The Minnesota Vikings travel to Green Bay to take on the Packers Saturday night in the Wild Card Round of the NFC playoffs. For the Vikings to beat the Packers on consecutive weekends, they'll need many things to break their way.
Winning at Lambeau Field will be a much tougher task than winning at Mall of America Field last Sunday. The Vikings have won their last two road games, but both of those were at stadiums with controlled environments.
For the Vikings, just making an appearance in the playoffs is a staggering turnaround only a year removed from the most dismal season in franchise history. Minnesota is all in, though, and not just happy to be a part of the NFL's postseason, but anxious to continue its four-game winning streak.
Temperatures are expected to be in the teens by the 7 p.m. CST kickoff on Saturday evening, which would seemingly be an advantage for the Vikings, who rely far more on the run than the pass, while the Packers are an air-first team.
We take a look at 10 keys for the Vikings on pulling off another upset that would move them into the divisional round of the playoffs.
The bottom line for the Vikings is that they will only go as far in the playoffs as Adrian Peterson can carry them.
That's not news for any Vikings fan, as it's been that way since about the halfway point in the season. Peterson has delivered every time he's been called upon, turning what was looking like a sub .500 season into a playoff appearance with his remarkable stretch of games that left him with 2,097 yards rushing and just nine yards short of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark.
The odds of Peterson gashing the Packers defense is pretty good: In two games against the green and yellow this season, Peterson rushed for 409 yards and scored three touchdowns. He's averaging a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry and has ripped off seven runs of over 20 yards against the Packers.
Green Bay will obviously be game-planning to stop, or at least limit, the damage Peterson does to it. How it fares will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of this game.
The Vikings would do well to get Peterson his 25-30 carries and try to ram the ball down the Packers' throats. Mixing in the passing game when needed, like they did in Sunday's win, will help open up lanes for Peterson, who has to have a big game for the Vikings to win.
Rookie kicker Blair Walsh has been the Vikings' not-so-secret weapon all season long.
Not only has he been a long-range weapon kicking field goals, but Walsh finished third in the NFL with 53 touchbacks. His huge leg will be important this week, as the Vikings' chances of slowing down the Packers' potent offense rises considerably when Green Bay has to go 80 yards or longer with the ball.
The Packers found another scary kick returner in Jeremy Ross, who had several big returns against the Vikings last week while subbing in for the injured Randall Cobb. The Vikings will have to do a better job containing Ross on Saturday night; the last thing they want to do is give Aaron Rodgers short fields to work with.
Along with Walsh, who's nearly automatic on kickoffs, Chris Kluwe will have to have a big game, as the importance of special teams always seems to ramp up once the postseason begins. Kluwe's had a very good season, and he'll be needed to come through again on Saturday.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder spent most of the 2012 season being the most maligned player in Minnesota.
Week after week, Ponder and Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier took on a barrage of questions about Ponder's lack of improvement, and they kept answering them the same way over and over. It was always something along the lines of, "We know what the problems are and they're fixable."
It started to get old after the fifth time you heard it. When the Vikings lost for the fourth time in five games against the Packers on December 2, most people had had enough. Ponder had blown a very winnable game by throwing two mind-numbing interceptions in the second half.
A month later, and the Vikings have gone from 6-6 to 10-6 and are in the playoffs.
Ponder has taken baby steps all the while and put together his best two games as a pro in the last two games, season-saving wins over the Texans and the Packers. The Vikings coaches faith in Ponder has certainly paid off over the last month, and they have to let him take some shots on Saturday.
He's moved the chains with both his arm and his feet. He's made smart decisions and protected the ball. This is the Christian Ponder the Vikings will need on Saturday to have any chance at winning at Lambeau Field. Adrian Peterson will again be the fulcrum of the offense, but Ponder has to deliver when they need him to.
As much as Christian Ponder has shown improvement over the last month of the season, the same could definitely be said about the offensive line.
A woeful group in 2011, the Vikings added two new starters in 2012 and switched Charlie Johnson from left tackle to left guard.
Rookie and fourth overall selection Matt Kalil came in from day one and has been better than advertised. Kalil has been fantastic in run blocking and gotten better and better in pass protection. He's a giant man and a great athlete and will anchor the Vikings offense line for the next decade.
Brandon Fusco struggled for most of the first half of the season, but that was probably expected, as Fusco was starting for the first time in the NFL and didn't play major college football at Slippery Rock. After splitting time with Geoff Schwartz for about a month, Fusco is getting all the snaps again and is playing his best football of the year.
John Sullivan has been solid all season long, and Phil Loadholt has battled all year. Charlie Johnson has had his ups and downs, but has played every game.
The Vikings have been very lucky to be injury-free up front for the entire season, and it's certainly paying off, as the group has gelled as the season has gone on and they are playing better each game.
If Adrian Peterson and Christian Ponder are to shine on Saturday, the offensive line needs to have a big game. They've proved that they're capable of it.
Early in the 2012 season, Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams made a decision that wasn't very popular with his front four.
Williams decided that since he had so many good athletes on his defensive line, he was going to use them all. It might reduce the number of plays for Jared Allen and Brian Robison, but it would get the likes of Everson Griffen and Christian Ballard on the field and keep everyone fresher over the coarse of the brutal NFL season.
It's worked better than anyone could have hoped for.
Again, the Vikings have been very lucky in that they've been pretty injury-free on the defensive line, and when players have had to miss time, the guys filling in haven't been coming in cold, as they'd all been getting their reps.
