Vikings vs. Packers: 5 Keys for the Minnesota Vikings to Advance in the Playoffs
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Now, Lambeau Field can be a tough place to play but Minnesota fans can take some comfort in knowing that at least during the playoffs, it hasn't been a dominating factor for the Packers.
In their last six playoff games, the Packers have gone 2-4, including a stunning loss last year to the New York Giants. Lambeau is still a tough place to play—they went 7-1 this season at home—while the road has not been kind to the Vikings, who went 3-5 when traveling.
Also, it's interesting to note that Minnesota has struggled outside this year, according to Zach Kruse of CheeseheadTV.com. According to Kruse (who is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report), Minnesota's turnover ratio, allowed yards, sacks allowed, time of possession and secondary play outdoors all skew unfavorably.
On the other hand, our own Scott Kacsmar pointed out with the following handy-dandy graphic, in the last 12 times two teams met, the outcome was split down the middle and home field didn't play a huge factor in winning or losing.
In other words, it's as good as an even playing field. Really everything gets thrown out the window when it comes to the playoffs.
Never has "on any given Sunday" meant more than during Wild Card Weekend.
Here are the five things Minnesota must focus on if they're to make it past Green Bay and one step closer to a Super Bowl.
Run Adrian Run
As the old saying goes, "Dance with who brung ya."
If it wasn't for Adrian Peterson, the Vikings would not be in the playoffs. It was Peterson who carried the Vikings on a four-game streak to close the season and win five games out of the last eight.
It's Peterson who has run on the Packers for 409 yards and a pair of touchdowns in two games. This is against a defense which has struggled to stop the run all season long and just lost yet another defensive lineman (Jerel Worthy, out with a knee injury for the season).
Like every other team, the Packers sell out to stop Peterson and he simply blows by them.
Now, many may look at last week's stats and say "Well, Christian Ponder did a lot of heavy lifting too!" and they'd be right. However, how many times has he been able to take advantage of the stacked fronts Peterson makes happen?
Last week was really the first game all season.
The Packers have no answer for Peterson. If they stack the box again, then Ponder has the chance to burn them like he did this past Sunday.
The key to this is to run him away from Clay Matthews. Peterson had success all over the field, but ran for the most yards when he went the opposite way from Matthews. That only makes sense. It's not that the rest of the Packers' run defenders are awful as much as Matthews is that good.
The Packers will want elite talent on elite talent; they'll want Matthews on Peterson anytime the Vikings show run.
Last weekend, the Vikings kept things unpredictable. Even though they ran opposite Matthews more than any other direction, they spread the run plays evenly.
That unpredictability, built directly into offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's plan last weekend, will put Peterson in the best position possible to break off big runs and grind up field.
He needs to do that because the more he can burn the clock, the less time Aaron Rodgers and his merry men are on the field and the less chance they get into another shootout with the Packers.
Stop Clay Matthews
We just talked about how Musgrave and the Vikings countered Matthews' impact on the ground attack—it is equally important they replicate that when Ponder needs to pass.
Ponder was under pressure quite a bit last weekend, though he was sacked just once by—who else?—Clay Matthews.
Matthews is instrumental in getting to any quarterback, whether he is racking up sacks or not. The problem any team has is that when they double Matthews by adding a tight end or fullback to help block him out, it frees up any number of other Packers defenders.
It's what they will have to do, though, to slow Matthews down.
That means part of stopping Matthews is the rest of the line stepping up and taking out other incoming Packers.
You're not negating Matthews if you're letting Erik Walden, Dezman Moses or A.J. Hawk into the backfield for a shot on your quarterback.
The offensive line has been great at run-blocking, but last week they excelled just as much protecting Ponder.
They need another big day this Saturday.
I expect Musgrave to have another great plan put together for this weekend and I would imagine he might try to negate Matthews by having Ponder throw some short, quick slants and outs.
Suck Matthews in and then throw behind him for a short gain that can sometimes turn into a long one.
I'd also like to see some fullback and tight end traps, drawing pass-rushers in and clearing them back out with a vicious hit.
If you can't block Matthews and his cohorts, using their aggressiveness against them is the way to go.
Protect the Ball, Take the Ball
When I referenced Kruse's article earlier, I mentioned turnovers. It's worth noting that Ponder has just one interception in the last four games—all wins. Better stat? The turnover ratio for the Vikings compared to their opponents over their four-game win streak is 2:7, or two times they lost the ball for every seven the opposition did.
