The Packers and Vikings have had 16 of their last 21 regular-season meetings decided by a touchdown or less.
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (4-2) vs. the Minnesota Vikings (1-5).
The time: 7:30 p.m. CDT Sunday.
The place: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome, Minneapolis.
The TV coverage: NBC – WTMJ (Ch. 4 in Milwaukee), WMTV (Ch. 15 in Madison) and WGBA (Ch. 26 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 84-44 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Minnesota's Leslie Frazier is 17-28 in his third full season as coach of the Vikings and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 54-48-1 and have won six of the last seven meetings, but the Vikings hold a 26-25 edge in Minnesota, including a 37-34 victory at Mall of America Field on Dec. 30, 2012.
The rankings: The Packers' second-ranked offense is No. 6 in rushing and No. 4 in passing. Their 15th-ranked defense is No. 3 against the run and No. 24 against the pass. The Vikings' 25th-ranked offense is No. 19 in rushing and No. 24 in passing. Their 27th-ranked defense is No. 14 against the run and No. 29 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 9 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: TE Jermichael Finley (neck), OLB Clay Matthews (thumb), TE Ryan Taylor (knee). Doubtful: WR James Jones (knee). Questionable: OLB Nick Perry (foot), ILB Brad Jones (hamstring). Probable: RB James Starks (knee), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), CB Jarrett Bush (hamstring), S Jerron McMillian (not injury related).
Vikings – Out: RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), TE Rhett Ellison (ankle), QB Josh Freeman (concussion), WR Rodney Smith (hip).
Questionable: DT Fred Evans (knee), S Jamarca Sanford (knee). Probable: RB Adrian Peterson (hamstring), DE Jared Allen (ankle), T Matt Kalil (lower back), DT Kevin Williams (knee), K Blair Walsh (left hamstring), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), CB A.J. Jefferson (ankle), DT Sharrif Floyd (back).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Quarterback quandary: With Freeman having been ruled out with a concussion – and while no one should ever rejoice about a player suffering a head injury, you can bet there are more than a few Vikings fans who aren't exactly broken up about Freeman being sidelined after how horrendous he was last Monday night – the Vikings go back to Christian Ponder as their starter. Ponder threw three touchdown passes the last time the Packers saw him – in last year's regular-season finale, a loss that cost the Packers the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs – and it was clear that the injured Ponder was missed in the playoff rematch the next week at Lambeau Field.
Ponder hasn't been that player so far this season, and he certainly wasn't the most popular guy in town even before Freeman was signed after being cut by Tampa Bay, but given Freeman's woeful showing in his Vikings debut (20 of 53, 190 yards, one interception, 40.6 rating), giving Ponder another chance might not be a bad thing. And while it seems highly unlikely – despite NBC analyst Rodney Harrison's suggestion that Freeman might be faking his concussion – maybe the Vikings realized the error of their ways throwing him in last week and feel this might be good for everyone.
The one guy it's not good for: Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who had been preparing for Freeman to be the starter – as Frazier had announced on Tuesday – only to have to switch gears when news of the concussion came to light Wednesday.
"Early in the week we thought it was going to be Freeman and then, I guess it was Wednesday on the practice field, someone walked up to me and told me that Ponder was going to start," Capers said. "Obviously it does affect your game plan a little bit, but we've certainly gone against Ponder so we know what kind of quarterback he is. He's a very good athlete, gives them some versatility in terms of his ability to bootleg and throw the ball outside the pocket. Has a strong arm. You combine his ability to move along with (Adrian) Peterson running the football, that creates a big challenge.
"Basically, (we) played against (Ponder) twice last year, and the year before. When you get to these division games, people get pretty familiar with each other. We know them and they know us after playing them three times last year."
Hayward (hits the) Field: Could Hayward's return be the antidote to the Packers' sudden lack of interceptions?
From 2009 through 2012, the Packers led the NFL with 103 interceptions. Through six games this season, the Packers have just three – and only the New York Jets have fewer (two). While the Packers may have a glut of good cover men now that Hayward is expected to make his season debut after missing the first six games with a hamstring injury that dates back to before training camp, the fact that the group hasn't taken the ball away is baffling.
