A few weeks ago, it looked like Border Battle No. 125 was going to be a dud. But lo and behold, the Green Bay Packers still have a pulse, and the Minnesota Vikings come to town with plenty of motivation. A late afternoon game at Lambeau in January with everything on the line? What more could you ask for?
Well, to start with, I could ask for a healthy Christian Watson and Keisean Nixon. The Pack’s two most electric playmakers over the last six weeks are dealing with injuries that knocked them out of the Miami Dolphins game. Both are listed as questionable. Watson’s Friday return to practice provides hope that he can go; Nixon seems less likely with his groin injury since he did not practice this week.
In a game where both defenses may struggle a bit, the Packers can use all the offensive help they can get. Throw in Aaron Jones’ ankle issue, and it’s really their three most explosive players who are all less than 100%.
The good news is the offensive line will be intact and infinitely more solid than the line the Packers played with in the opener at US Bank, which featured Jake Hansen and Royce Newman on the right side (shudder). The Pack’s Pro-Bowl quality left side will be on display, with David Bakhtiari returning from his appendectomy. Bakhtiari-Jenkins-Myers-Runyan-Nijman. That unit should be able to handle Minnesota’s dangerous duo of Za’Darius Smith and the resurgent Danielle Hunter.
Obviously, if Watson is anywhere close to 100% and can use that rare speed to draw attention, the Packers should be able to move the ball up and down the field, just like every team that has played Minnesota has been able to do. Likewise, if Jones is up to handling 15-20 touches, there’s an opportunity for the ground game to hum.
The biggest area of concern offensively continues to be red zone production or the lack thereof. Settling for four field goals like they did last week will get them beat more often than not. They can’t count on being gifted a few interceptions, thanks to a concussed quarterback. I really thought Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan would serve as solid red zone replacements for Davante Adams, but that never materialized.
I’m still not sure what to make of the Pack’s defense. On the one hand, it appears that it’s turned the corner. They’re taking the ball away and finishing strong: They’ve allowed no fourth-quarter points in the last three games. But they’re still woeful against the run, and that soft zone defense is ripe for the picking for guys like Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson.
The Pack has to make Kirk Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket, and their best chance is up the middle. Rookie Devonte Wyatt has an opportunity to announce himself to the league in this game as he takes a good chunk of the snaps vacated by Dean Lowry. TJ Slaton will also get some run, and Jarran Reed is coming off his best game. With Kenny Clark leading the charge, Green Bay has the advantage on the interior and needs to win that battle over the course of 60 minutes. The outside matchups are more of a wash — it would be nice to have Rashan Gary out there.
Then there’s the Justin Jefferson factor. Not sure it’s in the Pack’s best interest that Jaire Alexander was barking about how flukey JJ’s Week 1 performance was this week. We all know that Joe Barry played a vanilla zone and allowed Jefferson to do whatever he wanted en route to 158 yards in the first 30 minutes. Jaire had hoped Barry would assign him to No. 18, but that didn’t happen and likely won’t happen this time around either. Let’s just hope the Pack makes him work for his yardage this time around. He has yet to eclipse 60 yards receiving in two games at Lambeau (though one featured Sean Mannion at quarterback).
The Vikes would be smart to lean on Dalvin Cook and see if Green Bay can keep him somewhat in check. If he can carve up the Packers on the ground, Cousins’ lethal play-action game will come to life, where he’s been as good as anyone. Ultimately, I don’t see how the Vikings don’t put at least 24 on the board.
It feels to me like whoever has the ball last wins this game. Or maybe Kirk delivers a fatal interception in the closing moments. After seeing how feeble the Vikings looked the last time they played on the road in Detroit, it feels like they’re due for one of their clunkers. But the Pack has yet to show an ability to knock anyone out.
They’re 11-0 in one-score games, an NFL record, and eventually, things do even out. I say their amazing run of luck runs out at Lambeau. Barely.