Spurred on by the betrayal of one of their own, the Minnesota Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers 20-13 at Lambeau Field on Sunday night. With the win, the Vikings won the NFC North and clinched the No. 3 seed in the 2016 playoffs.
Minnesota's unofficial mascot, Ragnar, who led the team out before games, left his post earlier this year after a pay dispute. Following a lengthy hiatus, he committed the ultimate sin, rooting for Green Bay before Sunday's game, per Fox Sports NFL:
Luckily for Minnesota, it doesn't look as though Ragnar is a modern-day equivalent of the billy goat that has cursed the Chicago Cubs for 70 years.
Perhaps incurring the wrath of the Norse gods, the Vikings nearly threw away the win late in the game. Following a Mason Crosby field goal, Cordarrelle Patterson returned the subsequent kickoff deep into Green Bay territory. He fumbled at the Packers 31-yard line, though, and Micah Hyde recovered for Green Bay.
The fact that Crosby forced the fumble only added further insult to the play for Patterson, per NFL Network:
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers drove the Packers into the red zone, eventually getting a 4th-and-goal at the 13-yard line with 2:18 remaining. He had wide receiver James Jones open in the end zone, but his throw was too far inside and allowed Xavier Rhodes to step in front for the interception.
And unlike Week 13 against the Detroit Lions, there would be no more last-minute heroics to pry victory from the jaws of defeat.
Rodgers finished 28-of-44 for 291 yards with a touchdown and an interception. More concerning for Green Bay, the Vikings sacked him five times.
The game concludes an inconsistent regular season for the Packers, with this stat illustrating how odd this year was for them, per ESPN Stats & Info:
For the first time since 1991 the Packers have lost to the Lions, Bears and Vikings at home.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 4, 2016
Minnesota didn't make things easy for itself, gaining 242 yards as a team. Teddy Bridgewater threw for just 99 yards on 10-of-19 passing, and Adrian Peterson ran for 67 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
Sunday's game presented one of the rare opportunities when winning the division might be the worst of the two outcomes. Sporting News' Jesse Spector analyzed how the Vikings and Packers both had a strong incentive to lose:
So, if the Vikings win, they get the Seahawks and if the Packers lose, they get Washington. The rare double tank opportunity.— Jesse Spector (@jessespector) January 4, 2016
It's impossible to say whether either team was intentionally playing less than its best in order to secure defeat.
Minnesota and Green Bay did, however, combine for a drab first half. Together they gained 247 total yards and went 2-of-13 on third downs. The kicking game provided the difference as Blair Walsh connected on a 39-yard field goal in the first quarter and then a 32-yarder in the second to put the Vikings ahead 6-3.
A lackluster first half is nothing new for the Packers. Due in part to Jordy Nelson's season-ending injury, Green Bay has failed to reach the same heights offensively as it did last year, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Packers 1st half scoring at home 2014: 212 points 2015: 101 points— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 4, 2016
CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora argued extreme measures might have been necessary:
So, um, maybe the Packers should switch play callers again? Put Favre in the booth?— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) January 4, 2016
Things didn't change for the Packers early in the second half as the Vikings began pulling away.
With 10:32 left in the third quarter, Peterson scored on a three-yard touchdown run. He looked to be stonewalled at the 2-yard line, but continued pushing forward until he crossed the goal line. Here's the video, courtesy of the NFL:
Bridgewater then offered a gift to the Packers, throwing one of the uglier interceptions of the season. Under pressure, he attempted to find wide receiver Mike Wallace with a left-handed heave, only for Hyde to intervene. Hyde's one-handed grab was as impressive as Bridgewater's pass was abysmal, as shown by this tweet from the Packers:
Before Green Bay could capitalize, defensive end Everson Griffen sacked Rodgers and forced a fumble. In real time, some wondered whether Rodgers' arm was moving forward when the ball fell out of his hands. Captain Munnerlyn continued to play, picking up the ball and returning it 55 yards for the touchdown. It was a heads-up play from the veteran cornerback.
With the team down 20-3, the Packers offense finally woke up in the fourth quarter.
Rodgers hit tight end Richard Rodgers for 16-yard touchdown pass with 13:27 left in the game, and Crosby split the uprights on a 43-yard field goal to make it a one-score game, 20-13.
The Vikings' matchup with the Seattle Seahawks looms in the Wild Card Round. Seattle looks like one of the league's best teams, having won eight of its last 10 games. The Seahawks and Vikings met earlier in the year, with the reigning NFC champions beating Minnesota 38-7 on the road.
While winning the NFC North for the first time since 2009 is nice, Minnesota might have sealed its own fate by beating Green Bay. ESPN.com's Mike Sando is more than happy to take that deal:
The Packers will likely be favored by a good number of fans in their Wild Card Round clash with the Washington Redskins, but that matchup could have the same feel of the Seahawks' win over the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 playoffs.
Green Bay has serious issues all over the field, and it can't possibly solve them all in a week. The offensive line isn't offering much protection for Rodgers, and the running game continues to struggle. Collectively, they could doom the Packers in the postseason.
"Congratulations to Minnesota for winning the division," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy after the game, per the team's Twitter account. "Obviously a disappointing loss at home. We didn't do enough."
The disappointment from the Packers players and coaches might be blunted somewhat by avoiding the Seahawks for at least the Wild Card Round. Washington, a winner of four in a row, won't be an easy opponent, but it is easier than Seattle would've been.
"Washington's a good football team," said Aaron Rodgers, per the Packers. "We've just got to focus on them. It's a normal week playing Sunday. We'll be ready to play."
Don't tell the Vikings they would have been better off losing, either. Brandon Fusco described how much the team valued this game from its onset, per Andrew Krammer of 1500 ESPN:
Brandon Fusco on an emotional pregame address from Mike Zimmer: "It was time to take that step. It meant so much to him. Emotional for all"— Andrew Krammer (@Andrew_Krammer) January 4, 2016
Head coach Mike Zimmer inherited a team that won five games the year before, and Minnesota's playoff appearance in 2012 was largely down to Peterson having one of the best individual seasons for a running back in NFL history.
The Vikings won seven games in Zimmer's first season, and now they're headed to the postseason. For the first time in a long time, Minnesota truly looks to be headed in the right direction for the long term.