EAGAN, Minn. — There has been no shortage of storylines for the Vikings this week.
Dalvin Cook is off the Reserve/COVID-19 list, Kirk Cousins is now on it, and Minnesota will start backup Sean Mannion Sunday night against the Packers.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he's tried to keep a steady hand with so much going on this week.
"I talk to the team all the time. I talked to them a couple times [Friday] morning," Zimmer said. "I'll talk to them again [Saturday].
"I think they're going to rally behind Sean," Zimmer added. "They know how important this game is. They believe in Sean."
Oh yeah, it's also Border Battle week and Minnesota (7-8) needs a win in Green Bay (12-3) to keep its slim playoff hopes alive.
According to analytics website FiveThirtyEight.com, the Vikings currently have a nine-percent chance to make the playoffs. That number jumps to 50 percent with a win, but there's a chance Minnesota faces a must-win scenario by the time kickoff arrives at 7:20 p.m. (CT).
If Philadelphia tops Washington or Atlanta defeats Buffalo, Minnesota would be eliminated with a loss.
The Vikings won the first Border Battle of the season at home, getting a 34-31 victory over the Packers in Week 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
That close game was one of many for Minnesota this season, as all but one of the Vikings 15 contests have been decided by one score, including the past 12 games.
If the Vikings once again play another tight game decided by eight points or fewer, they would set a record for the most total, and most consecutive, games decided within that margin.
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 17:
Double trouble in Green Bay backfield | By @Eric_L_Smith
The Vikings defense has been strong in some areas, and has faltered in other aspects through 15 games.
Minnesota's run defense would likely fit in that latter category, as the Vikings rank 28th in the league by giving up 130.5 yards per game on the ground.
Stopping Green Bay's two-headed attack of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will be an emphasis, and perhaps even more so now that defensive tackle Michael Pierce is questionable.
"They're both really good backs, they both run really hard and they both catch the ball out of the backfield," Zimmer said. "They're good players. It's a really good 1-2 punch, and I think it's really good for them in cold-weather situations."
The forecast for Sunday night is supposed to be frigid, and the Vikings practiced outside Thursday to try and get used to the elements they'll endure at Lambeau Field.
Whether it's by ground or by air — both Jones and Dillon can pick up chunk yards on passes, too — the Vikings will need to be wary of the double threat in Green Bay's backfield.
Jones has 1,084 yards from scrimmage and 10 total scores in 14 games this season. Dillon has 966 offensive yards in 2021 and has scored five times.
Aaron Rodgers gets the headlines for Green Bay, but stopping Jones and Dillon might be Minnesota's best chance to win in prime time.
Pay special attention to special teams | By @LindseyMNSports
The bitter temps and wintery conditions forecasted for Green Bay Sunday night will certainly impact all three phases of a football team, including multiple aspects of special teams.
Minnesota's special teams unit has been impressing all season long but struggled in a few ways against the Rams last week – including allowing L.A. to return a punt for a touchdown. Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken spoke to the media this week about bouncing back.
"The biggest thing that we talked about is we've got to regroup. That was one play," Ficken said. "We've done a lot of great things this year and affected the game, so we've got to make sure we refocus, get back to our basics and fundamentals, and we can't let that one play take us away from the task at-hand – and that's going out there and dominating and being that spark for our team."
Ficken didn't express much concern over the outdoor environment at Lambeau, saying that specialists Greg Joseph, Jordan Berry and Andrew DePaola spent time practicing outside at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
"Guys are understanding the situation and the elements, and they're professionals," Ficken said. "They're ready to go, and we've been preparing that way, so I expect them to be ready to go."
While lots of eyes will be on the Vikings special teams, it's important to keep tabs on what Green Bay does on special teams, too. Throughout the season, the Packers have struggled in that area. Mason Crosby's 70-percent field goal success rate ranks 31st in the league, and Green Bay ranks 30th in the league on kickoff returns with a 17.3-yard average. The team's average of 6.8 yards per punt return isn't much better at 29th overall.
Minnesota's third phase of the game will try to provide a lift against favored Green Bay.
Rodgers on repeat requires shuffle play | By @pcraigers
Defeating Rodgers once in a season has rarely been followed by a sweep. The Vikings only did so in 2009 (Minnesota swept Green Bay in 2017, but he left the first game early and didn't play the second) and kept him winless in the 2018 Border Battles thanks to a tie.
The Bears have never swept Rodgers. The Lions did, but with a giant asterisk, as the QB attempted just five passes before leaving a 2018 finale that had no impact on the Packers.
Rodgers is rolling, bum toe and all, with 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his past five games, a run that began in Week 11 at Minnesota. The Vikings had multiple successes that day by mixing the coverages, but he still burned them with four touchdowns.
"Well, I don't know if it's just the hot streak. I think it's been going on the whole season. He's obviously a MVP candidate and as good of a quarterback there is the league," Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said. "As far as preparing, I think we try to give some different looks than we did in the first game. … But he is so good at seeing things at the line of scrimmage and he'll use the play clock all the way down and to make us show our hand. So we've got to a good job of our disguises and we've got to do a good job in being tight in coverage on him.
"First and foremost, we've just got to be assignment sound because if we miss an assignment or get out of position or out of a gap, he's going to find it and he's going to make you pay," Zimmer continued. "So that's the big thing we're harping on this week."
So any matchup requires some basics, and the repeat performance involves shuffling before and during the game.
"A little bit is what they're doing throughout the course of a game. You always go in with a game plan," Mike Zimmer said. "Obviously with Rodgers, he's extremely hard to fool. He see things so well. They talk about all these RPOs, and basically he was the first to ever do it. You have a run called, and he'll see something and throw the ball out there to Davante [Adams], [Allen] Lazard or one of those guys in the flat. But we go into it with a game plan of what we want to try to accomplish. As the game goes, they make changes, we make changes, try to cat and mouse it the best we can."
Look back at photos through the years featuring games between the Vikings and Packers.
Notable Number: 7
According to NFL Media Research, there are three NFL players with seven scrimmage touchdowns against one opponent since 2020, and all three are in line to play in this game.
Adams has seven touchdowns against the Vikings, and Cook has scored seven against the Packers since the start of 2020. Jones has seven scrimmage touchdowns against the Lions in that span, but he has missed the past two games against Minnesota.
Side note: Adams has had two or more receiving touchdowns in three consecutive Border Battles. The only player with more such performances against any opponent was Hall of Famer Randy Moss in four consecutive games against the Cowboys.