Preview: Even with Winfield, Vikings secondary short against Packers
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (2-6) at Green Bay Packers (8-0).
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Where: Lambeau Field (capacity: 73,128), Green Bay, Wis.
Line: Packers by 14.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 5-9). Packers -- Mike McCarthy (6th year, 62-37).
Series: Packers lead 52-48-1.
Last meeting: Aaron Rodgers was 24-of-30 passing with three touchdowns and the Packers rallied from a seven-point deficit to beat the Vikings 33-27 in Christian Ponder's first NFL start on Oct. 23 at the Metrodome.
At stake: The Packers are halfway to the first perfect regular season since the New England Patriots went 16-0 in 2007, and they can take a three-game lead over Detroit and Chicago with a win. The Vikings are all but mathematically out of playoff contention, but knocking a division rival from the unbeaten ranks would be quite a feather in their cap. This is the eighth Monday night meeting between the Vikings and Packers.
Packers: LT Chad Clifton (hamstring), DE Mike Neal and OLB Frank Zombo (hamstring) are out. S Morgan Burnett (hand), OLB Clay Matthews (knee) and RG Josh Sitton (knee) are probable. FS Nick Collins (neck) leads the list of four players on injured reserve.
Five things to watch
Down on the corner: The return of Winfield, who missed four games with what the team has called a ligament strain, is sure to be a boost. But Cook's quasi-suspension and the diminished play of CB Cedric Griffin leaves the secondary undermanned on the outside, particularly against a team that spreads out as much as the Packers. Two weeks ago at Carolina, the Vikings used CB Asher Allen -- the No. 4 corner when all hands are on deck -- to shadow WR Steve Smith. They weren't entirely dissatisfied with the results, even though Allen gave up a 27-yard touchdown plus completions of 26, 19 and 12 yards. He'll return to the No. 3 role on Monday but presumably will get plenty of action, considering the Vikings played 31 of 63 snaps (49.2%) in their nickel defense last time against the Packers. Do they have the guts to play sides? Probably not, given Griffin's lack of explosion. They just can't risk matching him at times against Packers WR Greg Jennings, who figures to see Winfield when he's in the slot and Allen when he's outside. Then again, the Packers have so many weapons to go with the NFL's hottest quarterback, they'll challenge the Vikings' zones no matter how the corners are deployed.
Big stage: Ponder has two encouraging NFL starts under his belt, and all signs are he's as even-keeled as they come. But this will be the rookie's first prime-time start, his first trip to Lambeau and his first divisional road game -- not exactly another secluded afternoon in sleepy Charlotte, N.C. Ponder battled in his first start against the Packers, generating a first down or touchdown with 12 of his 13 completions in 32 attempts (40.6%) for 219 yards. He also gift-wrapped two interceptions for CB Charles Woodson and couldn't find any rhythm on first and second down (6-of-19, 31.6%) after hitting WR Michael Jenkins for a 72-yard gain on the opening snap. One of the things OC Bill Musgrave has liked most about Ponder so far is his ability to correct his mistakes when given a mulligan. How will he handle the Packers' diverse defensive attack, which generated three interceptions last week at San Diego but also had multiple coverage busts and allowed Philip Rivers to throw for 385 yards and four touchdowns? It's a boom-or-bust scheme that will give up some plays, and the Vikings' chances hinge in part on Ponder's ability to make them without making the one (or two) mistakes that derail them.
Get on Rodgers: The Packers entered the week ranked third in the NFL in turnover margin (plus-11), in part because of Rodgers' remarkably efficient numbers: 192 completions (72.5%) and only four interceptions in 265 passing attempts. No quarterback is functioning with a greater combination of accuracy and decision-making, and no quarterback is more dangerous against the blitz either. But Rodgers is prone to holding the ball too long at times and the Packers have holes in their protection unit -- particularly at left tackle, where Clifton likely is out for the season and Marshall Newhouse has scuffled in his place. In the teams' first meeting, RE Jared Allen beat Newhouse for sacks in 2.5 and 2.7 seconds. The Vikings blitzed only six times in Rodgers' 31 dropbacks that day (19.4%) and they figure to rely heavily on their four-man rush again on Sunday. If Allen gets more attention in the rematch, the onus will be on LE Brian Robison and whomever coaches use as nickel rushers inside -- probably some combination of Kevin Williams, Everson Griffen, Letroy Guion and Christian Ballard -- to pick up the slack they've dropped of late.
Don't waste time: The bomb to Jenkins that opened the teams' first meeting didn't have a significant impact on the way the Packers played defense. They dropped a safety into the box 45 times in 66 snaps (68.2%), and that didn't even include the plays Woodson played as a half-safety in the middle of the field. But the play did provide a needed spark for the Vikings offense, which otherwise has been largely impotent early in games. Take away that three-play, 73-yard touchdown drive, and the Vikings' seven opening drives have generated three points, six first downs and only 112 yards in 32 plays (3.5 average). Their eight drives to open the second half haven't been much better (10 points with averages of 4.63 plays, 17.5 yards and one first down). Better starts were one area of focus exiting coaches' self-scouting during the bye week -- and that's especially important on the road, where silencing a crowd that has been partying all day never is easy.
Stars come out: The Vikings' success the rest of this lost season shouldn't be measured in wins. There's no doubt Frazier would like to get a few, though, and that will require the team's top players to carry the load -- or in some cases, continue to do so. HB Adrian Peterson, WR Percy Harvin and Allen all played key roles in the win at Carolina. Now the Vikings need to get the same type of production from the likes of Winfield, UT Kevin Williams and SLB Chad Greenway, among others. The roster has holes. A lot of them. But for the Vikings to have any chance in the second half of their schedule -- which includes five games against playoff contenders Atlanta, Detroit, Oakland, New Orleans and Chicago -- the stars need to play like stars. The best sign for Frazier is several of his top players are making clear they're not giving up yet.
No trouble making this pick, even if the line seems a bit aggressive. The Packers are the better team hands-down and they won't sleep on the Vikings after the scare they got at the 'Dome.
Prediction: Packers 37, Vikings 27.