Sixteen weeks of NFL football in the books and still the NFC North is up for grabs in Week 17.
Both the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings stand at 10-5, and a win for either would clinch the division and give the winner a home playoff game in the first round of postseason play. The teams met earlier this season in Minnesota, where the Packers captured a victory in a commanding 30-13 win and the Packers should feel confident that they can win again and clinch the NFC North at home.
But this year, the Packers have not looked like the unstoppable offensive force they were over the past few seasons. The 11th ranked offense, in terms of efficiency, has been propped up by their 10-win record by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Aside from Rodgers, the offense have been devoid of playmakers. Jordy Nelson’s preseason injury took away Rodger’s favorite deep threat. Slot receiver Randall Cobb has struggled as the No. 1 option replacing Nelson. Couple that with the significant decline in the rush game’s efficiency (falling from sixth last season to 12th this season) and their struggles begin to make sense.
When asked about his productivity, Rodgers said the stats looked good but the offense is missing its ability to generate big plays. "We just don't have that element to our offense,” Rodgers told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We just have to be a little more patient and realize it's going to be more of a grind-out game sometimes."
Green Bay's offense has never looked more anemic than it did last week in Arizona, where the Cardinals dominated both sides of the ball, beating the Packers 38-8. Rodgers was under pressure all day, was sacked nine times in the game and threw for only 77 net passing yards when it was all said and done. The lack of playmakers, inconsistent running game, and weak offensive line was too much for the Packers offense to overcome.
Green Bay will hope that the line’s play improves and they get some productivity from the run game Sunday night as they play a feisty Vikings team. The 14th ranked offense is anchored by Adrian Peterson and the rush attack, which ranks 7th in efficiency, according to Football Outsider. Peterson is the NFL’s leading rusher, going for 1,418 yards so far, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns.
The Vikings rely on Peterson because throwing has not been their strong suit. Teddy Bridgewater has been efficient quarterbacking the team this season, with a QB Rating of 90.6 and only eight interceptions. But Bridgewater is more of a game manager than a playmaker. He has only thrown 14 touchdowns this season, and ranks 32nd in the league (i.e. last) in passing yards per game. Bridgewater is a conservative quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater is four throwaways away from setting the record for most in a season, currently held by Philip Rivers (42).
When they met in Week 10, Peterson was held to only 45 yards on 13 carries, placing the onus on Bridgewater, who struggled. The quarterback was under duress all afternoon; hit 11 times and sacked six times. This week, Minnesota will need to be more dynamic, and Bridgewater should look to rookie Stefon Diggs to ignite the offense. Diggs has catches totalling 712 yards and 4 touchdowns this season in 12 games. In Diggs’ first six games, the wide receiver caught for at least 42 yards in every game and the Vikings were 5-1 in that span. In the six games since, Diggs has exceeded 42 yards only twice, and the Vikings were only 3-3 in that time.
The Vikings tend to struggle when the offense rests on Bridgewater alone, so establishing Peterson's running game early will be important. Bridgewater needs to remain mistake free, and the Vikings would benefit from more risk-taking and less throwaways, especially when the opportunity to host a playoff game is on the line.
The Vikings may pull off the upset, but everything needs to fall into place for it to happen and that may be a long shot. Expect a fun, hard-fought contest with everything on the line this Sunday night.