NFL Preview - Minnesota (6-5) at Green Bay (7-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Chicago and its porous offensive line were able to right the ship thanks to a visit from Minnesota last Sunday.
Now it's Green Bay's turn as the banged-up Packers entertain a mistake-prone Vikings team in a key NFC North matchup.
The 7-4 Packers are a game behind the division-leading Bears in the North and a game ahead of Minnesota with just five left in the season. All three teams have the playoffs in mind but that goal is probably realistic for just two of them.
The Vikings looked overmatched in the Second City last Sunday and things don't figure to change all that much in Titletown this week against a Packers team which has won four straight over Minnesota and nine consecutive games overall in the NFC North.
Jay Cutler returned from a concussion to complete 23-for-31 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown during a 28-10 win over the Vikings at Soldier Field.
His counterpart, Minnesota's Christian Ponder had yet another poor performance connecting on just 22-for-43 throws for 159 yards, one touchdown and one interception for the Vikings, who were coming off their bye week and lost for a third time in their past four games. Adrian Peterson carried the ball 18 times for 108 yards in the loss but also fumbled it twice.
"It was a very disappointing game since we didn't execute the way we needed to on the road," said Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier. "We struggled in a number of areas, including third down and the red zone on both offense and defense. We didn't get that done and they made some big plays on special teams."
Cutler finished 15-for-17 in the first half when it counted as the Bears built a virtually insurmountable 25-3 lead against a Vikings team simply not built to play from behind.
Cutler used his Brett Favre-like arm to direct pinpoint passes into tight window after tight window as Chicago converted 10 of its first 13 third down conversion attempts.
Minnesota was unable to muster much of a pass rush from Jared Allen or Brian Robison, who have both been dealing with nagging injuries for most of the season, and Cutler, who always seems to look like Dan Marino against the Vikings, played pitch-and-catch with Brandon Marshall all day.
"They had a great game plan. They executed well," Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "I don't know what their third down percentage was. They kept converting, kept converting. Once they got in the red zone, they were scoring touchdowns. We can't allow that to happen. The game got out of hand really early. We didn't really give ourselves a chance."
Part of it was certainly Minnesota's fault. You would think a player coming off a concussion with a left tackle named J'Marcus Webb opposite Allen would be as skittish as a cat but Cutler knows what the Vikings are about.
The Vikings' plan on defense was so vanilla against a guy who was concussed two weeks ago, it was almost like Frazier, a member of Chicago's famous 1985 Super Bowl team, was a mole, intent on helping his old organization.
Mike Tice, the Bears' offensive coordinator and an ex-Vikings head coach, had no such divided loyalties, employing max protection schemes and instructing Cutler to take advantage of simple and ultimately futile zone coverage as the Bears halted a two-game skid and opened up a one-game lead over the Pack in the NFC North once Green Bay fell to the Giants later on Sunday.
Minnesota seemed to game plan based on media reports on how bad the Bears' offensive line was. By the time Frazier and his defensive coordinator Alan Williams finally changed things up and decided to take a chance here and there, the game was long decided.
"We knew that coming in with (Jay) Cutler coming off a concussion and what the 49ers defense did to them last week. We knew they were going to max up and run two- or three-man routes," Winfield said. "Their game plan worked today."
The Packers' game plan also figures to work this week especially since they are coming in angry after a 38-10 drubbing at the hands of the Giants, Green Bay's worst defeat since a 35-7 loss at Chicago on Dec. 23, 2007.
"You win five in a row and everyone is happy, but like I said last year, there are things that go under the radar that need to be handled," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "Sometimes it takes a loss. ... We need to remember this feeling and not have this kind of embarrassment happen again."
Rodgers had a rare off night in North Jersey connecting on only 14-of-25 passes for 219 yards, one touchdown and an interception for the Packers, who were also stunned by the Giants in the NFC Divisional playoff round last season at Lambeau Field.
"This is a game that really makes everybody look inside and find out what you're about," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after watching his team's five-game winning streak snapped. "I believe in what we're about as a football team. I haven't felt like this since probably the first game I coached as a Green Bay Packer head coach. Beaten very thoroughly tonight. Doesn't taste good, doesn't feel good."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Green Bay hasn't been as explosive offensively this season, ranking 13th in the NFL at 24.8 points per game after leading the league with 35.0 ppg in 2011. The lack of a running game, which is nothing new to the Packers, and injuries to star wide receiver Greg Jennings and emerging tackle Bryan Bulaga have contributed to the downtick in production.
The running game isn't about to turn around anytime soon and Bulaga is on injured reserve with a hip injury but Jennings, who has missed the last seven games with an lower abdominal tear, is set to return.
The Pro Bowl receiver practiced all three days last week and proclaimed himself "ready" for the Giants but Green Bay remained cautious. He hasn't missed a practice again in preparation for the Vikings and will be back Sunday.
"Greg's a dynamic player. He's been to the Pro Bowl, he has an excellent working relationship with Aaron Rodgers, they're on the same page," McCarthy said. "Greg's one of those receivers that's extremely athletic, his body language is very easy to readjust to and Aaron has great confidence to throw to with anticipation. They have a lot of history together, a lot of production. It'd be great to have him back."
Jennings, a legitimate No. 1 receiver when healthy, turns the Packers receiver corps from good to great. Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb have all been very productive at times in Jennings' absence but aren't quite as dangerous to an opposing defense without Jennings around.
Rodgers, meanwhile, has 18 touchdowns passes and a 116.5 passer rating in eight career starts against the Vikings defense and it's tough to imagine a team which uses the cover-2 as a crutch like Minnesota matching up with the Green Bay receivers as well as tight end Jermichael Finley.
"Everything we want to accomplish is still in front of us and that'll be our focus," McCarthy said. "I believe in what we're about as a football team."
The Vikings, on the other hand, can't fall behind since Ponder's intermediate and downfield accuracy is among the worst in all of football.
Minnesota can be competitive when they grab a lead and ride Peterson, who has rushed for 737 yards (147.4 per game) and five TDs over his past five games, but team's understand that and tend to load the box with eight or even nine defenders, daring Ponder to beat then with play action, something the second- year signal caller has been unable to do on a consistent basis.
There was a chance Ponder would be without his top two targets on Sunday but tight end Kyle Rudolph has been cleared following a concussion suffered against Chicago, while receiver Percy Harvin, who has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle, is still working his way back and should be a game-time decision. Harvin was able to work in individual drills early in the week.
"We're still being cautious in how much we give him," Frazier said.
The Vikings are just 1-4 on the road this season and Ponder has shown little mental toughness when the wheels start coming off in enemy territory.
That's unlikely to change in Green Bay making this a rather easy one for the Packers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 34, Vikings 14
11/29 16:32:40 ET