GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers (8-2) hold a commanding three-and-a-half game lead over the Minnesota Vikings (4-5) in the NFC North. With a win on Sunday, Packers coach Matt LaFleur will have all but locked up a third consecutive division title.
Despite the disparity in the standings, there are plenty of reasons to be worried. Here are three.
1. Capt. Kirk
The Packers smoked the likes of Arizona’s Kyler Murray, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Seattle’s Russell Wilson the last three weeks. Against three of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Green Bay allowed a 59.7 passer rating, a 56.4 percent completion rate, 5.0 yards per attempt and one touchdown pass. Those stats ranked third, second, fourth and first, respectively, over that span.
Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins isn’t quite at their level but he’s a darned good quarterback. With receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and the balance provided by dominating running back Dalvin Cook, it will be another huge challenge for a Green Bay defense without Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith and with a limited Rashan Gary.
“I’ve known Kirk a long time, been with him in Washington when he was a rookie and his second year,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur. “He’s just such a natural thrower. He’s a student of the game. There’s not anything he can’t do out there, so I’ve always had a lot of respect for him and feel like he’s probably one of the more underrated guys. I think he is having a hell of a year.”
Hell of a year, indeed. He’s sixth in passer rating, sixth in completion percentage and first in touchdown-to-interception ratio (18 to 2). Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wanted Cousins to play more aggressively last week against the Chargers. It worked. Jefferson had a banner day as the Vikings scored an upset victory, 27-20.
“I do think that sometimes he needs to be aggressive with the football, and I thought he was [Sunday], especially in the second half,” Zimmer said after the game. “He’s got to trust everybody, and if he has to hum a couple in there and they get tipped or something, so be it. That’s why we’re a team.”
2. Turnover Trouble
While Jefferson’s reception count has been the key to victory for Minnesota, turnovers have been the sure-fire indicator for Green Bay. When the Packers have won the turnover battle this season, they are 7-0. When they have lost the turnover battle, they’re 0-2. Moreover, in regular-season action, the Packers are an unbeatable 27-0 when winning the turnover battle under LaFleur.
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Getting back the team’s All-Pro cornerback, All-Pro left tackle and Pro Bowl outside linebacker, to state the obvious, would be a huge lift to the 9-3 Packers.
In Green Bay’s seven wins this year, it has forced 16 turnovers. In its two losses, it has forced zero. The Vikings have a league-low six giveaways this season. Of 34 qualifying quarterbacks, Cousins is No. 2 with two interceptions and a 0.6 percent interception rate. Cousins has fumbled five times but lost only one.
So, can the Packers force the blunders that the Vikings have been so good at avoiding? Or can the Packers do what they haven’t done in almost a full calendar year: win without forcing a turnover?
On the other side of the ball, Vikings safety Harrison Smith is back after a bout with COVID. In 16 games against Green Bay, he has 100 tackles, seven tackles for losses, five interceptions, nine passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
“Versatility,” receiver Davante Adams said. “Really good in the run game. Savvy veteran who, obviously, he’s really rangy. He’ll start on the edge like he’s blitzing off the edge, kind of how (Seattle’s) Jamal Adams has been doing throughout his career. And then, going from there, shooting to the middle of the field as a one-high safety, it’s tough to do. When you have a guy who can hold the shell or kind of run that defense kind of like Luke Kuechly did for the Panthers, I think it’s pretty similar to that.”
3. First-Quarter Fears
In any road game, the key for the visiting team is to get off to a fast start to silence the home fans.
There’s potential trouble with that this week. The Packers have been outscored by 28 points in the first quarter. Only the Raiders (minus-31), Jaguars (minus-33) and Jets (minus-47) have been worse. Offensively, what is supposed to be a high-octane unit has scored only 24 points. Again, only three teams are worse. Defensively, Green Bay has allowed five first-drive touchdowns. They’ve led after the first quarter of just one game – Week 3 at San Francisco.
The Vikings, meanwhile, are sixth with a plus-21 scoring differential in the first quarter. Oddly, they’re 0-4 when leading after the first quarter and 2-0 when trailing. Nonetheless, falling behind in raucous U.S. Bank Stadium isn’t the best pathway to victory for Green Bay.
“That’s something that we’re searching for,” LaFleur said. “Obviously, it all starts with us as coaches and myself as a play-caller. Got to do a better job. We’ve got to make sure we get these guys ready to go so that when we go into a game, we’re capitalizing on our opportunities. I thought we had some opportunities in the first quarter [against Seattle] and didn’t do enough, obviously. But that’s always a good problem to correct when you win a football game. You’ve just got to be on your ‘A’ game every week.”