Minneapolis – For Minnesota football fans, it was a rivalry weekend to savor.
One day after the Golden Gophers dominated the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison and regained possession of Paul Bunyan’s axe, the Minnesota Vikings completed the rare sweep with a 24-17 triumph over the Packers Sunday night before a record crowd of 66,872 at raucous U.S. Bank Stadium.
Kirk Cousins was at his best in this prime-time match-up of border rivals, just a week removed from throwing two interceptions in an ugly loss to the Bears in Chicago. The 30-year-old $84-million franchise quarterback outplayed Aaron Rodgers on this night with a masterful performance.
And a fired-up Vikings defense limited Green Bay to a meager 254 total yards and just 14 first downs.
Utilizing his full array of offensive weapons—Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, and Darren Cook—Cousins completed 29 of 38 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns against a depleted Packers secondary in a 24-17 victory.
Thielen found openings in the Green Bay defense throughout the game, catching eight of nine targets for 125 yards for a lofty 15.6 average. He bulled his way through two Packers defenders to finish a 14-yard touchdown play with 27 seconds left in the third quarter that gave Minnesota a 24-14 cushion.
Green Bay’s playoff chances are on life support after the loss, as they trail five teams in the chase for the final NFC Wild Card spot: Minnesota (6-4-1), Washington (6-5), Seattle (6-5), Carolina (6-5), and Philadelphia (5-6). The 4-6-1 Packers trail 8-3 Chicago and the Vikings in the NFC North Division race.
“We’re 0-6 on the road,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was limited to 198 yards passing (17 of 28) and sacked four times. “So we just gotta go back home, get some rest, beat Arizona, and then come back and beat Atlanta. Then go to Chicago, a place we’ve won a number of times, beat them. Go to New York (Jets) around Christmas, beat them. And then come home against Detroit, beat them.”
Rodgers and the Packers offense bolted out to a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter before the Minnesota defense adjusted and shut them down the rest of the way. The Green Bay offense could muster just a late fourth-quarter field goal and again faltered in the second half of a road game it desperately needed to win.
The Packers were just 2 of 10 on third down (a meager 20%) against a defense ranked first in that category. “We wanted to keep Rodgers in the pocket and get to him,” said defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson afterward in the Vikings locker room. “We fed off the fans, our crowd was amazing. This win was big for us.”
The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Richardson was the force the Vikings hoped the prized free-agent would be on Sunday night, leading the team with seven total tackles and two sacks of Rodgers for 16 yards. Those two sacks came on third downs, with a 9-yard sack ending a Packers’ drive late in the third quarter and a 7-yard sack terminating a Green Bay series early in the fourth stanza.
Special teams units again made a costly gaffe, as returner Tramon Williams misplayed a punt, letting it bounce in front of him. The ball caromed off his chest/shoulder and was recovered by Minnesota with 6 minutes remaining in the game. The Packers defense rose up and stopped the drive on downs, but precious time was consumed off the clock.
Down two scores, Rodgers drove Green Bay down the field and Mason Crosby booted a 38-yard field to make it a 24-17 deficit with 2:20 left. The onside kick attempt failed and Minnesota got one final first down to ice the victory.
“Between these guys being professional athletes and someone as elite as Aaron, I mean it’s all correctable,” said head coach Mike McCarthy in his post-game press conference. “But it starts, (with pass) protection.”
The Packers offense—already devoid of receiver Randall Cobb and with tight end Jimmy Graham playing with a broken thumb—lost Lane Taylor (quad), David Bakhtiari (knee), and Equanimeous St. Brown (elbow) for a stretch in the third quarter when the Vikings scored 10 points to break open a 14-14 tie at intermission.
The defense, already minus cornerback Kevin King and defensive tackle Mike Daniels, lost Kentrell Brice (concussion/ankle) during the contest. Kick returner Trevor Davis, activated this week, also suffered a hamstring injury.
“I’ve got a lot more gray in the beard than I did a few years ago,” Rodgers said. “So I know that football mortality catches up to everybody, and you never want to lose a season. Especially when you felt great starting the season about our prospects. But we’re going to battle the next five weeks and put ourselves in a position to be in the (NFC playoffs) conversation.”
That quest starts Sunday, when Green Bay hosts the 2-9 Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field in a game televised exclusively in Western Wisconsin on FOX 25/48.
Week 12 NFL Picks
With the season on the line, a road victory in Minnesota is a must. Only a complete performance in all three phases gets it done. A tall task to resolve offensive and special teams issues in 10 days against balanced Vikings team.
Vikings 24, Packers 20.