After the Minnesota Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers 37-34 in the 2012 regular season finale, an instant rematch between the two NFC North rivals was locked into place for Wild Card Weekend.
When teams meet for the third time in one year, all bets are off. That's especially the case here since the teams have split the series, each holding court on their home field. This matchup takes place in Lambeau Field, and will mark the second time in six days these two foes square off.
Here are keys for both teams to pull out a victory and win the right to move one step closer to capturing the Lombardi Trophy.
Keys for Minnesota
Adrian Peterson Runs for 150-Plus Yards
Couldn't AP be all three keys for Minnesota to win?
Peterson is generating hype for Comeback Player of the Year and NFL MVP. And rightfully so, because the Vikings wouldn't have been in this position without him.
If he gets shut down, the Vikings have no chance. Ironically, he ran for 210 yards in the first game—a loss—and 199 yards in the second contest, which his team won.
In order to protect the thinning defense and help out his quarterback in the passing game, it's going to take an extraordinary effort from Peterson once again for Minnesota to get it done. The Packers' front seven isn't all that special aside from Clay Matthews.
The 150 mark would be the lowest AP has registered against the Pack this season, but it's hard to expect or project Peterson's average of over 200 yards in the previous meetings. Other factors have to fall in place too, because defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be trying anything he can to finally figure out Peterson—if it's even possible at this point.
Progressing, Pirouetting Ponder
The ballet reference isn't meant to be condescending, but rather complimentary.
As suspect as second-year quarterback Christian Ponder is at throwing the football with consistent accuracy, his feet got him out of a lot of trouble and extended the play in Week 17's win.
Registering a QBR of 94.6 is just about as good as it gets, and that's what Ponder did. In fact, his 78.5 rating against the Houston Texans and whopping 96.9 mark against the St. Louis Rams suggests—at least by ESPN's groundbreaking statistic—that the second-year signal-caller is improving rapidly.
Ponder has a strong enough arm to make all the throws, but hasn't quite gotten a grasp on how to read defenses just yet. His footwork is also suspect at times, which leads to some throws being off-target.
Was the season finale a breakout game for Ponder or just a blip?
If it was the former—and if total QBR truly encompasses what makes a player great—the Vikings could be extremely dangerous not only in Green Bay, but in the playoffs moving forward.
Shore Up the Secondary
Even with five sacks in Week 17, the Vikings still allowed QB Aaron Rodgers to throw for 365 yards and four touchdowns. And that was without explosive playmaker Randall Cobb at his disposal.
Cobb should be ready to go for Wild Card Weekend, according to a report by Weston Hodkiewicz of PackersNews.com. That's got to be bad news for Minnesota's secondary, which couldn't capitalize on the pressure the defensive front generated to turn in a stellar performance.
First-round pick Harrison Smith has been a revelation at free safety in his rookie season. Smith has started every game and registered 100 combined tackles, three interceptions, 11 passes defensed, two touchdowns, a sack and a forced fumble. Talk about a complete player.
Unfortunately, he left Sunday's victory with a neck stinger and is listed as questionable on a short week.
Veteran All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield also left with a hand injury, and is also questionable to play this weekend. The losses of both those key cogs would be a huge blow to the Vikings' chances of pulling the upset at Lambeau Field.
Keys for Green Bay
Improve the Pass Rush
Although Ponder's deceptive speed was part of it, the Packers couldn't get any pressure on the Vikings QB in the Metrodome this past Sunday. Green Bay finished fourth in the league with 47 sacks, but Ponder was only hit twice in Week 17, and was sacked only once.
Clay Matthews got the only one, and he can't be counted on to do it on his own when faced with constant double teams.
Then again, it's hard to generate a pass rush when constantly getting gashed by a running back of Peterson's caliber. Ponder's ability to extend the play with his legs makes disrupting the Vikings' rhythm all the more difficult.
Without Charles Woodson in the secondary, there is no doubt that Green Bay is vulnerable on the back end. He is listed as questionable for Saturday's matchup (h/t ESPN), but hasn't graced the field in nine games.
A player of Woodson's caliber shouldn't have a problem stepping in and making an immediate impact. Before that happens, though, Woodson obviously has to be medically cleared.
Make DuJuan Harris the Workhorse RB
At 5'9" and 208 pounds, the second-year back out of Troy runs extremely hard and gives the Packers a between-the-tackles presence with some serious power. Harris can also catch the ball out of the backfield, making him an ideal fit in Mike McCarthy's West Coast style offense.
The Pack signed back Ryan Grant for a second stint with the team, but he took a backseat in the season finale to Harris.
Alex Green will return for the playoffs, but hasn't been consistent, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry in 2012. Although he is the best pass catcher of all the backs on the roster, he should be brought in on a third-down basis only.
Rodgers must have a running game to keep the Vikings' furious pass rush led by Jared Allen at bay, or else it could be a long day for Green Bay. There is a reason the Packers won the first encounter 23-14. It was because Rodgers got 137 yards out of his backfield in addition to the 15 he provided on his own.
Right now, Harris has the hot hand, is the freshest and should get the lion's share of the touches.
An Aaron Rodgers MVP-Caliber Performance
If both Smith and Winfield are missing or limited for the Vikings, there is no excuse for Rodgers not to absolutely light up Minnesota once again.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams and defensive-minded head coach Leslie Frazier will throw everything but the kitchen sink to stop Rodgers. That pair hasn't been effective at stifling the Packers' aerial attack in either of 2012's games, much like Green Bay hasn't been able to stop Peterson.
Rodgers should have Cobb back, as mentioned. The return of Jordy Nelson last week and Greg Jennings' health should put the Packers' offense at full strength in the receiving corps. That's a scary proposition for a team that may be without its two best defensive backs.
After such a disappointing effort in the 2011 playoffs, the reigning NFL MVP can't possibly let the Lambeau faithful down for a second year in a row, can he?
As unwise as it's been to bet against a massive performance from Peterson all year long, it would make even less sense to discount Rodgers.
Check back here after Saturday's showdown and see if he hasn't thrown for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns, because chances are he will. Whether it's enough for the Packers to win, well, that's another matter.
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