NFL Preview – Play-Offs 2012 Season
Fast starts are vital for both sides – that could be the most important factor in this game
It’s not all about Peterson for the Vikings, somebody else has to step up
Ponder needs to continue his improvement can he handle Lambeau and its conditions
Peterson in cold weather – the “negatives” are there
Packers sloppy secondary needs to get their game heads back on from Week 17
Rodgers to be keep upright most of the time
Keep an eye on the field-goal battle – Blair Walsh has the clear edge in confidence
Packers run game is important and will allow other things to happen on offence
Pressure Ponder especially on third downs
Key players: Vikings (Christian Ponder) – Packers (James Jones)
The Vikings defeated the Packers to earn a playoff spot in the final week of the regular season. This marks the fifth time over the past 10 seasons that two teams will meet in the Wild Card round after facing off in Week 17. In the previous four occurrences, the regular season winner is 2-2 in the wild-card rematch.
Adrian Peterson rushed for 409 yards in two games against the Packers this season, including 230 after first contact. No other player had more than 46 yards after contact against Green Bay in 2012 and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau; the 409 yards are the fourth-most by anyone against one opponent in single-season NFL history.
The Packers are just 2-4 in their past six home playoff games after going a 13-0 in the franchise’s first 13 home playoff games. Minnesota will be looking for its first road playoff win since 2004 when it defeated — you guessed it — the Packers at Lambeau Field in 2004. That game is the only other time the two teams have met in the postseason.
The Packers have not had a 100-yard rusher since Brandon Jackson in Week 5 of 2010, a stretch of 43 consecutive games. Only three teams have won a Super Bowl without having an individual run for at least 100 yards in at least one game during the regular season. The San Francisco 49ers were the last to do it in 1981.
Aaron Rodgers has completed 78.4 percent of his pass attempts to Randall Cobb this season, the second-highest rate for any quarterback-wide receiver duo with at least 50 attempts (Peyton Manning-Brandon Stokley: 78.9 percent). Cobb did not play in Week 17 but Rodgers went 6-for-6 when targeting Cobb against the Vikings in Week 13.
Adrian Peterson averaged 13.7 yards per rush this season against the Packers on carries outside the tackles, accounting for nearly 37 percent of his total yards on such carries against all teams in 2012. The Packers allowed 7.0 yards per rush outside the tackles overall this season, the second-highest rate in the NFL.
Vikings rookie Blair Walsh is 35-38 on field goals in 2012, including a perfect 10-10 on attempts of 50 yards or more. His 10 field goals of at least 50 yards are the most in a single season in NFL history. On the other sideline, Packers kicker Mason Crosby missed 12 field goals this season, tied for second-most in the NFL, and was just 2-9 on attempts of 50 yards or more.
The Packers are 1-3 in games decided by three points or fewer this season and 6-14 in such games since Mike McCarthy took over as head coach in 2006. Their .300 win percentage is the worst over that span. The Vikings are 14-9 (.609 win pct) in such games over the same stretch, fifth-best in the league, including a 2-1 mark this season.
Green Bay have won 32 of their last 39 games.
In divisional games the Packers have won 12 of 13 SU and covered 23 of 32 in division.
In games played at home, December or later the Packers are 39-19 against the spread since 1992.
Last 15 times Green Bay lost against the spread, covered next game 13 times.
On Saturday night, the Packers and Vikings will face off for the third time in five weeks. They split the two regular season matchups, setting up an NFC wild-card showdown and as long-time NFC North rivals, there aren’t many surprises between the two teams. It probably doesn’t hurt the rivalry that, in many ways, the Vikings (10-6) and Packers (11-5) are polar opposites.
Minnesota relies on a miraculous workhorse running back in Adrian Peterson, who became the seventh player to rush for more than 2,000 yards last week — with almost all of the carries coming less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery. For the Packers, everything runs through their ultra- talented quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who can beat you with his arm, feet and mind.
Defensively, the Vikings are a 4-3 team that is big, physical and features pass-rushing end Jared Allen. The Packers run a 3-4 and use angles, speed and overloads up front, and a slew of talented cornerbacks to cover up the back end. The Vikings are a ground-and-pound physical bunch on both sides of the ball that would be more fitting with dirt and mud on their uniforms, instead of playing on an artificial surface. The Packers are fast and precise, and star receiver Greg Jennings said this week what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the Packers are better suited as a dome team, yet call the historic — and freezing — Lambeau Field home.
So much familiarity; so much difference; so much at stake on Saturday night. The Vikings and Packers matchup on Saturday marks the 5th time since 2005 that teams from the same division have met in the Wild Card round. The team that won the division won the last 3 matchups, but the last Wild Card team to win against a divisional team in the Wild Card Round was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who went on to win the Super Bowl. The last time these two teams (Vikings and Packers) met in the Wild Card Round was in 2004, when the Packers lost 31-17 at home to the Vikings.