It's unclear what role Hayward might play – last week, the Packers' dime unit consisted of four cornerbacks in Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Davon House and Micah Hyde – but there's a good chance he'll see action in the sub packages at least on occasion. Last year, playing primarily as the third cornerback in the nickel and lining up on the slot receiver – except for when he started six games for an injured Shields – Hayward led the Packers with six interceptions and finished third in the NFL's defensive rookie of the year balloting.
"Casey is a heady player, he's got good ball skills, he's normally around the football, so we'll be anxious to see him get back in there," Capers said. "I don't know how many plays (he'll play); he's had a good week of practice. It's been a long time since he's been out there. It'll be a gradual progression with Casey, but it's nice to have him back because he brings ball skills and the ability to make plays.
"Sometimes you hit a drought and then they come all of a sudden in bunches. I feel like we've got guys with ball skills. We've had our hands on a number of balls that we haven't converted (into interceptions) and that's the key. If you want to be a big interception team, every time your hands get on the ball, you've got to convert them into takeaways. I feel like it's going to happen. It hasn't happened to this point, so we'll continue to work on it."
Whether Hayward helps or not, the Packers are simply happy to have him back on the field. He hurt the hamstring while working out in preparation for training camp, then reinjured it when he made his preseason debut – and had an interception – against Seattle on Aug. 23.
"Last time, I felt good coming back and I came back as soon as I felt good," Hayward said. "This time, I've been feeling good for a couple weeks. Hopefully this time, we hit it on the head and we don't have any setbacks."
Easing up on Eddie?: As good as Eddie Lacy has been – and he has been good – the Packers coaches realize that they need to be careful with their rookie running back's workload. The only problem? Finding a time to take him out of the game.
"You're always looking to give Eddie a break here and there, maybe two series in the first half and a series in the second half," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "But he's running so well right now that you hate to take the hot hand off the field."
Over the past three games, Lacy has carried 23 times for 99 yards against Detroit on Oct. 6, 23 times for 120 yards at Baltimore on Oct. 13 and 22 times for 82 yards against Cleveland last Sunday. Lacy averaged only 14.6 carries per game during his time at Alabama, where he job-shared with Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and T.J. Yeldon, and only twice did he carry the ball 20 times in a game. "Obviously, it's something that we keep an eye on over the course of the season," Van Pelt said. "Do I think he can carry it 20, 25 times a game? Yeah. But is it healthy and the best for the team? Maybe, maybe not. It puts him at risk of wearing down late in the season when we're going to need him."
The Packers' hope is that Starks, who hasn't played since suffering a knee injury Sept. 22 at Cincinnati, can spell Lacy on occasion. Fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin had been doing so but after fumbles in back-to-back games, his rushing opportunities have dwindled and he's been used primarily as the Packers' kickoff returner.
"Hopefully we'll get James back up (on the 46-man active roster) this week," Van Pelt said. "He's had a good week of practice. With him and Franklin, we should be able to spell (Lacy) some carries."
Allen wrench: Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari says the loudest stadium he's ever played it was at the University of Nebraska. He's in for a rude awakening in what figures to be his only game at the Metrodome, and making matters more challenging is Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who's not having a great year (4.5 sacks) but has always had productivity against the Packers. In fact, with 17 sacks in 12 games, Allen has the second-most sacks of any player against the Packers, with only ex-Chicago Bears defensive lineman Steve McMichael (18) having more. On Monday night, Allen not only sacked New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning on one play, he sacked left tackle Will Beatty, too.
"I did see that. He's a hell of a player," Bakhtiari said. "I've heard about him when I was in college and his reputation precedes himself. It'll be an awesome challenge and I can't wait to go play a fellow 69 and hopefully I can build up my reputation so I can build up the 69 number."
Allen is a very good player who can be great on the Mall of America Field artificial surface and with linemen being a tick slower out of theirs stances because of the noise. Allen has made Allen Barbre look like a turnstile and put up 4.5 sacks in one game against fill-in tackles T.J. Lang and Daryn Colledge during a 2009 game. In those games, all three linemen saw their troubles snowball as the game went on.
