EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings and Packers are two of four teams that are a game under .500 and are still in the heat of the NFC Wild Card race.
Sunday's New Year's Eve matchup marks just the fourth time in the 127-game history of the Border Battle that each team has carried a losing record into both of the same season's meetings. Minnesota defeated Green Bay 24-10 in Week 8 to climb back to .500 at 4-4, and Green Bay dropped to 2-5.
Nine weeks later, both teams face a quasi-playoff situation. According to Next Gen Stats, Sunday's winner will have their playoff chances jump above 50 percent with a victory. A loss drops either team's playoff probability to 5 percent or less.
Once again, the Vikings must overcome several injuries to keep their playoff hopes alive. The team will be without cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr., for a second consecutive game due to a knee injury. Rookies Jordan Addison (ankle) and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (shoulder) are questionable. However, tackle Brian O'Neill is expected to be available after missing the previous two games with an ankle injury.
"Our guys kind of have a playoff mindset toward this game," O'Connell said. "We know both teams feel like we've still got a lot to play for, and it's going to be very competitive, as is any game in December in the NFC North. I feel like where our team is at right now, we've got a great mindset toward what we need to go do to win football games. We've learned a lot of lessons this year on what that's going to take to win the football game, especially against a team that's playing some really good football right now."
Matchup to Watch: Justin Jefferson vs. Packers defensive backs
Vikings star receiver Justin Jefferson won't have to deal with Packers Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander on Sunday.
Alexander, who has a history of matching up with Jefferson, was suspended for one game by the Packers for "conduct detrimental to the team" for joining the Packers three game captains ahead of the coin toss against the Panthers last week.
Even with Alexander, the Packers secondary struggled at Carolina. Alexander and fellow cornerbacks Keisean Nixon and Eric Stokes were targeted a combined 15 times. The trio allowed 13 catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns. They had zero pass breakups.
Panthers rookie quarterback Bryce Young had a career day, throwing for a season-high 312 yards on 23-of-36 passing. According to Next Gen Stats, only four of Young's 36 attempts were considered contested catches, and the Panthers caught three of them. Only safety Jonathan Owens notched a pass breakup.
Young struck a rhythm against the Packers secondary. He entered Sunday averaging a league-low 5.5 yards per attempt. Versus Green Bay, he finished with an 8.7 average yards per attempt and a season-high 110.0 passer rating. Before Sunday, Young had one career game with a passer rating over 100.
Without Alexander, the Packers will likely lean heavily on Stokes. The third-year defender will be playing in just his third game since returning from a one-year absence due to foot and hamstring injuries.
Rookie Carrington Valentine could see more action in Alexander's absence. Valentine played just three snaps last week but has played about 59% of defensive snaps this season, primarily as an outside cornerback. Nixon has played the second-most snaps of Packers defenders this season.
Against the Panthers, Green Bay played man coverage on 55 percent of its snaps. Expect Packers Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry to have a specific plan for Jefferson. Jefferson has caught 24 passes for 416 yards and four touchdowns in his previous four games versus Green Bay.
Jefferson did not play in the Vikings-Packers Week 8 matchup this season due to a hamstring injury.
O'Connell was asked Friday how the Packers might approach Jefferson without Alexander.
"You think about Jaire not being in there, I think he's one of the top corners in football. He's proven that over a long period of time in this league. He's very competitive. I know him and Justin enjoy competing against each other, so it's a significant loss, but they've kind of had to overcome some adversity injury-wise like we have all season long," O'Connell said. "I don't know how much it will change for what they want to do defensively, especially going back through our two games last year when we did have [Justin Jefferson], or when we went up there and won [this season], we didn't have him. It kind of had a feel to it of, 'How much of this is real, as far as what we're going to see versus what we saw back then?' But we have good inventory of two games against them."
Six Points: Memorable Week 17 Quotes
Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores on Jordan Hicks' return in Week 16:
"Great to get them out there. I thought he played well. He gave us a spark, gave and brought energy. I know he wanted to get some kinks out. He felt that way. But I thought, you know, even with that, given everything that he's gone through, I thought he played great."
QB Jaren Hall on not putting too much pressure on his upcoming start against Green Bay:
"You let the importance of it play in your preparation. With that, you just focus on every play, you focus on every snap when you're preparing; you focus on your checks and go through your process. Then come game day, I think as long as you just stay focused on that process, you don't worry about all the external factors and what's going on, I think that's where the players are their best, when they're able to stay locked in on their process."
WR Justin Jefferson on Hall starting Sunday:
"I feel like he has been doing a great job and just learning just the process of being a rookie and carrying that role. […] It doesn't matter who is out there at quarterback, we always have that confidence and feel like our preparation we have throughout the week gets them right for the game. Jaren is definitely a great quarterback and definitely has some potential to spark this offense up if we put him out there to play, but we have confidence in whoever."
Head Coach Kevin O'Connell on who will back up Hall:
"I've told Nick [Mullens], and Nick's going to go through the process of preparing like he's always been very, very good at, even when we've had Kirk [Cousins], and Nick feeling really good on game days, knowing we've got our guy out there. But if Nick has to step in, like he did against the Raiders, like he's done throughout his career, now he's just got more experience, recent experience, to rely on when called upon if he has to go into the game. And quite frankly, I've got a lot of confidence in Nick, regardless of what the situation is that he goes into that game, that he can go out and have success."
Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips on potential for more run plays:
"I think when you see more runs activated is when there's early success in the run game. Certainly we would like to get off more than, I think we had 11, but at the same time, if production is tough early on with the run game, now you're getting yourself into third-and-longer situations when we also know we have Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison and Hockenson at the beginning of the game that we feel really confidently in moving the football and finding ways to create explosives and score points, which ultimately we needed to do."
WR Brandon Powell on mindset ahead of final two regular-season games:
"Win. You take one game at a time. … Beat the Green Bay Packers, beat Detroit. We've got two division games left. Let's try to finish out the season strong, and whatever happens, happens."
Jefferson last week broke Michael Thomas' NFL record for most receiving yards in an NFL player's first four seasons (5,512). He also recorded his 29th career touchdown, breaking a tie with Vikings Ring of Honor tight end Steve Jordan for 10th in franchise history. He can tie Stefon Diggs for ninth all-time in team history with his next touchdown catch.
When a player incurs an injury that keeps him out of action for most or all of the season, how does that affect his compensation or contract?
— Paul Ryals in Stanchfield, Minnesota
I'll preface by saying I'm not an expert in the ways of contracts by any means, but I do hope to devote some time to learning more this offseason.
The answer depends on whether or not the contracts are fully guaranteed or have some money guaranteed. Football has generally shied away from fully guaranteed contracts, but Kirk Cousins in 2018 signed a fully guaranteed three-year contract.
The benefit of designated (or converting from an existing contract) money into signing bonuses is that it can provide a team with relief against the salary cap, but it also comes with a risk of an injury sidelining a player for extended time.
I'm starting to think the Vikings are jinxed. Most years I have high hopes for the team to get in the playoffs and make a run to the Super Bowl. This year was no different, even after the 1-4 start. I truly believe this could have been their year. Kirk [Cousins] was showing what he can do in the second year of the same system, the defense was coming around and playing good defense for the first time in the last three years, and the schedule was favorable after the first five games. Then, the injuries hit. I know all teams suffer injuries, but has any team endured injuries to their top three playmakers on offense, four if you include the RT (Brian O'Neill)? The defense has been hit similarly where the three levels lost top players at one time or another. I love how the team doesn't give up and the backups are stepping up. This is what I would like to see for the last two games: give Jaren Hall his chance to prove what he's got. Throwing for 400 yards with four picks is unacceptable. To me, that shows the QB isn't reading the defense well or making bad throws. I'll take 250 yards with no INT any day. Another thing to consider with the picks is you put the rest of the offense in a bad spot. Now they have to play defense and switch to tackling and a possibility of getting hurt i.e. Addison. Lastly, if the Vikings were to win one of the two remaining games, please let it be the Packers.
Vikings fan forever.
— Al Lindberg in Denmark, Wisconsin
I feel like some believe in jinxes, and others do not. I'll admit to being slightly superstitious from time to time. We joke in our house about a magic pretzel because the team did better in 2022 games when members of my family were having a pretzel from the concession stand. The frozen soft pretzels were attempted from home the past couple of weeks but clearly didn't have the mojo.
Whether jinxes or fate or anything else, there's been a dizzying pace of unfortunate circumstances in Vikings games this season.
The early season woes began with turnovers at critical spots on the football field, and unfortunately those unforced errors have loomed large in most games, particularly the past five in which Minnesota has again endured a 1-4 streak. The only win in that stretch was a game in which the Vikings did not surrender the football a single time.
After the first 1-4 start and hamstring injury to Jefferson, people began writing off the Vikings, who then rallied with five consecutive wins and showed they had not given up on the season.
Hall will be making his second career start on Sunday, but I noted in our weekly How to Watch (and what we're watching) that the rest of the team can help complement the rookie. Minnesota took to the air against Detroit, with Mullens throwing for 411 yards, but he became the first Vikings quarterback since Tommy Kramer in 1981 to combine for four or more touchdowns and six or more interceptions in consecutive weeks.
There's a balance between being aggressive and seeking explosive plays (coaches call them because they have confidence in them working, which happened often against the Lions) and putting the ball in harm's way, either through a decision or placement of the football.
There was some circling on X (formerly Twitter) Thursday night after the Browns topped the Jets about the "talent" Cleveland has lost to injuries while still making the playoffs.
Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, a former Vikings longtime assistant and offensive coordinator, was able to guide the Browns to the playoffs despite having four quarterbacks start at least two games this season.
O'Connell is attempting to become the second coach to lead a team to that feat since 1950. Even though Jefferson looked like the 2022 Offensive Player of the Year again on Sunday, the Vikings will be without T.J. Hockenson.
If Addison is unable to play, then the four Vikings involved in touchdowns at Green Bay in Week 8 (Cousins, Cam Akers, Hockenson and Addison) will miss the rematch. According to NFL Media research, that would be the first time since 1960 that four players responsible for three or more touchdowns would miss the second game of a divisional series (excludes the 1987 season in which teams used replacement players during a strike).
That's a lot of old football history coming to the forefront of this Vikings season.