has also added some juice to the team's offense with his blinding speed and ability to line up all over the field. The Packers found that out last week when the diminutive Wright hid as a fullback and squirted out of the backfield for his TD and later got behind the defense for a 65-yard gain, the Vikings' longest pass play of the season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph also has a nose for the end zone, as evidenced by his nine TD receptions.
All that said Minnesota is all about Peterson, who could be the best player in all of football.
"Most of their offense comes through A.P.," Packers defensive lineman C.J. Wilson told the New York Times. "He's pretty much their whole team."
So how do you stop him?
"We need to play a little smarter in regards to scheme," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Not in terms of the plays we call, but as far as where we fit."
Defensively the Vikings were much improved this season under rookie defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who has been throwing more looks at opposing quarterbacks over recent weeks. That is essential against Rodgers, a player who will gash you again and again if you give him easy pre-snap reads.
Minnesota has been far too predictable in past seasons, relying too much on soft Tampa-2 coverage against Rodgers, who has thrown 18 touchdown passes versus three interceptions and compiled a passer rating over 123.0 during Green Bay's last six games against the Vikings.
The Packers were 27-0 when Rodgers has a 115-plus rating until last week when the Vikings solved the puzzle despite a 131.7 mark from A-Rod. Minnesota was playing very well on defense until veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, who came in with a broken hand, left after just 18 snaps sue to pain and swelling.
All eyes will be on Winfield this week. The three-time Pro Bowl selection starts on the left side and moves to the slot in the Vikings' nickel defense, an important role against Green Bay since the Packers have no consistent running game to speak of.
Last week the Vikings played nickel during 53 of 64 defensive snaps and Winfield's replacement in the slot, the undersized and little-used Marcus Sherels was torched 123 yards on six completions, including a 73-yarder to Jordy Nelson. A.J. Jefferson, who moved into the base defense when Winfield was out, allowed six completions for 67 yards and a touchdown in seven targets, taking a 16- yard pass interference penalty against Nelson on the other.
The good news for Minnesota is that Williams believes Winfield will at least try to play. Rookie Josh Robinson has far more talent than either Jefferson or Sherels and also could be an option but Robinson seems to have lost his confidence. If Winfield can't go this week, though, Minnesota may have to roll the dice with Robinson in the slot even though they think of him as an outside corner.
"We've worked Josh very limited reps inside but there are some things that we will have to look at for this ball game that we might do a little bit different but it goes back to who is an inside corner and who is an outside corner," Frazier said.
The Vikings' pass rush has amped it up in recent weeks although defensive ends Jared Allen (groin) and Brian Robison (shoulder, elbow) are both playing through pain. The real star has been the emerging Everson Griffen, a versatile player who can play inside or outside and even drop into coverage. Griffen had three sacks last week against an average Packers offensive line and had his way with rookie right tackle Don Barclay on several occasions.
Rodgers will try to up the tempo at home and the Vikings must be cognizant of the snap count. The veteran forced Minnesota's D-Line to jump offsides a number of times during the regular season game in Green Bay.
"He will definitely want to do that," Frazier said when asked if he expected Rodgers to use the hurry-up offense. "When we were there in our previous meeting at Lambeau that is what they did, they came out in no-huddle, tried to get the tempo to their liking, so it is something we will have to be ready for and adjust to. They did a good job with the hard-counts up there so we have to be ready to handle that as well."
The lone drawback in Rodgers' game is his willingness to hold the ball at times in an effort to extend plays and put more strain on the secondary. Usually that helps Green Bay but occasionally the defense can make something happen like last week when Robison was able to record a big strip-sack in the third quarter.
"He stays alive. He makes that offense go," Williams said when discussing Rodgers. "They do a fantastic job of the deep guys working short, the short guys working deep. It's choreographed because he always finds an open guy so you have to be on your Ps and Qs in terms of getting after him first, being disciplined about how you rush and making sure in the back end that you keep the top on the defense, you don't let guys get behind you."
The Packers also plan to be boosted by the return of safety Charles Woodson, who has been cleared to play after missing the last nine games with a broken collarbone. Leading receiver and dynamic return man Randall Cobb is also expected back after sitting out last week with a sprained ankle.
"You would guess that Charles Woodson brings another element to the game, a little bit like a Troy Polamalu," Musgrave said. "There's going to be some ad- libbing and some instinctual play from him that you don't see from other players. That's what we'd anticipate."
These two teams certainly know each other well and the Vikings match-up better with the Packers than most teams.
Minnesota's strengths, the running game on offense and the pass rush on defense, magnify Green Bay's biggest weaknesses, a middling offensive line and linebackers who struggle defending the run. That and a clean game by Ponder will keep things close but until the Vikings can at least slow down Rodgers, it's hard to imagine them capturing two straight against him.
"We're in the playoffs now, so you play who you are seeded against," said Rodgers. "The road got a little tougher having to play on opening weekend, but we've got a home game and that's why you win the division. You get to go back home and the game will be a different type of game. They won't have the home- crowd advantage and hopefully that will make a difference."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 24, Vikings 23
01/03 12:22:21 ET