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Updated: January 4th, 2013 8:31pm
Preview: Vikings know exactly who they are, how they must beat Packers

Preview: Vikings know exactly who they are, how they must beat Packers

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (11-5) in an NFC wild-card playoff game.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Lambeau Field (capacity: 72,740), Green Bay, Wis.
TV: NBC (Ch. 11).
Line: Packers by 9.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd year, 16-22); Packers -- Mike McCarthy (7th year, 79-41).
Series: The Packers lead 54-49-1, including 29-23-1 in Wisconsin.
Last meeting: Adrian Peterson ran for 199 yards, Christian Ponder threw three touchdown passes and Blair Walsh kicked a 29-yard field goal on Sunday to lift the Vikings to a 37-34 win -- their fourth straight, wrapping up a playoff spot.
At stake: A road game in the NFC divisional playoffs. If the third-seeded Packers win, they'd face San Francisco at 7 p.m. Saturday. If the sixth-seeded Vikings win, they'd face Atlanta at noon Sunday.

Injury report

Vikings: LB Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder) is out. CB Antoine Winfield (hand) and QB Christian Ponder (right elbow) are listed as questionable (50% chance of playing). HB Adrian Peterson (abdomen), S Harrison Smith (knee), LE Brian Robison (shoulder), RE Jared Allen (shoulder), CB A.J. Jefferson (ankle), DE George Johnson (quadriceps), P Chris Kluwe (left knee) and RT Phil Loadholt (knee) are listed as probable (virtual certainty of playing). WR Percy Harvin (ankle) is the only starter among four players on injured reserve.

Packers: DE Jerel Worthy (knee) and WR Jarrett Boykin (ankle) are out. HB James Starks (knee) is questionable. TE Jermichael Finley (quadriceps), WR Randall Cobb (ankle), CB Davon House (hip), WR Jordy Nelson (knee), HB Alex Green (knee), S Charles Woodson (collarbone) and CB Tramon Williams (illness) are probable. HB Cedric Benson (foot), LB Desmond Bishop (hamstring) and T Bryan Bulaga (hip) are among eight players on injured reserve.

Five things to watch

Arm, dangerous?: Frazier has downplayed the injury to Ponder, who posted a career-best 120.2 passer rating last weekend. But his limited practice load all week revives memories of what happened in December 2011 at Detroit. Ponder got the start despite missing two days of practice and ended up benched after committing four turnovers. Backup QB Joe Webb came on and rallied the Vikings within 1 yard of the victory. In hindsight, coaches knew it was a mistake to put Ponder on the field when he plainly was hobbled and underprepared. He admitted the performance hurt his confidence. This injury, suffered on a hit by Green Bay SS Morgan Burnett, has been called only a bruise. Ponder downplayed his condition to reporters. But if he scuffles, the Vikings would have to be tempted to once again turn to Webb, who has taken all of three snaps this season in garbage time against Tennessee. After all, Webb remains on the roster because of his ability as a "relief pitcher" whose physical tools can cause all sorts of problems for defenses unprepared to face him. Frazier pulled aside Webb and third-string QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson after Thursday's practice. The smart money says Ponder is fine. But Frazier knows as well as anyone the Vikings can't stick with him in this situation if they realize he isn't right.

Secondary concerns: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers shredded the Vikings defense after Winfield's departure last weekend, completing 21 of his last 26 passes (80.8%) for 318 yards and three touchdowns, with slot CB Marcus Sherels a frequent target. Winfield is expected to play with a larger soft cast protecting his broken right hand. But it remains to be seen how well he can function, particularly in press coverage, given the pain and swelling he experienced six days earlier. He's so important to the defense it's worth the risk, though. Cobb's return gives the Packers another slot weapon, which could lead McCarthy to utilize more spread looks -- and perhaps force the Vikings into their dime defense. The guess here is they'd play CB A.J. Jefferson in the slot opposite Winfield with rookie CB Josh Robinson joining CB Chris Cook on the outside. Take Winfield off the field and it'd probably be back to Sherels, who would be overmatched no matter where they try to hide him.

Can I kick it?: Rookie PK Blair Walsh has been a weapon for the Vikings all season, both because of his field-goal accuracy (35-of-38, 92.1%, including 10-of-10 from 50 yards or more) and ability to utilize his strong leg on kickoffs (53 touchbacks in 86 kickoffs). Weather and field conditions can impact the kicking game, though. It's worth wondering how deep Walsh's range will be with temperatures dipping into the teens on a January night at Lambeau -- and how many chances he may give to Cobb and/or Jeremy Ross, who had a 44-yard kick return and 32-yard punt return last weekend. The new addition to the south end of the stadium, closing what had been the open end, probably mitigates the wind factor to a large degree. But it's still more of a challenge than Walsh has faced for most of his brilliant rookie season -- not to mention he and plenty of his teammates have never played in this type of cold either.

Peterson's new chase: Nine yards were all that separated Peterson from breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL rushing record. He ran for 199 yards on 34 carries (5.9 carries) in the Week 17 matchup against Green Bay, four weeks after gashing the Packers for 210 yards on 21 carries. On Friday night, a Vikings official showed Peterson a picture of the taunting sign posted by the Stadium View bar in Ashwaubenon, Wis. -- "Hey Adrian, This Is What 9 Yards Looks Like." Not that Peterson needs any further motivation, but he always has found ways to use any perceived (and sometimes nonexistent) slight as mental fuel. He says he's healthy. He also has a new record to chase: Dickerson's single-game playoff record of 248 yards, set in 1985. Packers DC Dom Capers no doubt spent a good portion of the week trying to figure out how to contain Peterson without exposing his defense to big plays in the passing game, as the Vikings got last week. Woodson's return gives Capers more flexibility from a scheme standpoint, but it's on NT B.J. Raji and the front to snuff the attack at its origin -- something only J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans have been able to do the past 2½ months.

Play the game: The Vikings know exactly what they must do to be successful. Feed Peterson. Complete some third-down throws. Stop the run. Prevent big plays. Don't turn over the ball. Don't take dumb penalties. In short, make the opponent make the mistake. They're still undefeated when they're even or better in the turnover battle and winless when they're not. Coaches have produced game plans that gave the Vikings a chance seven consecutive weeks. Their only losses in that stretch were at Chicago and Green Bay, where turnovers (and drops against the Bears) proved pivotal. They led the Packers 14-10 in the third quarter on Dec. 2 at Lambeau before Ponder gave away that game with two interceptions deep in Green Bay territory. Finding one way or another to produce explosive plays on offense sure would help, too. Above all else, the Vikings have to play the way they're built to play unless and until the score dictates otherwise. It has gotten them this far and there's no reason to think coaches won't give them a chance again.

Crystal ball

Tom Pelissero: Time and again, the Vikings have found a way to keep their unlikely season alive. They're on a four-game winning streak. Players are buying in to coaches' formula for success. It's just tough to bet against a team as talented as the Packers on its home field with this much on the line. Packers 30, Vikings 27.

Judd Zulgad: The Vikings' late-season run has been better than anyone could have expected, but it will end at Lambeau Field. Rodgers has all of his receivers healthy and that is going to be too much for this Vikings defense. Packers 27, Vikings 17.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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