You generate a positive turnover ratio and you win—it's that simple.
When Ponder was throwing interceptions like he was Mark Sanchez, the Vikings lost more than they won. The last four games he threw just one interception and none in the last three games.
Peterson and the receivers were good at hanging onto the ball as well.
The Packers' defense isn't as opportunistic as the Bears defense is, but it generates turnovers.
Minnesota's offense—most importantly, Christian Ponder—has to be very careful with the ball.
Meanwhile the Vikings defense has to find a way to make Aaron Rodgers make mistakes or for receivers and backs to fumble the ball.
It can do that by being incredibly physical and tearing at the football anytime the Packers are carrying it and by attacking the football as much as merely waiting for it to come on a pass.
This is not to say they should be reckless or foolish because we know Rodgers will burn the secondary if they do that.
Just be unafraid to fight for the ball.
They need to disrupt Rodgers and the offense.
Interceptions and fumbles are definitely disruptions.
They go both ways though—so Ponder has to make sure he is very careful with the ball.
Lock down Green Bay WRs
That segues into this nicely—the Vikings cannot allow the Packers receivers to get away from them.
Greg Jennings absolutely torched the secondary last weekend. It cannot let him get two touchdowns and 120 yards again, nor let a banged-up Jordy Nelson beat them for 87 yards and one score.
Now, part of that was definitely because cornerback Antoine Winfield was hurt and left the game. His hand is still broken of course, but beat writers like 1500 ESPN's Tom Pelissero feel like he will play.
The question is then, how effective will he be with a busted hand?
Coverage-wise, probably OK, but he won't be intercepting the ball, and depending on how much his hand hurts, he may not tackle all that well.
On the other hand, they have shots for that.
Winfield or not, the secondary has to slow this offense down. Ideally, it has to stop it, but at least slowing it down has to happen.
It needs to lock down the receivers and keep them from getting open.
If it can do that consistently, the defensive front will have a lot more opportunity to sack Rodgers, who has a tendency to hold the ball too long when his receivers aren't open downfield.
We're talking a difference of seconds, but on the football field, that's huge.
The Team Must "Grow Up"
I've already said I didn't think the Vikings were winning this game.
Not that they couldn't, just that they won't.
The heart of my argument is simple—this is a team which has shown a tendency to slip back into old habits and play down when it needs to rise up.
I'll grant you that over the the last four games they've played consistently well and perhaps that should be enough. However the playoffs are a whole different animal and certain players—most critically guys like Ponder, Kyle Rudolph, Jarius Wright, Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith—haven't been here before.
There was a ton of energy and effort put into getting up for the Week 17 game to get Peterson the record and the team into the playoffs. Much more veteran teams have experienced a letdown after a game like that.
It's my feeling that this is what awaits the Vikings on Saturday.
It is up to the veterans to make sure I'm wrong.
Guys like Winfield, Jared Allen, Peterson and others will have to step up and show the kids how it's done and even then, the youngsters will have to handle adversity on a whole other level.
As a side note to this, I find it kind of disturbing that Percy Harvin has been absent from Vikings Park since early this month. I understand he is rehabbing in Florida, but this is a critical part of the season.
Wouldn't you want to be here? As a team leader, shouldn't you be?
I'm not going to read into this too much, we'll leave that for the offseason talk.
However, to me it's not the best sign when one of the best and most important players on the roster isn't encouraging his teammates from the sideline.
Whether Harvin is there or not, this team needs to focus and step it up this weekend.
This is especially true for Ponder.
A moment will come when the game is on the line—maybe they're protecting a lead, maybe they're down with two minutes to go, maybe they simply need a first down for momentum—and Ponder will have to step up.
He did last week, but that's been a rarity. So here's the point where we learn a little more about the potential of the Vikings' franchise quarterback.
Ponder needs to play as well—if not better—than he did last week. He cannot make mistakes. He cannot force the ball into tight coverage and turn it over in the red zone. If Ponder is pressured or sacked, if he gets rattled he has to compose himself again quickly.
This will ultimately come down to Ponder at some point. My feeling is that while he may be one day, he won't be up to the task this weekend.
I wouldn't mind at all if he proved me wrong.
To do that, he and his team needs to be highly consistent and highly composed for the whole game.
If that happens, if they can take that step forward, it bodes well not just for this game but for seasons to come.
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