The teams: The Green Bay Packers (11-5) vs. the Minnesota Vikings (10-6) in an NFC Wild Card playoff game
The time: 7 p.m. CST Saturday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: NBC – WTMJ (Ch. 4 in Milwaukee), WMTV (Ch. 15 in Madison) and WGBA (Ch. 26 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth in the booth.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 79-41 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Vikings’ Leslie Frazier is 16-22 in his third year as the Vikings’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 54-48-1, but the teams split the regular-season series, with Green Bay earning a 23-14 victory at Lambeau Field on Dec. 2 and the Vikings winning, 37-34, last Sunday on Blair Walsh’s 29-yard field goal as time expired at the Metrodome.
The rankings: The Packers’ offense finished the 2012 regular season ranked No. 13 overall, including No. 20 in rushing and No. 9 in passing. Their 11th-ranked defense finished No. 17 against the run and No. 11 against the pass. The Vikings’ 20th-ranked offense finished No. 2 in rushing and No. 31 in passing. Their 16th-ranked defense was No. 11 against the run and No. 24 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 7.5 points.
The injury report:
The stakes: The winners advance to the NFC Divisional Playoffs round. If the No. 3-seeded Packers win, they'd travel to No. 2-seeded San Francisco to face the 49ers at 7 p.m. CST next Saturday. If the No. 6-seeded Vikings win, they'd play at top-seeded Atlanta at noon next Sunday.Winners in the Wild Card round have won the Super Bowl eight times, including each of the past two seasons, and at least one Super Bowl participant in six of the past seven years played a Wild Card game: The New York Giants won four playoff games last year to win Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis; in 2010, the Packers won four straight to become the second No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl; in 2008, the NFC’s No. 4 seed, the Arizona Cardinals, won three postseason games to reach Super Bowl XLIII; in 2007, the NFC No. 5 seed New York Giants won three road playoff games en route to a Super Bowl XLII victory; in 2006, AFC No. 3 seed Indianapolis won Super Bowl XLI; and in 2005, the Pittsburgh became the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl, defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Pondering their next move: When Ponder approached the mic for his weekly press availability earlier this week, he channeled his inner Jim Mora and let loose with a falsetto “Playoffs? Playoffs?” that was a big hit as comic relief. But the way the second-year quarterback played last Sunday in a game the Vikings had to win to reach the postseason was no joke. Completing 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions (120.2 rating), he wasn’t the same quarterback that the Packers saw on Dec. 2, when he threw a pair of backbreaking INTs.
“He played an excellent game against us. We’ve had two contests against us this year and he clearly played better in the second one,” McCarthy said. “I thought they did good job, obviously, of running the football and the things they did off of the run, and they got us on the big play down there in the fourth quarter. Frankly, the long down-and-distances, whether it was second-and-long or third-and-long, were the ones that got away from us. He played very well.”
Indeed, according to ProFootballFocus.com, nearly half (48 percent) of Ponder's throws Sunday were off play action, including two of his three touchdown passes.
“I think he’s grown in terms of his decision making,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s not taking as many chances, so he’s getting the ball out of his hand fairly quick. When he’s outside of the pocket, if it’s not clear for him he’s going to get outside and run with it. When you look back at the game, we had some opportunities.”
One of those plays came when safety Morgan Burnett came unblocked on a blitz and hit Ponder, resulting in an infield-fly pass that should’ve been intercepted but fell incomplete instead. (It was on that play that Ponder suffered the right elbow injury that has him listed as questionable.) “Those are the kinds of plays in these games you’ve got to make,” Capers said. “We made them out here the first game; we didn’t make them last game.”
