Green Bay's won four straight NFC North titles, but the current division leader—Minnesota—is in position to end the reign. Setting up the Pack-Vikes showdown plus the Week 11 spotlight player and 10 things to watch

By Robert Klemko
November 20, 2015

It’s a special week in Minneapolis. The Packers are coming to town and first place in the NFC North is on the line. The mantras and clichés which every team preaches—each week is its own season, win today, etc.—are finally starting to feel real.

“There’s a sense of urgency right now, definitely the highest I’ve felt in my career,” says fifth-year Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. “We like to say each week is its own season. This is the first time I feel like since I’ve been here that we’ve actually approached it that way.”

The Vikings are putting on the blinders. Yes, they have the top-ranked rushing offense in football. Yes, they’ve allowed the second-fewest points in football. But everything about their 7-2 start is being thrown out the window in advance of the Packers. Well, everything except that one little mishap last Sunday.

“Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about it from everybody,” Rudolph says.

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We’re talking about the biggest drop of his young career. Leading 7-0 against the Raiders, the Vikings had the ball at the Oakland two-yard line. Norv Turner called one of the more basic goal-line plays on his sheet: A simple rollout with Rudolph streaking to the corner. Rudolph, acting on his developing chemistry with second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, saw the linebacker over-commit to the corner and promptly cut the route short. Bridgewater threw it just above the head of a wide-open Rudolph, who inexplicably leapt and let the ball bounce off his hands and onto the black-painted end zone.

“Easily the worst sports moment in my life,” Rudolph says. “I can never remember missing a wide-open jump shot or just dropping a ball. It wasn’t until after the game when we won that I could laugh.”

Everybody from Zimmer down to the local radio men had a good laugh at Rudolph’s expense. Until Wednesday. The ridicule stopped from teammates and coaches and the enduring message of the 2015 season took over. Zimmer’s been drilling it every week:

Every game we go into, there are reasons we supposedly can’t win this game.

Can’t beat a team with a winning record.

Can’t win on the road.

Can’t win a division game on the road.

Can’t win in California.

There are always people telling us we can’t do it.

We love people telling us we can’t do it.

At first glance, these Vikings don’t look like a team that ought to be able to do it. It’s a no-name defense, with guys like Linval Joseph anchoring the run and Harrison Smith and Captain Munnerlyn anchoring the pass coverage. There isn’t a premier edge rusher in the bunch, unless you count Everson Griffen, whose 5.5 sacks after eight games in his second season as a starter have him headed for a second career double-digit sack season. As exciting as Stefon Diggs has been in his rookie season, his team-leading 30 catches rank 72nd among NFL receivers. Twenty-two other quarterbacks eclipsed 2,000 yards passing before Teddy Bridgewater, with his admirable 64.2 completion percentage, has reached 1,900. What the Vikings do better than anyone else is run the rock.

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Much of that has to do with an unheralded offensive line anchored by journeyman center Joe Berger, a veteran of five NFL teams. All of it has to do with the brutal honesty of Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who made no bones about Rudolph’s changing role from pass catcher to run blocker upon Peterson’s return from a season-long absence. Turner, to his credit, has been masterful at manufacturing scenarios in which Peterson has a lead blocker (the RB's preference) with tight end motions and pulls.

“To be in our room you have to be able to run block,” Rudolph says. “That’s our identity. That’s how we win games. In the NFL, our position is measured by catches and yards and touchdowns and fantasy points and at times it’s hard to not be up there with these guys because its something I know I can do. But Zimmer, consistently, reminds me I’m helping our team win. I take a lot of pride in that.”

On Sunday, Minnesota's prideful, plain and precipitous rise to contention collides with a Green Bay team in a tailspin. The Packers have lost three in a row after starting the season with six wins. Aaron Rodgers has all but run out of dynamic weapons and defenses aren't even disguising coverages in critical moments with Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and James Starks on the field. And now Rodgers is on the injury report for a right shoulder. The last time the Vikings won the division was 2009 with Brett Favre as quarterback. If there were ever a time for a dramatic role reversal in a lopsided NFC North rivalry, this is it.

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Telvin Smith sacks Marcus Mariota during the Jags' 19-13 win over the Titans.
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

About Last Night...

Jaguars 19, Titans 13. The bad news: The Jaguars were dressed like a pile of the yellow-brown guts you scrape away from the inside of a Chesapeake blue crab during the picking process. We backwoods Marylanders call it “the mustard.” Point is: you have to go to the bottom of a bay and crack open the digestive tract of a crustacean to find this color's natural occurrence in the wild.​

The good news: The Jaguars have a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Allen Robinson, who has 16 catches for 284 yards in three games since the bye after going for 113 yards last night. Don't look now, but if the Colts and Texans both lose this weekend—a very real possibility with Houston facing the Jets and Indy visiting an Atlanta team coming off a bye—the Jags will be in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South. What a time to be alive.

