The Minnesota Vikings welcome their division rivals, the Green Bay Packers, into the Metrodome this week, with a chance to control their own playoff destiny.
After an impressive victory in Houston, the Vikings (9-6) are in the driver's seat for the final NFC Wild Card spot. If they win, they're in. If they lose, in all likelihood, they're out. Doesn't get much more straightforward.
But with the division-leading Packers (11-4) coming to town, winning will be easier said than done. Especially since Green Bay, who clinches a first-round bye with a victory, will be just as duly motivated as Minnesota.
As impressive as the Vikings' 23-6 victory at Houston was, the Packers' systematic destruction of the Titans last week puts it to shame. They breezed their way to 55 points, and were they inclined to do so, easily could have made it 60.
Not all Week 17 games are created equal. The awesome gravity of this game is a testament to that.
With the eyes of a nation descending upon Minnesota, let's take a look at how it might play out:
When: Sunday, Dec. 30, 4:25 p.m. ET
Where: Mall of America Field, Minneapolis
Watch: Fox (check local listings)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Spread: Green Bay -3.5 (via VegasInsider.com – LVH)
Given the recent form of both teams, this is probably a fair line.
The Packers are 4-0 ATS in their last four games, covering lines of -6, -7 and -10 in the process. Minnesota is also on a hot streak, winning three-straight games outright, despite being underdogs in all three.
The Vikes played Green Bay tough at Lambeau this season, leading 14-10 at halftime before eventually capitulating late in the fourth.
Green Bay has looked great, but the Vikings at home, with the world on the line, should be able to keep this one within a field goal.
Take the points.
Over/Under: 45.5 (via VegasInsider.com – LVH)
The Packers' 55-point explosion last week snapped a curious streak of five straight "unders." Even with Football Outsiders' fourth-ranked offense, the Packers have struggled to go over the lofty totals they're assigned.
Minnesota has been an "under" machine too, finishing below the listed total in four of its last five games.
In a dome, these two should be able to put up more than the 37 they posted in Green Bay. However, 45.5 still seems like a pretty big number.
Play it safe and take the under.
Green Bay Packers Injury Report (via USA Today – as of Dec. 27, 2012)
|DE Jerel Worthy||Hamstring||Probable|
|RB Alex Green||Concussion||Probable|
|TE Tom Crabtree||Hamstring||Probable|
|WR Jordy Nelson||Hamstring||Probable|
|DE C.J. Wilson||Knee||Probable|
|G Josh Sitton||Concussion||Questionable|
|C Jeff Saturday||Shoulder||Questionable|
|DB Davon House||Shoulder||Doubtful|
|WR Randall Cobb||Ankle||Doubtful|
Minnesota Vikings Injury Report (via USA Today – as of Dec. 27, 2012)
|RB Adrian Peterson||Abdominal||Probable|
|DE Jared Allen||Illness||Probable|
|CB Antoine Winfield||Hand||Questionable|
|DE Brian Robinson||Shoulder||Questionable|
Fantasy Big Plays
Green Bay Packers: WR Jordy Nelson
Nelson hasn't suited up since Week 13, but according to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mike McCarthy characterized him as "very close" to returning. On the heels of his first practice since injuring his hamstring, that is very welcome news.
Minnesota's leaky pass defense hasn't been awful against opposing No. 1 receivers; according to Football Outsiders, they're 17th in the league. However, they rank dead last—I repeat, dead last—against opposing No. 2s.
This is obviously complicit on Nelson's ability to play, but if he takes the field, he could be in line for an auspicious return to action.
Minnesota Vikings: RB Adrian Peterson
Thought I'd go the entire preview without mentioning Peterson, did you?
The NFL's leading rusher has plenty of motivation to perform on Sunday. With 208 yards, Peterson will break Eric Dickerson's elusive record for single season rushing yards. Two-hundred and eight yards would also, in all likelihood, be enough to drag his team into the playoffs.
All Day posted a cool 210 yards in the teams' first meeting, including a monster 82-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
He might not average 10 yards per carry again, but he should post similarly big numbers.
Key to Victory
Vikings Pass Defense
We know, for the most part, what we're going to get from Minnesota's offense: a hearty dose of Adrian Peterson, a few nice roll outs from Christian Ponder, little-to-no deep balls. It's hard to see them finishing with less than 17 points, and it's hard to see them finishing with more than 27.
That leaves the onus on their secondary to keep the Packers below that.
According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota has the 23rd-ranked pass defense and Green Bay has the third-ranked pass offense. That mismatch could prove deadly. It sure did in Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers systematically totaled 286 yards on 27-for-35 passing.
Minnesota will need to feed off crowd noise if it wants to compensate for the talent disparity. If it can't, Aaron Rodgers and a surprisingly healthy group of receivers will put an end to the Vikings' season.
How do you pick against either of these teams right now?
The plucky Vikings will put up a good fight on a field where they've had plenty of success this year. Their only loss in Minnesota came on a short week against Tampa; their resumé of wins includes games against San Francisco and Chicago.
Unfortunately, they're running into an even better team with almost as much to play for. It'll be hotly contested throughout, but a late Aaron Rodgers drive will kick the Packers into the NFC's second seed.
Predicted Score: Green Bay 23, Minnesota 20