While much was made of cornerback Tramon Williams’ tackling deficiencies in the game – something straight-shooting cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt disputed on Thursday – the Packers’ biggest failing was allowing Ponder and his Percy Harvin-less wide receivers to get the best of them. On their scoring drives, the Vikings completed passes to a third-and-7, a third-and-11, a third-and-7, a third-and-4, a second-and-16, and the coup de tat, a third-and-11 with a 25-yard completion to set up the game-winning field goal. (Two third-down penalties on defensive backs – Williams and Jerron McMillian – also resulted in first downs during scoring drives, while Sam Shields surrendered 65-yard completion to Jarius Wright when he inexplicably let Wright get behind him while playing Cover-3.) If Whitt was ticked about anything, it was his guys’ coverage work, not their tackling.
“Those were the plays. Those were the plays,” Whitt said. “The difference is, we have to do a better job of controlling the quarterback and the receivers. We can’t let the ball get over our head for 60 yards, especially in that coverage. We detailed that and it shouldn’t have happen. The third-down (completion at the end) was not a blown coverage, they had a good play for what we were in. That’s what was a difference between the first game and the second game: The first game we had control of the outside, in this game we didn’t play bad but we didn’t play good enough to win.
“Our thing is, we’re going to play more single high, so we can put an extra body in the box (against Peterson), and if you’re going to do that, you have to be able to not allow them to throw the ball outside with your play. You’re not getting any help, so it’s hard, but that’s what we’re asking them to do. Because we’ve got to get an extra body in that box to account for this guy, because one guy accounting for that runner is not enough. You have to have one or two guys accounting for him – at all times. When you’re doing that, you’re back there playing single-high or zero coverage a lot of times. That’s what we have to do. We didn’t do a good enough job of it this second game.”
Getting the band back together: Four games. Four. Out of 16. And in two of those four, someone left the game early with an injury. That’s the sum total of games this season that the Packers’ top four wide receivers – Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones – were all in uniform together. Saturday night will be the fifth time, as Cobb is set to return after missing last Sunday’s game with knee and ankle injuries suffered Dec. 23 against Tennessee, and Nelson is good to go after leaving Sunday’s game after injuring his knee before catching the game-tying touchdown pass.
“It’s exciting getting all those guys back,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver this season but still threw for 4,295 yards with 39 touchdowns. “I don’t know what their percentage of health is going to be, but just to have them all back (will be nice). The stable is full.”
Perhaps that will manifest itself in more big plays from what was the league’s most explosive offense last year. In 2011, the Packers had 46 pass plays of 25 yards or more. This season, that number was just 34 – and three of those came last Sunday: A 30-yard catch-and-run by Jones; a 45-yard reception by Jennings and a 73-yarder from Nelson.
“I’ve never been part of a game or football team where you don’t want as many good football players as you possibly can,” McCarthy said. “It says a lot about the individuals, and particularly this time of year, it’s about winning. Opportunities are earned. It’s our responsibility as coaches to create those opportunities in those situations. It’s the responsibility of the players to maximize those opportunities when they’re given that chance. That’s really our approach. Health is a part of the game, and hopefully we’ll be extremely healthy when we kick it off Saturday.”
The challenge a full house would create for the Vikings – especially if Winfield is limited or, as he had to do last week, leaves the game because of the hand injury – is that they simply don’t have enough cover guys to handle four gifted wideouts, plus tight end Jermichael Finley. While the injury bug worked its way through the lineup, McCarthy would point to the receivers’ ability to play all four spots as their saving grace. Now, that could be what sets the unit apart.
“It’s different because you have to account for everyone – Randall out of the backfield, Randall in the slot, Jordy outside and inside, myself outside and inside, James doing what he’s been able to do (outside). You can’t just pick and choose who you want to account for,” Jennings explained. “You have to account for everyone out there, because everyone’s capable of making the big play at any given time.”
If the Packers can take advantage, look for Rodgers to put up big numbers again. He had a season-high 365 passing yards last Sunday, and while his yards-per-attempt average (7.78) on the season was almost a yard and a half lower than it was last year (9.25), it was closer to that number last Sunday (9.13) than it had been in all but one game this year.
