Minnesota Vikings (6-5) at Green Bay Packers (7-4)
1. The gap has been narrowed
The line of demarcation between these teams last year stood out like a mustache on Aaron Rodgers' lip. The Packers rolled through the regular season, losing only one of 16 games. The Vikings struggled to a 3-13 mark, the worst record in the history of the franchise.
This season, the distinction isn't so clear. Only one game separates the two NFC North rivals as they head into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. Although both teams are coming off ugly losses -- the Packers were pummeled by the Giants, 38-10, and the Vikings dropped a 28-10 decision to the Bears -- they are still in the playoff picture. But a victory is critical.
Green Bay needs to win to stay within one game of the division-leading Bears, or tie if Chicago should lose at home to Seattle. The Vikings are two games behind Chicago, one game in back of Green Bay, and currently tied with Seattle and Tampa Bay -- two teams which they lost to -- for the NFC's second wild-card spot. So a loss would severely diminish their postseason hopes.
The Packers' offensive line has to provide better protection, especially against Vikings end Jared Allen, one of the best pass rushers in the league. Green Bay can't have another performance like it did in New York last Sunday night, when the Giants sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times and hit him way too much.
The line has struggled somewhat since right tackle Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season with a hip injury in a Week 9 game against Arizona. At that point, coach Mike McCarthy moved left guard T.J. Lang to Bulaga's spot and inserted Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard. But McCarthy isn't planning on making any changes for Sunday's game.
The wide receivers need to step up for Minnesota, which could be without Percy Harvin (sprained ankle) for the third game in a row. Vikings wideouts dropped half a dozen passes, including three by Jerome Simpson, in the loss to Chicago.
You can bet that the Vikings focused on securing the ball in practice this week. Leslie Frazier, the usually soft-spoken coach of the Vikings, criticized his players in remarks he made to reporters on Monday.
"The number of dropped passes we had was really unacceptable in our league," Frazier said. "It's hard to continue drives when you don't catch the football, and that's a part of what you have to be able to do as a wide receiver in our league. We're going to go back and look at some things fundamentally we'll work on this week."
2. There could be a Greg Jennings sighting at Lambeau
We've seen a lot of Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings this season. Unfortunately, it's mostly been in Old Spice commercials. On the field, he has been conspicuous by his absence.
Jennings has been sidelined by multiple injuries over the last year -- a sprained knee late in the 2011 season, a concussion in last summer's training camp and an abdomen this season -- and has played in only three games in 2012. But the two-time Pro Bowl wideout was expected to be a full participant in practice this week and could play Sunday for the first time since Sept. 30.
"I feel great," Jennings told reporters on Wednesday. "I've been running pretty much all the scout team reps [and] feel really good as far as rapid-fire routes. Even did some special teams running down the field on kickoff coverage and some punt return and different things. So I'm good as far as physically and my wind. It's just a matter of getting out there on Sunday."
It would be a timely return for Jennings. In his last five games against the Vikings, he has a combined 30 receptions for 486 yards and seven touchdowns, including a seven-catch, 147-yard, one-TD performance last season in Minnesota.
Jennings, who had surgery in his core area and proclaims to be pain free, could give the Green Bay passing game a big boost. He and quarterback Aaron Rodgers have a great rapport, and Jennings has 30 receptions of 40 yards or more since 2007. That led the league coming into the season.
3. Mercy, mercy, what's up with Percy?
The Vikings received some good news Wednesday when tight end Kyle Rudolph and rookie free safety Harrison Smith, two starters who suffered concussions in Chicago, were cleared to practice. The picture for wide receiver Percy Harvin is murkier.
Harvin, who suffered a sprained ankle on Nov. 4 and has missed the last two games, limped through the portion of Wednesday's practice that was open to the media. Harvin mostly ran straight-line patterns that didn't require him to make cuts, but when he slowed down after catching passes there appeared to be a hitch in his gait, according to CBSSports.com. At one point, Harvin threw the football down in apparent frustration.
The Vikings aren't the same passing team without their No. 1 receiver. Harvin has battled through injuries before -- most notably chronic migraines -- but his ankle was sprained in three places, so it would be a surprise if he's ready to go by Sunday.
