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Final Thoughts: Vikings & Packers Revisit Rivalry with Playoff Implications

EAGAN, Minn. — New year, same Border Battle.

The Vikings (12-3) and the Packers (7-8) will ring in the New Year Sunday a little later than midnight (3:25 p.m. CT), but both teams have a similar resolution: maintain their recent red-hot play to finish the regular season.

Minnesota — who clinched its playoff spot in Week 15 with a win over Indianapolis and secured the NFC North title — has won four of its past five games, all by a one-score margin.

The Vikings are 11-0 in one-score games this season, which is an NFL record. Their last victory by more than one score? A 23-7 home-opening win against Green Bay in Week 1.

"A lot has changed. A lot of adjustments have been made on both sides of the ball," linebacker Eric Kendricks said about the differences of facing Green Bay in Week 1 and Week 17. "We've played a lot of football since then, and experience goes a long way in the season. We're playing a whole different team; they know what they're going to be looking for by looking at a bunch of film from the past. We have our work cut out for us."

Wide receiver Adam Thielen added that similar to the Vikings season opener, the team has to treat Sunday with a "must-win" mindset.

"The first game of the season, it's got that feeling of almost a must-win. And this week has that same feeling as a must-win, for both sides," Thielen said. "This is a big game and December football, January football is playoff football, so you've got to treat these games like it's your last one and you've got to play your best football this time of year. We're trying to do what we need to do to prepare and get ready and then hopefully go out there and play our best football."

Attached to Sunday's second meeting between the division foes are some postseason implications. The Vikings are balancing both the pursuit of the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage while simultaneously fending off a red-hot 49ers team for the No. 2 spot. The Packers sit just a half-game back of the final Wild Card spot after climbing out of a 4-8 hole with three consecutive victories.

Look back at photos through the years featuring games between the Vikings and Packers.

In order to make the playoffs, Green Bay has to defeat both Minnesota and Detroit (7-8) and have either the Commanders (7-7-1) lose one of their final two games or the Giants (8-6-1) lose twice. The Vikings can eliminate the Packers Sunday with a win and a Detroit home victory against Chicago (3-12).

Despite Green Bay's record, Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said he knows the Packers are always a tough opponent, especially late in the season. Green Bay is 15-0 in the month of December in Head Coach Matt LaFleur's tenure.

"I can tell you just looking at them on tape, they're getting turnovers — defensively, they're getting the football. I think it's been real dynamic with their ability to take it away when it's in the air, and then also, just when they're tackling, raking at the ball, getting the football out, we've got to be great with the ball in our hands when we have it," O'Connell said. "And then they're running the football, and of course [Green Bay quarterback] Aaron's [Rodgers] making a lot of plays, and you can really see their passing game coming to life – both on-schedule and off-schedule. So, it's going to be a heck of a challenge. They're always so tough to play at Lambeau Field, and we've got to play a really good game to be competitive and give ourselves a chance to win."

Here's what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching for in Sunday's game:

Will Kirk Cousins go 2-0 against Rodgers this season? | By Sam Thiel

In 28 career games against the Vikings, Rodgers has been very successful, completing 68.2 percent of his passes (609-of-893) for 6,998 yards, 56 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

Since quarterback Kirk Cousins joined Minnesota in 2018, though, he has gone toe-to-toe with Rodgers in the division matchup:

— Cousins (8 games): 171-of-255 passing, 67.1 completion percentage, 2,156 passing yards, 8.5 yards per pass attempt, 17 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 107.2 passer rating

— Rodgers (9 games): 228-of-334 passing, 68.3 completion percentage, 2,427 passing yards, 7.3 yards per pass attempt, 17 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 103.7 passer rating

This season, Cousins ranks in the top 5 in passing yards (4,117, fifth), attempts (592, third), completions (389, tied for third), and passing touchdowns (27, tied for fourth).

While Rodgers is 13th in passing yards (3,331), 11th in attempts (491), 10th in completions (318) and tied for eighth in passing touchdowns (24) this season, he's tended throughout his career to heat up in the months of December and January.

According to Douglas Clawson of CBS Sports, Rodgers sports the best home record in the regular season in December and January (27-4) with 20-plus starts since 1970.

Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said Rodgers has gained a better rhythm with his young receiving corps after an inconsistent start to the season.

"You can just tell that Aaron has a much better feel with his receivers. You can tell the trust factor is there because now he's implementing the RPO, run-pass option, into their game plan now and taking more shots and those guys are coming up with big, contested catches for him," Peterson said. "Aaron, quite frankly, he's one of the best in the business in the month of December. We understand that we have a large task in front of us that we have to make sure we're on our Ps and Qs at all times."

