Packers vs. Vikings: 5 Matchups That Will Decide NFC North Clash
Playoff prizes will be on the line when the Green Bay Packers (11-4) travel the short distance west to take on the rival Minnesota Vikings (9-6) at the Metrodome Sunday.
If the Packers win their sixth straight game over the Vikings, Green Bay will clinch the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. If Minnesota wins its seventh game at home in 2012, the Vikings will punch their ticket to the postseason as the No. 6 seed.
In the following slides, we'll break down the five matchups that will decide which NFC North rival wins their preferred playoff prize Sunday.
Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Vikings LT Matt Kalil
The Vikings rookie left tackle lucked out in the first meeting, as Matthews was still on the shelf during Green Bay's Week 13 win with a hamstring injury. Kalil won't have that same luxury Sunday.
Matthews has 12 sacks this season and 2.5 since returning two games ago, but it's his ability to effect a game against the run that puts Kalil in focus here. Against the rookie, Matthews could be a big reason why Adrian Peterson doesn't reach Eric Dickerson's record.
While allowing just one sack this season, Kalil has been up-and-down as a run blocker. According to Pro Football Focus, Kalil grades out as the NFL's 45th-best run-blocking tackle through 16 weeks this season. He needs to be stronger in that area Sunday against one of the game's more underrated players at disrupting the run.
Packers OTs vs. Vikings DEs
In the first meeting, the Packers were forced to plug in undrafted rookie Don Barclay at right tackle. The Vikings were unable to take advantage, as Aaron Rodgers was sacked just twice in a 23-14 Packers win.
Barclay remains at right tackle, but Minnesota must do a better job of pressuring Rodgers Sunday. Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are each capable of rushing the passer on the perimeter, and the ear-ringing noise at the Metrodome should amplify their advantage.
Matchups against Marshall Newhouse (eight sacks allowed) and Barclay are ones Minnesota should be expected to win. If they can't, Green Bay's passing game can expect to run circles around a secondary that relies on pressure to win.
Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers vs. Vikings QB Christian Ponder
Christian Ponder began his NFL career with a 72-yard completion to Michael Jenkins on the first play of the Vikings' eventual 33-27 loss to the Packers last season, but it's been mostly downhill for the second-year quarterback against Green Bay since.
In losses at Green Bay in 2011 and 2012, Ponder threw three combined interceptions and finished with a passer rating of under 50 in each. Minnesota needs a much more efficient and turnover-free effort from Ponder Sunday.
While the Vikings are a run-first offense that doesn't ask Ponder to do much, Minnesota is 6-2 in games this season where he finishes with a passer rating above 80. Avoiding game-killing turnovers against Capers' crew is a must Sunday.
Packers WR Greg Jennings vs. Vikings CB Antoine Winfield
The Packers are likely to be without slot man and leading receiver Randall Cobb Sunday because of an ankle injury. Jordy Nelson (hamstring, probable) is expected to return, so Green Bay is likely to use Jennings in the slot on a much higher percentage of snaps against the Vikings.
Meeting Jennings there will likely be Winfield, whom Minnesota can now play inside with Chris Cook's return.
The two have a long history of playing well in the slot, as the shifty and smooth Jennings operates best in the middle of the field and Winfield's ability to play physical at the line of scrimmage is a must-have for an effective slot corner. Who wins this matchup most Sunday should have a big say in whether the Packers can control the game through the air.
Packers LB A.J. Hawk vs. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson
While Hawk obviously won't be the lone man attempting to stop Peterson and his march toward the single-season record, the battle between a middle linebacker and a running back is always at the forefront of any rushing matchup.
In the first meeting, the Vikings got strong efforts from leading blockers Jerome Felton and Rhett Ellison. Many times, the fullbacks kicked out Hawk and fellow inside linebacker Brad Jones and let Peterson do the rest at the second level.
The Packers are returning Matthews and defensive end C.J. Wilson, so Felton and Ellison might not have the same kind of lead-blocking opportunities into the linebacking level.
If and when Hawk gets a chance to bring down Peterson in the hole, the Packers need to find the running back on the ground. Otherwise, long runs against a suspect tackling secondary are likely from Peterson.