For the first time this season, the Green Bay Packers, winners of three straight, enter the weekend atop the NFC North all by their lonesome.
Having played non-divisional foes in all but one of their six contests thus far, the meat of the green and gold’s charge towards a third straight divisional crown begins on Sunday, when they travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings, the first of four outings over the ensuing six weeks against NFC North affiliates.
Green Bay, which has triumphed over the Vikings in six of their past seven meetings, enters the affair having, seemingly, found a harmonious balance on offense, with a stingy defense (which has not yielded more than 17 points to an opponent this month) complimenting the orchestra being directed by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Considering the litany of injuries the Packers have had to overcome this season (headlined by the likes of Randall Cobb; Clay Matthews; Jermichael Finley; James Jones; James Starks; Nick Perry; Bryan Bulaga; and Brad Jones, among others), Green Bay’s standing atop the division entering the mid-point of the season is a testament to the wherewithal of Mike McCarthy’s club.
And then there are the Minnesota Vikings.
The current occupants of the NFC North cellar, Minnesota (1-5), which has allowed fewer than 30 points only once this season (a 23-7 loss to the previously winless Giants this past Monday serving as the outlier), boasts a defense, with the exception of a formidable front led by All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen, which ranks near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed per game (288.8 ypg, 29th), first downs yielded (95, tied for 27th) and yards surrendered per offensive play (5.4, tied for 24th).
The Minnesota offense, meanwhile, has had three quarterbacks (Matt Cassell, Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder) start behind center this season, a trio which has combined to throw for five touchdowns—which also happens to be two fewer than Peyton Manning tossed in Week One.
Before the Vikings and Packers face off for the 106th time on Sunday night, here are a few more storylines leading up to kickoff:
Peterson’s bounce back
During the Vikings’ aforementioned loss to the Giants, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the reigning league MVP, amassed a season-low 23 yards on 13 carries. The previous week, Peterson ran for 62 yards on 10 carries during Minnesota 35-10 loss to Carolina.
Over the past three seasons, Peterson, 28, who is third among active players in career rushing yards (9,360), has accounted for less than 20 carries in three straight games only once. Expect that trend to continue on Sunday.
In 12 regular season contests against the Packers, the former Oklahoma Sooner has more than had his way.
Entering the weekend, Peterson, currently the NFL’s seventh leading rusher (511 yards), is averaging 112.5 yards on the ground versus Green Bay, including 409 in two contests alone this past season. If history is any indication, look for Minnesota to set Peterson loose on Sunday night.
It is rare that the return of a quarterback boasting a career record of 12-17; has tossed just three more touchdown that interceptions (33-30) in three seasons; and has a cumulative completion percentage of 59.2 is a welcome sight.
Well, Christian Ponder may be the exception.
On the heels of the horrid performance put forth by the recently acquired Freeman (the former Tampa Bay first-round pick routinely over and under threw his receivers en route to a 20-of-53 showing against the Giants) earlier this week, Ponder, who has not played since sustaining a fractured rib against Cleveland on Sept. 22, got the nod for this weekend from head coach Leslie Frazier upon Freeman suffering a concussion in his lone start.
Outside of a three-touchdown performance to cap the 2012 regular season and punch Minnesota’s ticket to the postseason, Ponder, the seventh overall pick by the Vikings in the 2011 NFL draft out of Florida State, has had a rough time against the Green Bay defense in his young career.
In four starts against the green and gold, the 6’2”, 229-pound Ponder has completed just 47.9 percent of his passes (57-fot-119) and tossed five interceptions while tasting defeat three times.
For his part, Ponder, after being on the sideline for more than one month, is ready to reestablish himself within the fabric of the Minnesota offense.
“I think I was playing with a lot of pressure on myself,” noted Ponder, who has thrown for 651 yards and a pair of touchdowns this season, as reported by usatoday.com, “and never felt in sync. Now is the opportunity to take that deep breath and go out and have fun again.”
Each off season, dozens of players, whether via trade, a seismic contract offer or being given one final chance at glory, migrate from one team to the next. Such is the universally understood nature of professional sports.
Yet, few players have been so negatively outspoken in respect to their former employer than that of Greg Jennings.
Upon inking a five-year, $45 million contract with Minnesota in March, Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowl selection during his seven seasons a member of the Green Bay wide receiver corps, has been consistently unabashed in his apparent disdain towards his former employer.
Ranging from refusing to refer to Rodgers, his quarterback since the 2008 campaign, by name (“12” was preferred by Jennings), as well as calling into question the former Super Bowl MVP’s leadership qualities, to stating that he was “brainwashed” by the Packers, Jennings’ comments have run the gamut this off season.
Yet, regardless of what has come out of the mouth of Jennings, who attempted to clarify and smooth out his comments earlier this week (“Probably took it too far...No, I was happy there,” cited Jennings on Friday, per usatoday.com), the singular focus for the Green Bay defense remains on shutting down the former Western Michigan product for what he is capable of doing atop the gridiron.
“We know he’s a dangerous player, dangerous after the catch,” said Green Bay cornerback Micah Hyde, as reported by jsonline.com. “We have to get him down…He’s all over the place. It’s going to be a task to try and figure out where he is, and obviously, they’re going to try to get him the ball.”
Kick off between the Packers and Vikings is slated for 7:30 p.m. CT.