The Packers' fifth-year wide receiver, a second-round draft pick out of Kansas State in 2008, has become a consistently reliable target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The 6-foot-3 Nelson registered career bests in every receiving category last season -- 68 receptions, 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns -- and has 45 catches for 648 yards and six TDs this season. Here's an excerpt of his chat with SI.com.
How critical is it for the Packers to beat the Vikings?
It's big for us. We're in a tight division race, obviously. Chicago got back up a game on us and Minnesota is right behind us. Any time you go into a division game, there's a little more emphasis put on it; they mean a little bit more. So we've got to go out and execute and play well, and get a win.
How has the team reacted this week after getting blown out by the Giants?
I think we're doing all right. I think everyone is a little shocked about how that game went -- obviously it wasn't up to expectations -- but we know we can't get too high or too low. You have to look at the film, good or bad, and make sure you move forward. Learn from your mistakes and make sure it doesn't happen again. We'll make sure we're ready to go for Sunday.
What's the biggest difference in this year's team compared to the Super Bowl champion two years ago and the 15-1 team last year?
We're just not as consistent. I think through the regular season we're kind of similar to the year we won the Super Bowl; we're up and down and dealing with some injuries. Last year as an offense we just kind of blew through the season, didn't have any problems with anything to be honest with you. We're not really consistent; we're not executing the way we need to week in and week out. It gets back to executing and being consistent, and we'll get to where we need to be.
Last season, you became only the third player in Packers history to catch 15 touchdown passes in a season, joining Don Hutson and Sterling Sharpe. How does it feel to belong in that special fraternity?
Going into the year, I obviously didn't expect that many touchdowns. When you get into the record books here in Green Bay, it's an honor. You're part of some great history. We have it all over the building -- pictures of past players and memorable moments. Whenever you get involved with some of that or in the record book, it's an honor you can look back on when you're done playing.
At what point did you feel like you had become a go-to receiver for the Packers?
Throughout the playoff run the year we won the Super Bowl, then through training camp last year. The chemistry between me and Aaron really picked up as we got on the same page. I think his confidence in me started growing. Once you start making plays for him, he'll start looking for you more. Once last year started, we felt good about where we were headed and it's just continued to grow.
How did being around Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and the other Packers receivers help you become better?
I had only played three years of receiver before I got drafted, so I was still learning a lot. Of course, when you get to the NFL it's a whole other game. I watched them daily, trying to pick little pieces out of their game that I could use, and just watched how they ran routes and set things up. They're great role models on and off the field, but the way they show up to work is something to watch.
What's the most unusual thing that has happened to you when you've taken the Lambeau Leap?
Sometimes, you can't get back down. Especially if it's a big touchdown late in a game or a game-changing touchdown. You jump up there and the fans are going crazy, holding on to you, kind of pulling you back into their seats. Then you've got security guys on the field trying to help you down. It's a battle. You almost have to start throwing elbows so you can get out of there.
What's the funniest thing Aaron Rodgers has ever said or done in the huddle?
He's pretty serious come game time. I think when you see him in the huddle with that mustache, or whatever facial hair he has during the preseason, it's hard to look at him and be serious. It's hard to think of him as your quarterback.
Coming into this season, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had rushed for more yards against Green Bay (1,033) than against any other team in his five NFL seasons. Although Peterson has had two 100-yard games at Lambeau Field, he's had more success against the Packers in home games. Here is a breakdown of his rushing performances against Green Bay.
The Packers haven't played a home game since Nov. 4. They rarely lose a regular season game at Lambeau Field -- they are 25-4 in their last 29 contests -- and they are 9-3 overall against Minnesota since 2006, including sweeps of the series in each of the two last seasons.
You can disregard history as being a relevant factor in this game, but you can't dismiss the disparity in the quarterbacks. Rodgers, who is in his fifth season as a starter and is the league's reigning MVP, has thrown for 2,838 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. His 105.6 passer rating ranks first in the league. Minnesota's Christian Ponder, who is in his second season, has thrown for 2,186 yards and 13 TDs, with nine picks. His passer rating is 82.0.
No position carries more weight in determining a team's success than quarterback, and the Packers clearly will have a big edge in this game.
Packers 30, Vikings 20Last week: 49ers 26, Saints 21Season record: 7-5