Sunday was a great day if you were a fan of the Minnesota Vikings. The Kansas City Chiefs’ annihilation of Stefon Diggs and the Buffalo Bills may have been a nice dessert, but the main course came earlier when the Green Bay Packers came up short in their fourth NFC Championship Game in the past decade.
In the time since Kevin King grabbed Tyler Johnson’s jersey, Vikings fans have lapped up the tears of their Wisconsin counterparts and reveled in the possibility that Aaron Rodgers may have played his last game in Green Bay. But there’s an underlying theme that should concern the Vikings as they prepare for the 2021 season.
The Packers’ performance in the NFC Championship Game felt a lot like watching a Vikings game in 2020. There was despair, a slight glimmer of hope, and the kind of heart-gouging finish reserved for a Mortal Kombat fatality. Matt LaFleur’s decision-making, which sealed the Packers’ fate before King was flagged for pass interference, felt all too familiar.
End of half clock management
If you’ve been watching the Vikings since 2014, the end of the first half may have caused flashbacks. After stopping the Buccaneers, the Packers got the ball at their 13-yard line. Sub-optimal field position to operate a scoring drive from, but with 2:10 remaining, there was enough time to take a shot at putting some points on the board.
So the highest-scoring offense in the NFL went to work, handing the ball off to Jamaal Williams. Coming out of the two-minute warning, the Packers executed a four-yard pass from Rodgers to Williams and waited…and waited…and waited…until they ran the clock down to 1:14.
Finally showing some urgency, Rodgers connected with Allen Lazard on a 23-yard pass that seemed to put Green Bay on track to score points. Then they ran the clock down some more. They eventually got the play off with 38 seconds left on the clock, but Jason Pierre-Paul sacked Rodgers to force the Packers into their first timeout.
To recap: Green Bay came into this drive with 2:10 left on the clock, starting at their 13-yard line, and had collected 20 yards in 1:32. The next play was an interception by Sean Murphy-Bunting, but that distracts from the underlying theme.
Instead of staying aggressive and staying in the game, the Packers played not to give up another score before halftime. Considering the field position and how the Buccaneers were connecting on deep passes in the first half — Brady’s fourth-down shot to Scotty Miller happened five plays later — it made sense for the Packers to chew some clock while getting the ball back in the second half.
But it would have made sense for the Packers to set up a 2-for-1 scenario and put the pressure back on Tampa Bay. Of course, that didn’t happen.
End-of-quarter play was a significant issue for the Vikings throughout the 2020 season. In 17 drives that started after the two-minute warning, they had just as many scoring drives (5) as drives that ended with a turnover.
With an offense that Mike Zimmer himself deemed “explosive” during his end-of-season press conference, it would be advantageous to turn them loose and put opponents in an even deeper hole. But much like the Packers on Sunday, the opportunity went by the wayside.
Strong starts to the second half
As the Packers looked to get back into the game down 21-10, they started with the ball in the second half. With their high-powered offense, this was the time to close the gap. Instead, they gave the Bucs another reason to run away with this game.
The Packers started their drive with a short check down to Aaron Jones for five yards. After missing Jones on an incompletion on second down, the Packers looked to continue to dominate the time of possession by swinging a short pass to — wait for it — Jones on a 3rd and 5. Their passivity proved costly as he fumbled the ball, which Jordan Whitehead recovered to set up another Tampa Bay touchdown to put the Packers in a 28-10 hole.
Minnesota’s drives at the end of the first half and coming out of the locker room were an issue all year long.
Through the first 12 games of the season, the Vikings either punted or turned the ball over on nine drives to open the second half. On two of those drives (vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers), the Vikings gave up a touchdown to the opposing team, and eight of those drives lasted three plays or less.
To the Vikings’ credit, they finished the season strong, scoring touchdowns on three of their last four drives to open the second half. This may result from an adjustment they made, but it needs to be better if they want any chance of turning things around.
Trust your offense
The biggest takeaway that Zimmer and his staff should have had from the 2020 season is to allow their offense to operate. There were two instances where the Packers were in a position to score touchdowns but instead opted to kick field goals when they were deep in Tampa territory.
The first came on Green Bay’s first prolonged drive of the game. As part of a drive that would last 15 plays, the Packers worked their way down to the Buccaneers’ 6-yard line. The Packers had several opportunities to get into the end zone to cap off this drive, but Rodgers just missed a wide-open Davante Adams on first down and on third down threw behind Allen Lazard on what would have been a walk-in touchdown.
Down 14-7, this could have been a situation where LaFleur was aggressive and looked to spark a shootout with the high-powered Tampa offense. Instead, the Packers opted to take the points, and Mason Crosby put three on the board from 25 yards out.
In the first half, the decision to go for points wasn’t the end of the world, but it also wasn’t the most productive scenario. This is especially true considering the elite status of Green Bay’s offense, which had just toyed with the league’s No. 1 defense, the Los Angeles Rams, one week earlier.
But the Packers had an opportunity to avenge themselves late in the game. Down 31-23, the Packers engineered another drive that put them on the Tampa Bay 8-yard line. After three incompletions from Rodgers, LaFleur had another decision to make. Let Rodgers, who threw 48 touchdowns during the regular season, try to connect with one of his top playmakers or kick a field goal and pray his defense could bail him out.
LaFleur chose the latter and set the Packers up for the win if they could get the ball back. But that never happened.
This is a situation where the Vikings could make an offense that ranked fourth in yards but 11th in points even better. There were too many times where Zimmer opted to bet on his defense last season and was rewarded by either putting his team in grave danger of having that possession be the final drive of the game.
For the Packers, who again had the top scoring offense in the league and ranked fifth in total yardage, it was a decision that cost them their season. For the Vikings, it’s something that they can learn from and avoid making the same mistake.