While not getting the ridiculous sack numbers that Allen put up in 2011, the Vikings defensive front has been vastly improved. Allen and Brian Robison both had great seasons. Kevin Williams wasn't spectacular, but he was more than solid. Letroy Guion, Fred Evans and Ballard have all had some shining moments.
As for Everson Griffen, well, all the hype that's surrounded his athletic ability over the last three years is finally blossoming on the field. Griffen was arguably the most valuable defensive player over the last month of the season.
The Packers have arguably the most dangerous passing offense in the NFL and they are all expected to be healthy and in the lineup on Saturday night.
The Vikings know they can't blitz Rodgers too often, as he's the best in the game at reading and releasing in a timely fashion.
If the Vikings are going to slow down the Packers air attack, the defensive line is going to have to get its hands on Rodgers and put him to the ground.
The Packers don't have much of a running game, and they don't need one.
With Aaron Rodgers and his bevy of talented receivers, the Packers are at their best when Rodgers is hitting his receivers in the five to 15-yard range and letting them run after the catch.
It can be very daunting to a pass defense when you look at the weapons Rodgers has to choose from: Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley. They all know how to get open, and they all know how to run with the ball after the catch.
For the Vikings defense, it will be paramount to limit the Packers' success on first and second down. When the Packers do run, the Vikings have to squash them. The Vikings have to get some sacks on Rodgers that put Green Bay in some long-yardage situations.
Rodgers and his fleet of receivers are going to get their catches; they always do. What will be hugely important for the Vikings is to limit the Packers' yards after catch. They can't miss tackles like they did last Sunday. When the Packers complete passes, the defensive backs have to put the receivers on the ground as soon as possible.
The more the Vikings force the Packers to have to come up with big plays, the better their chances of winning will be.
Often times, NFL playoff games turn on big plays from unlikely sources. (Think David Tyree or Tim Tebow.)
More than likely on Saturday night in Green Bay, Adrian Peterson and Aaron Rodgers will both have big games. If Peterson is held under 100 yards or Rodgers held under 300, the other team will probably win the game. Neither scenario is likely to happen.
What is more likely to happen is that unexpected players will step forward and make huge contributions that help their team win the game.
The Vikings certainly have a number of players who could fill that role.
Toby Gerhart hasn't gotten a lot of touches in 2012 with the brilliant play of Adrian Peterson, but he's certainly been effective when given the opportunity. Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu haven't had banner years, but all are capable of coming up with big catches.
High-priced tight end John Carlson has nearly been invisible this season. Saturday night would be a fantastic time to earn some of that money.
Jarius Wright has shown some brilliant flashes of talent down the stretch; a big game from him would put him in the driver's seat for a much bigger role in 2013.
The stage will be big and the lights bright come Saturday night. The Vikings' chances of winning will be much greater if some of their unheralded players step up to the moment.
The Minnesota Vikings are the only NFC playoff team that turned the ball over more than they took it.
Their playoff stay won't be very long if they don't win the turnover battle against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night. Christian Ponder has thrown just one interception in the Vikings' four-game winning streak and none in their last three wins.
The math is obviously pretty simple. If Ponder protects the ball and the Vikings don't turn it over, their odds of winning rise dramatically.
Funny things always seem to happen once the NFL playoffs get underway. The Vikings have to make sure the funny things happen in their favor.
The Vikings have playmakers on defense. Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith are the likeliest candidates to come up with big plays for the purple, but everyone on the defense has to cash in on the opportunities they're given to make big plays.
Playing against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense, the Vikings know the ball will be in the air a lot. The Vikings secondary has had a rough couple of years in coming up with interceptions, but they now have several different players who are capable of making them.
Once again, Adrian Peterson and Aaron Rodgers are both going to make some big plays. Saturday night's game will more than likely come down to which team has more of the other guys step forward.
Lambeau Field in January can be a very intimidating environment.
In their first 64 years of existence, the Packers were 13-0 in home playoff games. In the last decade, they're just 2-4.
The Vikings are used to playing at Lambeau, but Saturday's game will certainly have a different feel to it. Everything ramps up in the playoffs, mistakes are magnified and big plays become huge.
The Vikings aren't a team that's built to come from behind. Jumping out to an early lead and getting momentum on its side will increase Minnesota's chances of winning tenfold.
The Vikings have to come out ready to strike first, to throw the first punch. If the Packers score first and score early, things could go south for Minnesota in a hurry. If the Vikings can jump ahead and then get a couple of stops from their defense, the Packers' home-field advantage will be greatly diminished.
A perfect start for the Vikings would be an opening drive with Adrian Peterson picking up a couple of big runs and Christian Ponder completing his first couple of passes. If that happens, the Vikings' confidence will be sky-high and the fight will be on.
As written in an earlier slide, funny things tend to happen in the NFL playoffs.
In pro football's lose and go home playoff format, crazy plays become the norm. The Vikings have to be ready for anything come Saturday night. If things go the wrong way early, they have to weather the storm and stick to their game plan.
Christian Ponder may throw an interception. Adrian Peterson may fumble. Someone may run the wrong way with a fumble. Crazy things happen. The Vikings would do well to expect the unexpected on Saturday night.
All that really means is that everyone who steps on the field has to play disciplined, smart football. If a play or two goes dramatically wrong, Minnesota needs to shrug it off and get momentum back in its favor as soon as possible.
The Vikings have proven over the last month that they have plenty of players capable of making big plays. They have a combination of youth and talent to go with some seasoned superstars that seem to be gelling at the right time.
A prime time playoff game on a Saturday night in January at Lambeau Field. There's really only one bigger stage in all of football. Opportunity is at hand for the Minnesota Vikings. A lot sooner than anybody thought it would be.