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Big Ugly Matchup of the Week

Arizona LG Mike Iupati vs. Bengals DT Geno Atkins

It doesn’t get much bigger or uglier than this, with two of football’s premier interior linemen squaring off in what many consider the game of the week. But only if Iupati is ready to go after suffering a neck injury in the first half of a 39-32 Arizona win over Seattle on Sunday. An X-ray, MRI and CT scan were all negative after Iupati was rushed to the hospital via ambulance, and he’s passed the concussion protocol, but his status remains up in the air. Iupati, while simply average in pass protection, has been instrumental in running back Chris Johnson’s comeback season. Atkins has six sacks, which ties his nine-game total in a 2013 season shortened by injury, and looks more everyday like the Geno Atkins who became a household name in 2012, earning first-team all-pro honors with 12.5 sacks. If Earl Watford gets the starting nod over a recovering Iupati, pray for him.

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Rishard Matthews' 42 catches for the Dolphins this season is already one better than his career high in 2013.
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Player You Need To Know This Week

Miami Dolphins WR Rishard Matthews

Matthews, a seventh-round pick in 2012, has emerged as a playmaker on a Dolphins team that is one game out of second place in the AFC East. His 42 catches and 647 receiving yards through nine games are already a career high. All this, after he demanded a trade or release in the offseason as the Dolphins loaded up on receivers, drafting DeVante Parker in the first round and adding Greg Jennings in free agency.

“A couple days before mandatory minicamp, [my agent] requested a release or a trade, just wanting to be in a different scenario,” Matthews told The MMQB. “And after talking with the GM and the head coach, after we figured out it wasn’t going to happen, I decided if that’s going to be the case I need to make plays once the ball came my way.”

The firing of coach Joe Philbin and elevation of tight ends coach Dan Campbell to the interim position after four games increased what had already become a substantial role in the offense for Matthews, who is on pace for more than 1,100 receiving yards in his contract year.

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“It’s been a complete 180 from Coach Philbin, not to knock him, but the two coaches are way different,” Matthews says. “(Campbell) is more of a players coach and we relate to him more.

“I would say it’s a big motivation just to keep (Campbell) in the position he’s at. When you talk, he listens. And when he talks, you listen. I would love to see what he could do with a whole year.”

Matthews will be playing with a heavy heart and added incentive this weekend against the sliding Cowboys. The Dolphins plan to honor Matthews' half-brother Christopher Ruiz, a former marine killed in Afghanistan on Oct. 2 as a private defense contractor. Ruiz died in a transport plane crash that killed 11, including six service members, and the Dolphins invited the extended family to the game as part of a season-long effort to salute veterans.

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Stat of the Week

I tweeted this out Thursday, after the news of Brandon Weeden being dropped by Dallas and picked up in Houston:

For some context, I reached back into the Pro Football Reference archives, all the way back to the prehistoric 1990 season. That year, among teams not starting rookies or second-year QBs, four teams fielded backups who were older than the starters and had prior starting experience.

The Jets kept 31-year-old Tony Eason around to back up 30-year-old Ken O’Brien after Eason’s three-year run as starter in New England. The Browns stuck with 30-year-old Mike Pagel, a former Colts starter, to back up 27-year-old Bernie Kosar. The Raiders retained 35-year-old Vince Evans, a former starter in Chicago, to back up 29-year-old Jay Schroeder. The Eagles kept around 31-year-old former Bears starter Jim McMahon to backup 27-year-old Randall Cunningham.

That’s it! The rest of the NFL was either fielding inexperienced starters or backing up veterans with young, inexperienced players whom the various teams intended to groom.

Twenty-five years later, we’ve already seen seven quarterbacks with extensive starting experience (all over the age of 32) taking snaps for injured, established starters. Mike Vick in Pittsburgh, Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden in Dallas, Matt Hasselbeck in Indianapolis, Luke McCown in New Orleans, Kellen Clemens in San Diego and Shaun Hill in Minnesota.

What happened? Why did backup jobs start going to old guys?

