It took a full team effort and nearly every second of the game, but the Vikings came out on top 23-10 over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium on a day in which the landscape of the NFC North shifted. There is plenty of football left to be played, but here are 10 observations on Sunday's win over the Packers.
1. Rodgers knocked out and Packers offense shut down
Both teams came into Sunday's game banged up and both teams lost players during the tussle, but no injury was more significant than the one Green Bay suffered on its second series of the game. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers rolled out of the pocket to his right and was blasted by linebacker Anthony Barr just as he released a throw. The pass fell incomplete and Rodgers was left on the turn clearly in pain. He left the game with a shoulder injury and did not return; Green Bay announced later it was a collarbone injury. Playing with a backup quarterback and against the NFL's best defense in its house went about as you'd expect it to go for Green Bay. The Packers averaged only 3.5 yards per play, converted four of 17 (24%) 3rd downs, allowed four sacks and had only three drives with multiple 1st downs.
2. Harrison Smith did Harrison Smith things
If there's a more complete safety in the game than Harrison Smith, someone should alert the press. Smith was the man in the middle of what was one of the Vikings best defensive performances of the season, a season in which the Vikings defense has been performing at its peak on the regular. Smith got on the stat sheet with 15.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, two passes defensed and one (one-handed) interception. The Vikings turned that interception into a field goal and a 23-10 lead early in the 4th quarter. More than his stat sheet, though, Smith's contributions are about lining the defense up, being in the right place at the right times, setting a tone and crafting the identity that is Mike Zimmer's defense. Xavier Rhodes also had an interception on Sunday, picking off a pass late in the 1st quarter that led to Jerick McKinnon's first of two touchdowns on the day.
3. McKinnon shoulders the load and finds the end zone (twice)
The Vikings are of course without Dalvin Cook for the rest of the season, but Jerick McKinnon is making sure that doesn't mean the offense is without some punch from the running back position. Six days after racking up 146 yards and a touchdown against the Chicago Bears, McKinnon churned out 99 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against Green Bay to help provide enough points for the Vikings to emerge victoriously. McKinnon scored on perfectly-timed and very well-blocked 27-yard screen pass early in the 2nd quarter to stake the Vikings to a 7-0 lead. Two series later, McKinnon dove into the end zone for a three-yard touchdown plunge to cap an eight-play, 84-yard drive that answered a Green Bay touchdown and put the Vikings back out in front by seven at 14-7. McKinnon finished the game with 69 rushing yards and one touchdown on 16 attempts and five receptions for 30 yards and a touchdown on six targets.
4. Fierce pass rush didn't relent and run defense was on point
Good pass defense is the combination of rush and coverage. The first part of that equation was taken care of by the Vikings defensive line on Sunday. Barr put a punishing hit on Rodgers that forced him from the game and had another quarterback hit later in the first half, plus Smith had two hits (and sacks) on quarterbacks. Outside of that, the defensive line took care of pressuring the passer. Brian Robison led everyone with five quarterback hits, while Everson Griffen (one), Tom Johnson (two) and Linval Joseph (one) got in on the action, too. When all was said and done, Robison finished with 1.0 sack, Joseph tallied a .5 sack and Griffen corralled one to give him at least one sack in every game this season. This constant and timely pressure never allowed backup quarterback Brett Hundley to setting into any kind of rhythm. As for the run defense, Zimmer commented after the game that the Vikings played predominantly in their sub package and defense yet held up well against the run, allowing 72 yards on 24 carries (3.0/attempt) and not surrendering a run longer than nine yards for the game.
5. The NFL's best 3rd down defense was at its best
The Vikings came into Sunday's game with the NFL's best 3rd down defense, allowing only 14 conversions in 55 attempts (25.5%). Well, the number only got better on Sunday, as Rodgers and Hundley combined to lead Green Bay's offense to a four of 17 (24%) effort. Facing long to-go distances, constant quarterback pressure and tight coverage led to the Viking success on this League's money down.
6. Forbath, Quigley led outstanding special teams effort
To beat a team has good as Green Bay, it usually takes sound execution in all three phases. The Vikings special teams groups held up their end of the bargain. Kicker Kai Forbath was three of three on field goals, salvaging scoring drives with kicks from 34, 36 and 53 yards. Punter Ryan Quigley wad dynamite in the field position game, teaming with his coverage group to net 36.8 yards per punt but downing three of his four inside the 20, including a punt late in the game that went out of bounds at the Green Bay 4. Green Bay's average starting field position after a punt was the minus-18 and their average drive start after a kickoff was the minus-24, and they didn't score any points on drives that started after kickoffs or punts.
7. Offensive line takes another step forward
Just as they've done about every week of the regular season, the Vikings offensive line took a step forward in its development and improvement on Sunday. Quarterback Case Keenum was not sacked once on the day, and the Vikings were able to do enough on the ground to keep drives going and to keep Green Bay's defense off-balance. The 3.4-yard per-carry average is below expectations, but Green Bay's defense can be stout and the Vikings were playing without starting left guard Nick Easton. The Vikings finished the game with 351 net yards, a per-play average of 4.9 yards, one for one in goal-to-go situations and a time of possession advantage of 32:09 to 27:51, all indications of solid offensive line play.
8. Thielen put on a clinic
The Vikings have had a dynamic duo at receiver this season with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen attacking opposing secondaries. Thielen was on his own against Green Bay, though, with Diggs sitting out with a groin injury. Even with the extra attention, Thielen was still able to put on a clinic. Thielen caught nine of 13 passes thrown his way for 97 yards, with five of the receptions good for 1st downs and two of them netting 20 and 23 yards. When the Vikings needed an explosive play through the air, Thielen came up big time and again.
9. Turnovers – some good news and some bad news
The Vikings took the ball away from Green Bay three times and all of them were consequential. Rhodes interception turned into a touchdown, Smith's turned into a field goal and then Trae Waynes' ended Green Bay's final possession. The Vikings also turned it over themselves twice, with McKinnon losing a fumble to ruin a promising drive and give Green Bay great field position to eventually score a touchdown, and then Keenum throwing an interception on a pass that was tipped by linebacker Blake Martinez before Damarious Randall was able to come down with it to set up Green Bay's offense to drive down for a field goal.
View game action images as the Vikings take on the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
10. The Vikings are in 1st place
With a win over Green Bay and Detroit losing in New Orleans, the Vikings are now 4-2 and sitting atop the NFC North. They share the 4-2 mark with Green Bay but hold the tie breaker by virtue of Sunday's win. There is a lot of football to be played, including games against both Detroit and Green Bay on the road, but for the time being the Vikings are the team to beat in the division.