On the other side of the ball, Cousins will face a Packers defense that's only allowed 192.4 passing yards per game this season (third-best in the NFL). Green Bay's secondary has also recorded six interceptions in its past three games.

"They've always been good at creating takeaways and that's something you're always aware of," Cousins said. "It's a good defense, they've got good defensive backs that play with good vision and can quickly make a play. You try to play smart and protect the football and know that when you do that, you give yourself a much better chance."

Will Packers plan for Jefferson include more Jaire Alexander? | By Craig Peters

Will the Packers change the way they defended Justin Jefferson in Week 1?

Nine receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns usually prompt some form of adjustment the next time.

That performance kickstarted Jefferson's historic campaign that last week featured him breaking franchise single-season records set by Pro Football Hall of Famers Randy Moss (1,632 receiving yards in 2003) and Cris Carter (122 receptions in 1994 and 1995). The third-year pro has at least 100 receiving yards in 10 games this season, another Vikings record, and has hit the trifecta 24 times in 48 career games, which is already a record number of times for a player through his first FOUR seasons. That 50-percent clip is the highest among players who have played at least 40 career games, according to NFL Media Research.

Jefferson enters Week 17 with 1,756 receiving yards on the season, which ranks seventh all-time. He needs 209 yards to pass Calvin Johnson for the most in NFL history and 144 more to become the third player to ever post 1,900 receiving yards in a season.

With 123 receptions, Jefferson is already tied for the ninth-most catches in a season. On his way to winning the receiving triple crown for the Rams, Cooper Kupp (145 in 2021) came close to the all-time mark set by Michael Thomas (149 in 2019).

The last time around, the Packers played zones and sides. Might they have Jaire Alexander shadow Jefferson more than he has other players this season?

View photos of Vikings players practicing at the TCO Performance Center on Dec. 29, 2022.

Jefferson, a first-round pick in 2020, has played Green Bay five times. Alexander has played in three of those (missed both contests last season).

Per Next Gen Stats, in the three games Alexander did play, he lined up against Jefferson zero snaps in Week 1 of 2020 (Jefferson's debut), 78.6 percent of snaps in Week 8 of 2020 (a really windy day at Lambeau Field) and 36.4 percent in Week 1 of 2022.

In Week 1, Alexander lined up against Jefferson on 12 of 33 routes by the receiver and was not targeted during any of those.

Alexander has lined up at right outside cornerback on 92.5 percent of snaps. His previous high in that spot was 23.7 percent as a rookie in 2018.

Jefferson is capable of lining up anywhere in the offense, allowing O'Connell to move the receiver and try to maximize matchups.

Analyst and former NFL QB Dan Orlovsky posted this clip illustrating three routes where Jefferson showed his elite abilities.

The Vikings offense also features threats like Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn, as well as T.J. Hockenson. Osborn (157 in Week 15) and Hockenson (109 in Week 16) have provided Cousins with additional options, and the quarterback has been able to spread the ball around while Jefferson still is getting a high volume of targets.

A special environment for special teams | by Lindsey Young

Anytime a game is played outdoors, the Vikings prepare as best as possible ahead of time for the elements.

Minnesota has spent a portion of its practices this week on the outdoor fields at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. While helpful for everyone, it may well be most beneficial for the specialists as they prepare to kick and punt in the cold and wind of Lambeau Field.

"I'm just going to focus on my process," kicker Greg Joseph said. "We'll get the work and the preparation outdoors leading up to the game, and then I'm just going to focus in and do the very best to hit my ball."

In addition to the weather, though, Green Bay could provide a prime environment for kick returner Kene Nwangwu.

The Packers (and kicker Mason Crosby) this season have only 15 touchbacks on kickoffs, which is the fewest in the NFL. The next closest? Pittsburgh with 22. They also have the lowest touchback percent (22.1). That means Nwangwu will likely get return opportunities.

"We just know we're gonna get our opps, and you've gotta make the most of those – knowing it can go the other way, too," O'Connell said. "They like to cover kicks and try to back you up and make you drive farther down the field, so we've gotta take those opportunities and try to shrink the field for our offense when we can.

"Kene's proven to be a guy that if he gets a little bit of space in there, he can take it the distance," O'Connell added. "So hopefully we're able to get him loose a couple times."

Nwangwu, who ran one back for a touchdown against the Patriots on Thanksgiving, currently ranks second in the league with 779 total kickoff return yards; his return average (26.0) ranks fifth among returners who have at least nine attempts.

At Lambeau almost exactly a year ago, Nwangwu returned three kickoffs for 86 yards, averaging 28.7 yards per return.

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