The simple conclusion to draw is that it's a win-now league; teams don't want to wait several years to groom anyone. That makes some sense, until you take a look at how some of these over-the-hill backups have fared so far as starters this season:

Mike Vick: 2-1
Matt Cassel: 0-4
Brandon Weeden: 0-3
Matt Hasselbeck: 2-0
Luke McCown: 0-1

That’s a combined 4-9. Would younger, less-experienced backups have fared any worse? That’s hard to say. But look at the upside. Back in 1990, the possibility that an aging Joe Montana would fall to injury at a critical moment was very real, and the 49ers might have been better suited with a veteran backup. Instead they strung along a scrub they’d picked up three seasons prior, an epic draft bust in Tampa, now 29. Montana would get knocked out of the conference championship game that year, and when the next season rolled around, a QB controversy was born. Today that scrub has a Hall of Fame jacket and three Super Bowl rings.

I’m not saying every young backup will become Steve Young—that season also was instrumental in the careers of Rich Gannon and Jeff Hostetler. All I’m saying is, for all the grumbling NFL personnel do about a lack of young QB talent, they’re not spending much effort developing what talent exists. Beyond simple playing time in the event of injury, the young guys already on rosters need second-team reps in practice, and the handful of recent collegians killing it in the CFL deserve roster spots more than guys like 34-year-old Luke McCown, who has had his day in the sun. Ultimately, the NFL needs a minor league, with teams in places like Birmingham, Canton, Sacramento and San Antonio, bankrolled by owners in the interest of growing the game.

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Quote of the Week

“I obviously have no clue how to attack them or defend them, so you guys should talk to somebody else who has a better record than I do against them.”

—Rex Ryan, on a conference call with Patriots beat writers.

The question that sent Rex into a tizzy: You’ve lost eight of nine to the Patriots. Is that something that keeps you up at night considering how much time you spend talking about them?

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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

1. Case Keenum vs. the Ravens. It's the St. Louis debut for Keenum, two years after going 0-8 for the Texans. At 27, I think Keenum deserves another shot, though he’ll unfortunately get it behind an offensive line with more issues than that Texans group ever had. I was high on him back in the day, so here’s to Keenum making me right. 

2. Danny Amendola or Keshawn Martin? Here’s what we know about Tom Brady: He’s going to make it work. The question is who will win the QB’s favor? After the Patriots lost Julian Edelman to injury, it's not entirely clear who will get the lion's share of snaps. Martin, the lesser known commodity, has missed the past four games with a hamstring injury.

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3. Adrian Peterson. The NFL's leading rusher (961 yards in nine games) has the potential to batter a Packers defense that ranks 24th against the run. Green Bay has cleaned up its act somewhat after giving up 101 yards on 14 carries to C.J. Anderson three weeks ago, but the offense is sputtering, which means more opportunities for football’s biggest home-run hitter to swing for the fences.

4. My pick for defensive rookie of the year. Bills cornerback Ronald Darby has a golden opportunity to play his way into the national spotlight against Tom Brady and an offense adjusting to the loss of key receiver Edelman.

5. Brock Osweiler’s first start in the NFL. It's a tough matchup vs. the resurgent Bears, coming with the Broncos at 7-2 and facing an uncertain timetable on Peyton Manning’s return from a foot injury. The prognosis from The MMQB's Andy Benoit isn’t good.​

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6. The Saints' new defensive boss. As Dennis Allen takes over as Saints defensive coordinator against the offensively-challenged Texans, the expectation is a more aggressive game plan in terms of blitzing than was Rob Ryan’s tendency in three seasons in New Orleans. Allen will be limited, like Ryan was, by a lack of outstanding pass rushers and subpar corner play, something Allen grew all too familiar with in three seasons as Raiders head coach.

7. Jay Cutler. Hey, he is actually pretty good at playing football. Who knew? For starters, Adam Gase knew. Or at least he hoped. The offensive coordinator and staff drilled conservative progressions into Cutler’s mind and he bought in. The result? Cutler hasn’t thrown more than one pick in a single game this season after seven multi-pick performances last year. Look for the Bears to pull off a mini-upset over Osweiler and the Broncos.​

8. Ryan Fitzpatrick returns to Houston. The ex-Texan is now the Jets starter, who is nine days removed from thumb surgery. As ESPN’s Tania Ganguli notes, Fitzpatrick is an animal in games against former teams, throwing for 258.3 yards per game against his ex-employers.

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9. The Falcons, coming off a bye. Atlanta is trying to rekindle that offensive magic of the first month of the season against the Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts. Note how Kyle Shanahan employs rookie running back Devonta Freeman, whose star has cooled to some degree after totaling only 100 rushing yards in losses to Tampa and San Francisco before the bye.

10. Cam Newton, dabbing on these folks.

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