The Peterson factor is one aspect of the Vikings gameplan that they couldn’t overcome last weekend and while they may not be able to stop him again it has often proved throughout Peterson’s career that his numbers at Lambeau Field often don’t factor into the outcome. The Packers have won five of the six meetings at Lambeau Field in Peterson’s career despite the four-time All-Pro running for an average of 106.2 yards and five touchdowns in those contests. Minnesota are 0-3 there when Peterson tops 100 yards and then you start to factor in the weather.
With temperatures expected to be in the low 20s for this Wild Card contest it could be the coldest game Adrian Peterson has ever started. He’s only started two games in his career with freezing game-time temperatures. While he’s moved the ball effectively, he’s also lost fumbles in each game. Those fumbles lost would be his only two in a 36-game span ending in Week 8 this season. Overall, he averaged 4.6 yds/rush in freezing games, a half yard worse than his career average (5.1), so that may be a point to watch out for.
The Packers who had gathered some real momentum to their season will have been concerned but not worried about last weekend’s defeat and they will hope to get a boost from the return of safety Charles Woodson, who has been cleared to play after missing the last nine games with a broken collarbone. Leading receiver and return man Randall Cobb has also been practicing this week after sitting out against the Vikings with an ankle injury, while fellow wide receiver Jordy Nelson returned to practice on Wednesday after missing part of Sunday’s game with a knee injury. While Green Bay could certainly use Cobb and Nelson, it’s Woodson’s return that will have the Packers most excited.
Woodson will be especially important, not only his playoff knowhow, nous and experience but just in his lifting of the young secondary around him that has done well in his absence but did allow Vikings quarterback to throw for 234 yards and a season-best three touchdowns last week. Ponder had increasingly become one of the worries for Minnesota especially if Peterson could not get the job done but he has improved of late although it remains to be seen how he copes with the hostile and combative Lambeau experience. Ponder had completed only 45.1 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and five interceptions while losing his first three starts versus the Packers, but he had a 95.5 rating while not throwing an INT in Minnesota’s final three contests.
His opposite number is certainly the man who makes the Packers tick and the Cheesehead faithful no longer pine for the Favre-meister. Rodgers didn’t throw a pick while tossing 10 touchdown passes over Green Bay’s last four games, throwing for a season-high 365 yards against a Vikings defence that ranked 24th in the league against the pass (244.3 yards per game). Minnesota, though, finished with five sacks of Rodgers, who ended up being taken down a career-most and NFL-worst 51 times.
From 1961 through the 2002 postseason, the Packers went 12-0 in home playoff games. From 2003 through the present, the Packers have gone 2-4 in home playoff games. And 1-3 in their last 4 home playoff games.
This game would be easy to distil into a contest between the reigning MVP and one player who is amongst the leaders for that honours this year but that would be making things far too simple and basic and as good as both of them are they can’t and won’t be able to win it in isolation. This time around many of the old factors and confrontation remains but there are plenty of new ones also – The cold, the pressure of the playoffs, and a more intense familiarity with one another are all in play now, and they will assuredly have some effect on the outcome.
We had to discuss this at some point so let’s get it done up front – how or can the Packers stop Peterson? Well I’ve already pointed out that AP is not as good in the cold and that he could be prone to a fumble in the falling temperatures but it has to be said that Peterson has had two amazing games against the Packers this season. I’m sure they have wanted to stop him but haven’t been able to although the tackling on occasions has been woeful and Peterson has generated plenty of yards after the first contact. He has rare abilities after first contact and has become more potent as an outside runner than he was early in the year – he averaged 13.7 yards per rush outside the tackles against the Packers this season, picking up 36.5 percent of his total yardage on such runs for the season against Green Bay. The Packers allowed 7.0 yards per rush outside the tackles overall this season, second worst in the NFL.
Not only is Peterson amazing, but his blockers have been superb, including fullbacks, tight ends and even wide receivers. The Vikings are one of the few teams that feature a blocking fullback and it will be the Packers objective to keep him inside the tackles and keep him contained. History says the Packers will figure out Adrian Peterson this weekend. According to the Elias Sports Bureau 5 players in NFL history have rushed for at least 247 yards against an opponent in the regular season and faced that same opponent in the postseason. None of them managed a 100-yard playoff game and only Emmitt Smith reached the endzone of those 5.
