Surging Packers square off with sliding Vikings
Once upon a time, the Minnesota Vikings were 5-0 and the NFL's last undefeated team.
At another point, the Green Bay Packers were 4-6.
Both teams flipped the script. When the clubs play at Lambeau Field on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, FOX), it is the Packers (8-6) who have a chance to clinch a playoff berth, thanks to a four-game winning streak. The Vikings (7-7), on the other hand, are on the brink of elimination after losing seven of their past nine games.
"Both teams have endured a lot of injuries," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Injuries, indeed, defined their paths to Week 16.
Running back Eddie Lacy's season-ending ankle injury and a rash of injuries at cornerback, in particular, sent the Packers tumbling at midseason. However, with questions swirling about the futures of coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson and the play of two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers regrouped.
Since Rodgers proclaimed the Packers could "run the table" following a lopsided loss at Washington, they are 4-0. With some help, they could get in the playoffs this week; if they win this game and beat the Lions next week at Detroit, they would win the NFC North.
"Not if you don't finish it off," Rodgers said when asked if there's pride in battling back into the playoff picture. "Like I said after the game, you know what it feels like to be 4-6. That's a tough situation to be in. It's frustrating, it's a struggle, it's a grind.
"Luckily in those situations, we've stuck together, didn't have any fracturing in the locker room. No finger-pointing, no unnamed sources coming out (and) taking shots at guys. We stuck together, and I think we all believed that sometimes in this business it just takes one to get going.
"We got that first one, then we came home and won a couple. We won a tough one on the road. Now we've got two left. Win them both and we're in, and we're division champs. That's the goal at this point."
The Packers are somewhat healthier. Rodgers said his injured calf should be "closer to 100 percent," and cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins played the past four games together following groin injuries. They had a role in Green Bay's whopping 10 takeaways the past two weeks.
The sore spot is at outside linebacker, where Clay Matthews was ineffective the past three games with a shoulder injury and Nick Perry missed the past two games with an injured hand. Both took limited reps at Wednesday's practice.
Perhaps key for Green Bay's playoff hopes is the emergence of Ty Montgomery at running back. The converted receiver rushed for 162 yards against Chicago on Sunday. Montgomery and waiver-wire pickup Christine Michael combined for 207 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries.
"Everybody wants to keep talking about Ty as a receiver, and that's fine -- I think he broke 12 tackles in the game in Chicago," McCarthy said. "And Christine Michael's just getting more and more comfortable with not only the scheme but the guys he's playing with."
Unlike the Packers, the Vikings have been unable to right the ship. While Sam Bradford is doing well in place of Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, there are three starting offensive tackles on injured reserve, and running back Adrian Peterson returned last week following an 11-game absence.
Those injuries add up to these painful numbers: 25th in scoring (18.9 points per game), 31st in total offense (301.5 rushing yards per game), 32nd in rushing per game (70.6) and 31st in yards per completion (9.8).
"Obviously, we've battled some injuries, which has made it tough," Bradford said. "There's weeks that we've come out and we've played really well, and there's other weeks where we haven't. On offense, I think we've got to be a little bit more consistent because there have been times where we've done some really good things out there, and there's other times where we kind of shoot ourselves in the foot and hold ourselves back."
Rather than provide a spark, Peterson's return resulted in the Vikings' worst performance of the season, a 34-6 throttling at home by Indianapolis. By halftime, the Colts led 27-0 and had a 21-2 edge in first downs. Peterson carried six times for 22 yards and one fumble in 12 snaps.
"It sure wasn't a very pretty performance that we had," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "We're going to have to regroup and get back with it. There's nothing we can do about anything that's happened in the past. We've got to move forward."
The Indy game notwithstanding, the Vikings' defense has been strong all season. It allowed 17 points or fewer in eight of 14 games and ranks among the NFL leaders in passing yards, opponents' passer rating and sacks. In the past two meetings with Green Bay, Minnesota gave up a total of 27 points. The Vikings have three Pro Bowlers on that side of the ball, defensive end Everson Griffen, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith. Smith missed the past two games due to an ankle injury.
Smith, Peterson (knee/groin), leading receiver Stefon Diggs (hip) and guard Brandon Fusco (concussion) did not practice Wednesday. Peterson said he is "taking it one day at a time" and was noncommittal about playing Saturday.
Updated December 21, 2016