MINNEAPOLIS—On a folding table inside the Vikings’ locker room, the post-game snacks were spread out and untouched. There were bags of orange slices that had gone uneaten and unwrapped whey protein bars and full water jugs with the lids still on. The table said the same thing as the scoreboard—an opportunity had been lost.
Most players filed past the table, dispersing quickly, away from the reality of what had taken place at TCF Bank Stadium, and into another frigid November night. The Vikings had entered a pivotal NFC North contest earlier Sunday morning against the Packers, and Minnesota was ahead by a game, at home, their season full of promise, ready to assume the mantel of new division king.
They exited in a tie for first place after the Packers’ resounding 30–13 victory, and while no one in the locker room appeared shattered, it also seemed clear that the Vikings knew what this loss meant. They knew, for instance, that it put the Packers back in control of the division race, with an early tiebreaker and a far less daunting schedule over the season’s final six weeks. They knew, also, that their five-game winning streak appeared that much less impressive, because it came against teams with records no better than 5–5.
“We’ve got to find ways to win tough football games,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We’ve done that.”
Welcome to the NFL in 2015, in this strange season, where the Patriots are undefeated and the Panthers are undefeated, and where the Bengals and Cardinals look capable of contending, and where every other team looks seriously flawed. That includes the Packers, who on Sunday had an 18-yard punt and yielded a 47-yard touchdown pass and were outgained by the Vikings … and still managed to win, and not by a small margin, but by a deceivingly large one.
The Packers defense looked improved on Sunday. It sacked Teddy Bridgewater six times. It held Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s leading rusher, to 45 rushing yards, with a long of 11. Peterson was also limited by his offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, who dialed a meager 13 carries, but Peterson also fumbled as many times as he scored (one, on both counts).
Green Bay won, and won easily, but it didn’t pass the eye test. The Packers played better, but not necessarily well. The 100 rushing yards gained by Eddie Lacy were encouraging, as was the big day from receiver James Jones (six receptions, 109 yards, touchdown), and the five field goals made by Mason Crosby, who outscored the Vikings by himself.
Still, quarterback Aaron Rodgers spent Sunday afternoon like he has spent most of the last month—running away from pressure, scrambling to avoid sacks, throwing on the run. He had 16 completions and 18 incompletions, emblematic of an offense that often appeared out of rhythm and out of sync. “We got a lot of work to do,” said receiver Randall Cobb. “We left a ton on the field today.”
Of course, professional football games are won by actual points, not style points, and the Packers face the Bears, Lions, Cowboys and Raiders over the next month. None of those teams has a winning record. There’s plenty of time for Green Bay to put together a run.
Victory did beat the alternative, a loss that would have dropped Green Bay to 6–4, two games behind Minnesota with six to go. And when the Packers needed a play, they made one. Like late in the second quarter, when Rodgers slung a bullet to Cobb for a 10-yard score and a 16–6 lead. Or early in the fourth quarter, when Rodgers scrambled away from pressure, and scrambled away from pressure, and scrambled further away from pressure, and found Jones in the end zone for a 27-yard TD.
“I still think we’re a very good football team,” said Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings tight end. But, he added, “If we want to get over the hump, that’s who we have to beat. Everybody knows the division goes through there.”
Thirty minutes after the game ended, the Vikings continued to take questions as to whether they can handle winning, or whether this was all too new for a team that is so young. Peterson did not hold back when asked about that. “I think it's from the top to the bottom,” he said. “It's from the coaches on both sides, and the players. No matter what position we were in, we had calls, and we didn't execute on a lot of plays. It came back to hurt us. But it's the coaches' job to put us in the best position, as well.” (He seems to be talking to you, Norv.)
What Peterson said is as indicative as when receiver Cordarrelle Patterson head-butted Crosby after one return. That’s the kind of mistake that dooms teams on the playoff fringe, the kind of dumb play teams like the Patriots rarely make. Just as Sunday’s contest was the kind that the Vikings might regard a month from now as the beginning of when their season started to slip away.
For the Packers, too, maybe this is the start of a run that leads them to the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s not. There were no definitive answers here on Sunday, only more questions. Welcome to the NFL in 2015.