But it can’t and won’t be all about Peterson for the Vikings, there has to be someone else to step forward and step up if they are to be successful and to a certain extent the Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder managed that on Sunday night – can he do it again is the big question. There is no doubt that he’s been getting steadily better in his production but he has had the massive crutch of AP to lean on, if Peterson does get shutdown then he really needs to step up and I’m sure that’s what the Packers have in mind. The Vikings are very light on weapons beyond Peterson. To keep up with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, someone other than Peterson will have to come through and if the game is put in the hands of Ponder things could get interesting for the Vikings.
You’ll see what I mean by this example: the Minnesota Vikings took a 14-10 lead into the third quarter against the Green Bay Packers in Week 13 and started the half with possession of the ball. Adrian Peterson quickly got the Vikings into the red zone after two rushes totalling 52 yards. Facing 2nd-and-6 at the 8-yard line, the Vikings used play action and rolled Christian Ponder to the right. Ponder was under duress and forced a throw into the end zone: interception. Later in the third quarter, now trailing by six, the Vikings were once again deep in Packers territory after a 23-yard Peterson run and 15-yard penalty. Once again a Ponder interception, this time at the Packers’ 10-yard line, ended a drive.
Now I think he has improved and leant since those mistakes and that was borne out in last week’s game but can he find that improvement on a weekly basis. The difference in the Week 13 loss and the Week 17 victory for the Vikings was the play of Ponder, whose 3.1 Total QBR in Week 13 was the worst against the Packers this season, and whose 94.6 QBR in Week 17 was the best performance by a quarterback vs. Green Bay in 2012. Two factors contributed to Ponder’s ups and downs in those games: vertical passing and third downs. Ponder attempted six passes thrown 15 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage in Week 13. The only one that was caught was an interception by the Packers. In Week 17, however, Ponder was 4-of-5 on such throws, including a 25-yard pass to Michael Jenkins on the final drive that put Minnesota into Packers territory. The other key for Ponder will be his passing on third down. Ponder was 2-of-7 with two first downs in Week 13 on third down, compared to 8-of-11 passing with six first downs in Week 17.
The improvement was in large part due to a change in defensive strategy against Ponder.
In Week 13, the Packers sent five or more pass rushers after Ponder on 75 percent of his third down dropbacks. In Week 17 the Packers did the reverse, sending added pressure only one-quarter of the time. Ponder picked apart the Packers secondary when seeing standard pressure but struggled against Green Bay’s blitz on third down. Peterson is a good bet to run through the Packers defensive front, having already totalled 409 yards rushing against Green Bay this season. But if Ponder is unable to replicate his Week 17 success, Peterson’s yardage this weekend might not matter.
With Minnesota missing Percy Harvin, the receiver position has been causing the Vikings problems and they haven’t really ever found a consistent threat which has hampered Ponder and his development – Kyle Rudolph is Christian Ponder’s favourite target, especially in the red zone, but he isn’t a big-play tight end. The Packers feature an excellent young secondary that has been very stingy against wide receivers and tight ends, and veteran DB Charles Woodson is scheduled to return this week and that may well serve to wake up the Packers corners Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Tramon Williams all of whom dropped off last week in their production from the first game against Ponder, they all made mistakes and if they allow the Vikings to move with a balanced offense they risk giving up another 30+ point game. If there is any ‘must win’ match up for the Packers, this is it.
One way for the Packers to guard against the Vikings just running Peterson and controlling the clock and tempo of the game is to get off to a fast start themselves and make the Vikings go to their passing game. The Packers especially are a team that is built to play with a lead and they are amazingly 9-1 when they lead at half-time and it’s a little surprising that they haven’t won more games from behind with their stellar passing attack, but look at the teams that have had them behind at the break – 49ers, Seahawks, Giants and Vikings – what’s the common denominator, yes take a merit mark if you said a strong running game. In those four games no team passed for 300 yards, but all had more than 120 yards on the ground, at a yards per carry average of at least 4.4. The biggest way to combat their own run defence deficiencies would be for the Packers to score early and often.
It would also be interesting if the Vikings got off to a start as it won’t surprise anyone that they can hold onto a lead especially with Peterson to go to and even when opponents know he’s going to get the ball he’s still darn hard to stop. The reason Peterson doesn’t mind is because he breaks so many tackles. He almost never loses balance or speed with contact. If there are more people at the line that just means less help behind, and one broken tackle will go for a longer gain. He averages a league-high 4.06 yards after contact per attempt to go along with his 62 broken tackles on the ground. Trying to play catch up with a running back like that is not advised. Recent history says this one will stay close to the end, but whichever team starts faster will give have a major advantage as both teams are built to play from the front and are darn hard to catch.
