Run game, defense lead Vikings to NFC North crown in win over Packers
Winning the NFC North with an 11–5 record is a pretty amazing feat for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer in his second year at the helm. After Minnesota's 7–9 season in 2014, they were the chic pick for many to ascend to the head of their division—and potentially, the top of the conference—and they've taken that first step. With their 20–13 win over the Packers on Sunday night, the Vikings took their first division title since 2009, when Brett Favre was their quarterback, though this win, and this season, was done in different ways.
Yes, the Vikings have a new franchise quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, but his efforts on Sunday night were subpar after a few good games. He completed just 10 of 19 passes for 99 yards and an interception, and that interception was a horrid left-handed effort under pressure. It has to be worrisome for the Vikings at times that Bridgewater is still trying to work out the kinks. He can be transcendent in fits and starts, but he was none of that in this contest. He missed several deep throws and appeared flustered by coverages at times. At the half, Zimmer said that his quarterback needed to slow down and wait for things to open up. He did not do this.
Still, due to a great running game and tremendous defense, the Vikings were able to pull it out, and that's the way Zimmer would prefer it. Defensive end Everson Griffen had two sacks and a ton of quarterback hurries against Aaron Rodgers, and though his efforts were helped by the fact that the Packers had to move guard Josh Sitton out to left tackle to replace the injured David Bakhtiari, Griffen didn't need too much assistance, as he's been great all year.
“It was a team effort out there,” Griffen said. “We rushed hard, we tried hard, and we won the game. I'm excited right now. We talked about this Day One in training camp, and all our dreams came true. It was a team win—offense played great, defense played great, and we fought for four quarters.”
The offense did play well. At least, the rushing offense did. And when Adrian Peterson left the game in the second half with back spasms, Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner were able to rely on backup Jerrick McKinnon, as well. Receiver Adam Thielen added a 47-yard run early in the game on a fake punt, and the Vikings finished with 185 yards on the ground. Peterson managed just 67 of those yards on 18 carries, but it was enough. Enough for his third NFL rushing title, and enough for his team's division championship.
“It means so much,” Peterson told NBC's Michele Tafoya of the division title. “We began this season by talking about winning the NFC North, and this week, we realized it was right there in front of us. So to come out here at Lambeau and leave with a victory, I give all the glory to God.”
Of course, Peterson's return to the league after last year's suspension is a complicated one, and many are still conflicted in their feelings for him as a person, but with his 2015 rushing title, there's no question he's a crucial part of this team's success. For whatever that's worth in the big picture, the Vikings wouldn't be where they are without him.
“When I look back over the past year, two years... I told myself coming into the game, if the season was to end right now, before we played this game, God has been good to me and my family. So, to add on another rushing title, I continue to give Him thanks. I'm blessed,” Peterson said.
As for the Packers, what plagued them in this game was the same thing that has plagued them throughout most of the season—a staid, ineffective and unimaginative passing offense that defenses find easy to counter. Head coach Mike McCarthy has said over and over that his players need to stop worrying about the playcalling and pay attention to their own efforts, but it was far too difficult for Rodgers to find open receivers, and most of the big plays he made were made outside of structure. Rodgers spent far too long breaking the pocket and hoping one of his targets could win a physical battle downfield when he wasn't chucking easy stuff underneath. He finished with 28 completions in 44 attempts for 291 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and though he did engineer 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to keep the game from dipping to blowout status, it wasn't enough to take the day.
Now, the Packers will head to play the red-hot Redskins in the wild-card round, while the Vikings will host the Seahawks, a team that smoked them in their home stadium less than a month ago. And with that, we'll see how long the shine of that division title lasts.