"If you allow it to. That's the thing," offensive line coach James Campen said. "You want to make sure you're off on the snap and you get into a rhythm from play one and keep going. Once you're in your rhythm then you're fine. But it is tough.
"It's different, but as much as you can simulate that noise that helps too because the communication is really off in practice. You just simulate it and getting off on the snap count is a priority but we've been doing our snap counts for a long time. The best way to prepare for it is to get out there and once you get that first series done and you come back you're good then."
For his part Bakhtiari said he wouldn't change his preparation during the week, despite Allen's well-earned reputation.
"Same thing as always," he said. "I don't change up my routine, whether it's the greatest player in the world or a guy off the street. I'm not letting anything get by and I'm not straying away from my preparation."
Leader of the Pack: Thanks in part to the offseason comments of now ex-Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings – no need to again recap what he said; you already know – doubting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' leadership skills became a popular pastime for a bit. Even though such skills are hard to truly discern by outsiders, a cavalcade of critics – Jennings' sister Valyncia, tight end Jermichael Finley's agent Blake Baratz, NFL on CBS commentator Shannon Sharpe – got some attention for their remarks. When Jennings said what he did, with retired Packers wideout Donald Driver following up with some comments of his own, the opinions were viewed as having more merit because they came from two receivers who'd played with Rodgers, even though one of Driver's comments – that Rodgers wasn't a good leader because he failed to take the blame when his wide receivers ran the wrong routes – was laughable.
Players who saw the dynamic in the wide receivers room and were privy to Jennings' and Driver's feelings during last season said that the two became disenfranchised – Jennings by watching Randall Cobb emerge while he missed eight games with an abdominal muscle injury, and Driver by scarcely playing despite being the team's all-time receiving leader – which might explain some of their comments. No matter. While Rodgers isn't perfect, what's gone on so far this season reinforces that he at least has some idea about leadership.
That will continue to be tested Sunday night, as three of his four biggest weapons in the passing game – Cobb (broken leg), James Jones (knee) and Finley (bruised spinal cord) will not play. That will leave Rodgers throwing to Jordy Nelson (32 receptions, 526 yards, five touchdowns), Jarrett Boykin (nine catches, 146 yards, with eight catches for 103 yards having come last week), Myles White (one catch, 9 yards) and waiver-wire pickup Chris Harper at wide receiver and Andrew Quarless (four catches, 28 yards), Brandon Bostick and Jake Stoneburner at tight end. Three of the players on that list have yet to catch a regular-season NFL pass.
"I witnessed it up close and personal during my time at Indianapolis with Peyton Manning," Frazier said. "When you have a good quarterback, he can definitely lift the rest of your offense and your team. Aaron is doing that in Green Bay. He's having a very good year without some of his key players, so kudos to his leadership and his athletic ability."
Rodgers enters Sunday night having completed 143 of 220 passes (65 percent) for 1,906 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions (104.5 rating). In a so-called down year, Rodgers is on pace for 34 touchdown passes and 5,082 yards.
"I think I can definitely play better but I think at this point, it's not about the stats," Rodgers said. "I've put up many seasons with many gaudy statistical marks. The year that we won the Super Bowl, I would not say that was one of those years. It wasn't one of those years where I was off the charts stats wise. We won a Super Bowl that year, so I'll do whatever it takes for us to win. I love the fact we're running the football well. I need to take care of the ball better. And I will. And I expect us to be successful."
At some point, maybe all the Packers' injuries will catch up to them. Maybe. But based on how the Vikings have looked so far this season, this won't be the week. The gut feeling here is that the Vikings aren't as bad as their 1-5 record, that they're better off with Ponder than Freeman at quarterback and they can't possibly be stupid enough to only give Adrian Peterson 13 carries again this week. They're also at home against a bitter rival. Mix all that in with the Packers' health problems and despite the Vikings' shortcomings, it's hard to see this being a blowout. Remarkably, 16 of the last 21 regular-season meetings between the clubs have been decided by a touchdown or less. The pick here is that this one's close, too. Packers 30, Vikings 23. (Season record: 6-0)
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