Of course part of that quick start for the Packers who despite trying to play a more balanced game, often too much in my opinion this year, will be their excellent set of receivers marshalled by elite-quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It’s hard to know where to start with the Packers receivers but judging by his 120 yards in Week 17 Greg Jennings looked to be at his most healthy and dangerous once more. James Jones has filled in well for Jennings and become a real TD machine while Jordy Nelson still provides a real deep threat with some creative route running. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Randall Cobb this season and he’ll provide plenty of threats either out of the backfield, in the slot or across the middle. Rodgers has struck up a great rapport with Cobb this season and has completed 78.4 percent of his passes to him this season. That’s the second highest rate for any quarterback-wide receiver combination with at least 50 attempts (Manning-Stokley, 78.9 percent). Rodgers went 6-of-6 when targeting Cobb in Week 13 against the Vikings (Cobb missed Week 17 game).
With tight end Jermichael Finley starting to get more consistent you can see that through the air the Vikings are going to have their hands full. I mention hands as that could be one of the problems for the Vikings as their best cover man Antoine Winfield had to leave last weekend’s game with a hand injury and he looks as though he is doubtful for this contest and that would give the Vikings considerable match-up problems. It wasn’t a coincidence that Green Bay’s passing attack picked up dramatically when Winfield went out. We might see even more three- and four-wide receiver sets this week, which could really tax the Vikings’ battered secondary.
Of course to get the ball to the receivers the Packers O-line has to keep Rodgers upright and that’s something that has given them problems this season and it won’t get any easier against some excellent pass rushers on Saturday. Jared Allen remains a great pass-rusher, and the Vikings are one of the best defences in the league at getting after the quarterback. That is one of the Vikings’ few distinct advantages this week especially as Allen has willing accomplices in Brain Robinson and Everson Griffen, that group have combined for seven sacks, six hits, and 16 pressures in their two meetings with the Packers this season. The Vikings’ ends can win this matchup, and they probably must in order to take pressure off the secondary, especially if Antoine Winfield is unable to play.
If Rodgers has a discernible weakness as a quarterback, it’s that he can hold the football too long. Plus, his offensive line is banged up and will probably need help against Minnesota’s defensive ends. Rodgers was sacked five times last week, three by Everson Griffen. Griffen is an elite athlete for a defensive end and has become a huge threat in the past few weeks. It won’t come as a surprise if the men tasked with keeping the edge rushers at bay – Marshall Newhouse and Don Barclay have their hands full, Barclay’s strength is in the run game and his pass blocking numbers are weak and he will be under pressure on Saturday from Allen et al. A flawless pass-blocking performance is utterly unlikely for either of these two this weekend, and frankly their offense doesn’t necessarily need it. The key will be limiting the sacks and not having the pressures lead to turnovers.
Rodgers is adept at handling pressure as you can see from these numbers as he has been sacked or put under duress on 28.1 percent of his dropbacks in the team’s last seven games (all without OT Bryan Bulaga), the fourth-highest rate during that span (20.1 percent in first nine games, 20th). Rodgers has handled the pressure well, posting a league best 81.7 Total QBR when under duress this season (league avg: 24.6) – so if they can do a reasonable protection job Rodgers can still get the job done. There might not be a quarterback in the league who has played as well as Rodgers in the second half of the season. He threw for 365 yards last week and makes remarkable throws that most quarterbacks wouldn’t even attempt. Rodgers extends the play as well as anyone and is a timely and effective runner. Rodgers also is accomplished at handling rough weather.
It will also help if the Packers can at least pay lip service to the running game and in DuJuan Harris it looks as though they may have found a creditable running threat – he replaced Ryan Grant last week and averaged five yards per carry. The Vikings’ front seven is strong vs. the run, but the defence has to key on Rodgers’ passing threat, so Harris should see some favourable situations to run in and I’d certainly like to see him used creatively perhaps with screens and sweeps being the order of the day to stretch the game.
The Vikings beat the Packers 37-34 on Sunday to earn their wild-card spot (and keep the Packers from a first-round bye). The Packers are usually among the most public of public teams, but the Vikings received most of the early betting support, partly because of all the hype around Adrian Peterson and his fantastic season and partly because of the high, juicy line. Underdogs in the range that the Vikings fall into (7.5 – 9.5) have done extremely well this year and were 16-6 ATS. Everyone is pointing to last week’s game in support of the Vikings, but let’s not forget that these teams met five weeks ago at Lambeau, with the Packers prevailing 23-14 as a 7.5-point favourite, one of the rare losses for that group this year. The Vikings have twice proved that they can go head-to-head with the Packers and be effective and getting more than a touchdown many will have them as a bet, but this time around I feel that the Packers will have their measure especially if they get in front early and force Minnesota to play catch-up football, something I don’t think they are built to do.
Minnesota won the Week 17 matchup at home but they only have three road wins this season. Green Bay is a brutal place to play this time of year. The Packers are 9-2 over their past 11 and will continue that hot streak, with Rodgers winning the “MVP battle” against Peterson.