“That was you know that was fun, guys in different positions. That’s what I love about our guys, our receivers. They can play every position,” Rodgers said. “That’s been a big part of our offense, yards after the catch. Been lacking a little bit at times this season, we just haven’t had the same type of opportunities and we got a chance on Sunday and made some plays. We’ve got to do it again this week.”
The offense isn’t the only group getting a boost, as Woodson is set to play for the first time since suffering a broken collarbone on Oct. 21. It appears he’ll play in the base defense and in the dime, which figures to be the Packers’ package of choice in passing situations because of the emergence of Casey Hayward as the slot corner in the nickel.
“I think the thing you do is you make sure your best 11 are on the field, and both of those guys are in the best 11,” Whitt said of Woodson and Hayward. “I think the communication and the way they’ll play together is because they’re very similar in a lot of the things they do, they’re going to be out there a lot at the same time. ‘Wood’ will play safety sometimes, he’ll play the dime sometimes, he really won’t play as much nickel because we’re comfortable with what Casey has done in that role, and he (Woodson) is comfortable with it. He’s seen how Casey’s played and knows that we want our best 11 out there at all times.”
Living on the edge: Marshall Newhouse shook his head. He wasn’t interested in talking about how well he played last week against the Vikings and ultra-competitive defensive end Jared Allen – not with Round III a few days away.
“Ask me after this game,” Newhouse said with a smirk as he walked out of the locker room Thursday.
Rodgers and the Packers skill-position players can sing Peaches & Herb’s Reunited in the huddle if they want; if Newhouse and rookie right tackle Don Barclay don’t keep defensive ends Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen at bay, Rodgers won’t have the time to get the ball to his cast of pass-catchers. While Rodgers called the five sacks allowed last Sunday “a little deceiving,” the game turned when Rodgers coughed up a fumble – the game’s only turnover – on a play where Barclay was at fault. Newhouse, meanwhile, was on point.
“I thought Marshall did a really good job; he’s been improving all season and I’m really proud of him and happy for him,” Rodgers said. “There is a big sombrero – as we say it – sometimes on Marshall, where he’s got a tough matchup and we need him to play well.”
The Packers need Barclay to play well, too. According to offensive line coach James Campen, Barclay doesn’t get a pass or graded on a curve for being an undrafted rookie thrust into the lineup before the coaches probably wanted to see him out there.
“When it comes to grades, I look at it this way: You’re grading the position. What is required to win at that position? And he’s required the same as if it was Bryan Bulaga or Anthony Munoz,” said Campen, who as an aside said Newhouse played “very well” last week. “(Barclay) has had spurts, and certainly last week he had a couple protection issues that were obvious. But he recognizes those things and he comes back and he works and he adjusts. He’s had moments where, holy smokes, it looks the way it’s supposed to look and he’s done a very, very good job. He needs to clean up some of the other little things.
“There’s two things he’s done a very good job in: (One), he is tough as heck, and he’s going to keep playing and playing and playing. He plays with a very clear and positive attitude. And the other thing that he’s done a very good job for a young player is, he’s been able to move on to the next play.”
A chill in the air: This just in: It’s cold in Minneapolis, too. “We know it’s going to be cold,” Frazier said during his midweek conference call with Wisconsin reporters before looking out his window. “It’s cold here – it’s minus-10 right now.”
And here’s another secret: The Packers players don’t dig the chill any more than anybody else.
“That’s a politically correct answer. I’m done with politically correct right now. I’m realistic,” Jennings said to a gaggle of reporters at his locker during the week. “Do you guys want to go report out there in the cold? OK! As long as you guys report that you don’t want to be out there (either). But because you have to, you do your job and do it to the best of your ability.
“Everyone talks about the advantage of cold weather. It’s a mindset, obviously. It’s about who is going to come out and let it affect them. If you let it affect you, it’s going to affect you. It’s a trickle-down effect, and once you see it affecting one of your teammates …”
The forecast for Saturday night calls for a low of 18 degrees and southwest winds from 6 to 8 miles per hour. Unless the game takes really long, there shouldn’t be any precipitation – a wintry mix could call between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. – and the Packers have long maintained that as long as the wind isn’t significant, they can run their offense normally.
