No fans, same intensity in rekindling of Packers-Vikings
Because of their passionate fans, the Minnesota Vikings pride themselves on having one of the great home-field advantages in the NFL. Even when the nearby rival Green Bay Packers come to town.
On Sunday, though, the Packers and Vikings open this unique season in an empty U.S. Bank Stadium. However, that should not diminish the high expectations both hold for 2020.
After consecutive third-place finishes, Green Bay went 13-3, won the NFC North and reached the NFC Championship Game in Matt LaFleur’s first season as head coach in 2019. Minnesota, meanwhile, again finished second in the North at 10-6, earned a wild-card playoff spot and eventually lost to San Francisco in the divisional round.
Now, amid a season played under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, the Packers and Vikings remain the front-runners in the division. However, the focal point for both teams is specifically on Sunday’s challenge.
“We’re not focused on anything that’s not in front us,” LaFleur said while addressing the media this week. “Going into someone else’s stadium, whether there’s fans or no fans. That’s a playoff football team (in Minnesota).”
It’s also a team Green Bay beat twice in 2019. In the Packers’ 23-10 win at Minnesota on Dec. 23 in Week 16, Aaron Jones ran for a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns. Jones rushed for a career-best 1,084 yards in 2019, and his 16 rushing touchdowns tied for the NFL lead.
Of course, Green Bay’s success usually depends on the play of Aaron Rodgers. The star quarterback turns 37 in December but is coming off his eighth season of at least 4,000 passing yards. In 23 career starts versus Minnesota, Rodgers has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 5,475 yards with 43 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
“You get to know those guys,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told the media on Wednesday. “I just wish (the Packers) weren’t quite as good as they are. They’re a really good football team.
“They know us pretty well, and we know them pretty well.”
Zimmer’s group must also contain three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Davante Adams. A toe issue limited Adams to 83 receptions, 997 yards and just five touchdowns in 12 regular-season games in 2019. He recorded 13 of those catches and 116 yards at Minnesota in the December game.
Stopping Adams could be more of a challenge with corners Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes no longer around. In addition, a defense that ranks second in the NFL over the past five seasons in allowing 18.8 points per game, has seen defensive tackle Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen leave through free agency.
Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter (14 1/2 sacks in each of the last two seasons) will miss at least the first three games after being placed on Injured Reserve with an undisclosed “tweak.” Minnesota did bring in Yannick Ngakoue (37 1/2 career sacks) from Jacksonville.
Offensively, Minnesota still has three of the best in the business.
Starting quarterback Kirk Cousins enters his third season with the team with a 69.7 completion percentage, 7,901 yards, 56 touchdowns against 16 interceptions so far. Cousins has 24,107 passing yards for his career.
Running back Dalvin Cook (career-high 1,135 rushing yards in 2019) scored 13 touchdowns last season and receiver Adam Thielen, who was limited to 10 games due to injury in 2019, is the undisputed top receiving threat with Stefon Diggs gone.
Cook ran for 154 yards with a touchdown in a 21-16 loss at Green Bay in 2019. He missed the December game with injury.
The Vikings could have a hard time generating consistent offense against a Packers defense (19.6 points per game allowed in 2019) that returns the Smiths, Preston and Za’Darius. They combined for 25 1/2 sacks in 2019.
Za’Darius Smith sacked Cousins 3 1/2 times in last season’s win at Minnesota.
Green Bay right tackle Billy Turner (knee) did not practice Wednesday and is questionable for Sunday. Starting LB Oren Burks (groin) was limited.
–Field Level Media