The headline in this morning’s St. Paul Pioneer Press said it all: “Statement Made”
The Kevin O’Connell head coaching era began in Minnesota with a decisive 23-7 victory over the three-time defending NFC North champion Green Bay Packers yesterday afternoon. The game was televised exclusively in Western Wisconsin on FOX 25/48.
While it’s just the first game of a rigorous 18-week NFL regular season schedule, the Vikings served notice they are a much better team than the 8-9 squad from a year ago—and that they are contenders in the NFC this season.
For the second straight year, the Packers performed poorly in their season opener. A short flight home from Minneapolis was probably as somber as the trip from Florida last September after a dismal 38-3 blow-out loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Head coach Matt LaFleur did not mince words in his post-game press conference and took responsibility for the defeat.
“Obviously wasn’t very good and that starts with me,” LaFleur said. “We definitely have to have better plan for our team and get our guys prepared better. Certainly give the Minnesota Vikings a ton of credit. They came ready to play. They obviously had a great game plan.”
There’s really no way to sugarcoat the Green Bay’s performance at sold-out U.S. Bank Stadium before a boisterous crowd of 66,959 fans.
The Packers offense foreshadowed what was to come on their first offensive play of the game and produced just a single touchdown—and inexplicitly only gave their running back duo of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon 23 total touches.
“Anytime Aaron Jones comes out of a game with eight touches, that’s not good enough,” LaFleur said. “We have to lean on those guys.”
The much-hyped Green Bay defense was torched by Justin Jefferson for 184 yards on nine receptions and two touchdowns—and was inexplicitly wide open on both plays. Even more perplexing was the Packers coaching staff decision to continue to play zone instead of matching up cornerback Jaire Alexander one-on-one with the Vikings star receiver.
In the first game of a regular season, blown assignments and mental mistakes are going to happen. And yes, the reality is the Packers offense was without tackles David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins and top receiver Allen Lazard.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was harassed by a Vikings defense that pressured him throughout the game and registered four sacks, caused a fumble, and intercepted the two-time reigning league MVP to break his NFL record streak of 38 straight games against division opponents throwing a touchdown pass without a pick against division opponents.
But the tone for the game was set on both team’s opening drives.
Green Bay won the toss and deferred, and quarterback Kirk Cousins promptly drove Minnesota down the field and capped an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a fourth-down, five-yard touchdown pass to Jefferson, who raced uncovered and untouched into the corner of the end zone with nearest defender cornerback Eric Stokes nearly seven yards away.
The Packers nearly responded with a touchdown on the very next play from scrimmage. Rookie receiver Christian Watson blew by cornerback Peterson with a beautiful double move but dropped Rodgers’ perfect pass in stride that would have been a 75-yard touchdown strike. On their second drive, Green Bay drove to the Minnesota one-yard line, but was stuffed on consecutive runs on third and fourth down—with former Packer edge rusher Za’Darius Smith racing in untouched to take down Dillon from behind just short of the goal line. Rodgers said afterward he could have easily run around the end if he had faked the handoff to Dillon with the defense bunched in tight.
“I really don’t like playing the what-if game,” Rodgers said. “But the games usually do come down o a few plays here and there. If C-dub (Watson) catches that one, 75-yard touchdown; if I pull the one on the goal line, I walk in for a touchdown. There’s 14 points.”
The Vikings increased their lead with 10 second-quarter points on a 28-yard field goal and a 36-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Jefferson on a crossing route, who then raced down the sideline and somehow eluded two defenders inside the five-yard line to make it 17-0. Chants of “MVP, MVP” resounded throughout U.S. Bank stadium.
Green Bay took the opening second-half kickoff and was driving but Rodgers was sacked and fumbled and the Vikings recovered. After a team record-tying 56-yard field goal for a 20-0 Minnesota cushion, the Packers finally scored.
Dillon finished off a 8-play, 75-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run to make it 20-7, but Green Bay would get no closer as the Minnesota added a 29-yard field goal by Joseph with 6:48 left and the defense shut down two last-gasp drives by the Packers.
In Rodgers first game without Davante Adams and with Lazard out, the lack of chemistry with the new and young receivers was apparent.
“I mean, we knew there was going to be growing pains,” said Rodgers, who finished 22 of 34 for 195 yards with one interception, while Cousins went 23 of 32 for 277 yards with no picks. “This is real football. It counts. It’s different. There’s nerves. It’s the mental mistakes that we’ve really got to clean up, and there was too many across the board.”
The Packers defense held Dalvin Cook scoreless, the Vikings star quietly amassed 90 yards in 20 carries. Dillon led Packers receivers with five catches for 46 yards and rushed 10 times for 45 yards. Jones had five rushes for 49 yard, including a 20+ yard burst in the second half, and caught three passes for 27 yards. Jordan Love finished off the game and completed four passes for 65 yards.
It was Jefferson’s game to shine, and his career-high total of 184 could have been considerably higher in a closer game as the Vikings mostly ran the ball in the second half.
Next up: Green Bay hosts Chicago Sunday night at Lambeau Field.