“It’s like anything. It’s what you’re used to,” McCarthy said. “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s part of playing in the cold. But the Vikings live in the cold. I think that’s an advantage (to them). You’re not going to come off the plane (shocked). I’ve coached in a southern climate (in New Orleans) and (when) you go to a northern climate, it’s a different deal. I can remember when I was with the Saints and we were playing the (Cincinnati) Bengals and it was 32 degrees and I thought I was going to die. (Here), 32 degrees, it’s a heat wave this time of year. It’s difficult. But it’s still about playing football the right way. This game is going to come down to fundamentals.”
Out of the gate: Going three-and-out on each of their first two possessions – and punting at the end of their third series as well – was not the offensive start the Packers had in mind for last week, but McCarthy suggested that the coaching staff would at least mull the idea of taking the ball if the Packers win the opening coin toss. They’ve been almost unanimous in deciding to defer when winning coin tosses this year, but it was a topic of conversation during the coaches’ game-management meeting, as it is every week.
“There’s about 20 topics we go through (including) coin toss based on our statistics,” McCarthy said. “We talk about the Vikings statistics; they’ve deferred the majority of time here late. We’ll talk about the importance of starting fast and talk about the matchups and so forth and we’ll make a decision. We do it the same way every week. We don’t let last week’s performance have an effect on how we feel about this particular game.”
For the record, the Packers won the coin toss seven times during the 16-game regular season, and they opted to defer on six of the seven occasions. The only time they took the ball was against New Orleans on Sept. 30, and they went three-and-out on their first possession.
In fact, with their opponents winning the other nine opening coin tosses, the Packers got the ball to start the game only three times, all at home: Against the Saints; against Chicago on Sept. 13 and against the Vikings on Dec. 2. The Green Bay offense went three-and-out against the Bears but scored on a 32-yard Jones touchdown catch against the Vikings, staking themselves to what would be a 10-0 lead in that game (although the Vikings roared back and had a 14-10 lead at the half).
Should the Packers win the toss on Saturday night, the best guess is that McCarthy defers and sends out the defense to start. Not only would it be conducive to the playoff-frenzied Lambeau Field crowd’s full-throat cheers to be on defense, but it would also be a message of confidence to a defense that has surrendered 409 yards to Peterson in two games. On Sunday, when the Vikings got the ball first, they settled for a 54-yard Walsh field goal after their opening drive stalled.
“It’s just about starting fast for us I think this week, making sure the crowd is into it early. We are calling our fans to be very loud this week, we need you to help us with that home-field advantage,” Rodgers said. “We have to score some points early and try and make them one-dimensional, (forcing them into) throwing the ball in the cold weather. If we could do that, that would help them out.
“I have always thought that playing at home, sending your defense out first with a loud crowd can set the tone for the game. I have always been a big proponent for the defer, giving yourself an opportunity for that “Double up”, which can change the game (after halftime). And also, you can make your halftime adjustments on offense and then go right on the field and use them. I have always felt like that can be an advantage as well. I have liked it, but (we’ve also) taken the ball here a number of times (over the years) as well and had some success at times doing it.”
The Packers have no one to blame but themselves for not having the weekend off and for having to play a rubber match against the Vikings, but the guess here is that the homefield advantage is meaningful, the motivation is plentiful, the return to full strength at receiver is vital and the effect of getting Charles Woodson back is palpable. The Packers didn’t beat themselves at the Metrodome six days ago, but they did let Ponder beat them. Peterson is otherworldly; Ponder is mortal. The guess here is that the Green Bay defense will remind us, at the very least, of the latter. Packers 34, Vikings 20. (Season record: 9-7)
– Jason Wilde