EAGAN, Minn. — The stage is set for the Vikings biggest game of the regular season.
The twice-annual games between Minnesota and Green Bay always carry a high level of intensity, but there seems to be an added layer for this one.
For starters, both the Vikings (10-4) and Packers (11-3) are fighting for playoff positioning. Minnesota could have a playoff spot clinched (that happens with a Rams loss tonight), but the Vikings also want to stay keep their NFC North title hopes afloat.
Green Bay can clinch the division and keep a first-round bye in play with a victory.
And if the heated rivalry wasn't enough, the game is also on Monday Night Football at U.S. Bank Stadium, a venue where that Vikings are 6-1 in primetime games since the building opened in 2016.
Minnesota is 2-0 under the lights against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the Vikings have beaten the Packers in all three meetings in the building.
"Anytime you get a night game in that building, it's a pretty cool atmosphere," said Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. "Then you add in the fact that there are playoff implications, division implications, rivalry game, Monday Night Football, the second-to-last game of the season … there's going to be a lot of emotions, that's for sure.
"Coach said earlier, 'I don't need to give you guys a pump-up speech. If you're not hyped for this game, you're not in the right building,'" Thielen added. "Honestly, it's going to be one of those things where you have to learn to manage those emotions because you're already going to be hyped up. You don't have to do anything special to do that."
Minnesota is 5-5-1 against Green Bay since Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer arrived in town, a respectable record, especially when you consider the Packers won the first three meetings against Zimmer from 2014 to 2015.
Linval Joseph knows the importance of the rivalry, especially between teams that have combined for 10 of the past 12 division titles. That mark will increase to 11 of 13, as only the Vikings and Packers are alive for the 2019 NFC North crown.
"For the previous years, it's always been between Green Bay and us," Joeph said. "I feel like under Coach Zimmer and the whole scheme of everything, we came together and figured out a way to win games, to win close games, and Green Bay's always been that down-to-the-wire game.
"I feel like we beat them every year at home in the new stadium, and we just want to keep that going," Joseph added. "We just want to do our job and finish on top."
The Vikings would still need help in Week 17 to win the division, as the Packers would have to lose to the Lions. But that scenario isn't possible unless Minnesota gets a win in Week 16 against Green Bay.
Bring on Monday night.
Here are three areas to watch in Monday night's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:
Watch the red zone | By @Eric_L_Smith
An NFL field is obviously 100 yards long, but there won't be a more important area Monday night than the red zone.
Both teams are prolific inside the 20-yard line on both sides of the ball — and both teams are well aware that the other is, too.
The Vikings rank fourth in both offense and defense in terms of red-zone scoring. Minnesota has scored touchdowns on 66 percent on its trips inside the 20, and has allowed opponents to find the end zone just 47.5 percent of the time.
Green Bay, meanwhile, scores touchdowns 68.9 percent of the time it is inside the 20, which ranks second. And the Packers defense allows touchdowns on 48.9 percent of opponents' possessions in the red zone, which is fifth overall in the NFL.
"Well, they've got four interceptions in the red zone, so that's always big. It saves a lot of points," Zimmer said of Green Bay's defense. "[Aaron] Rodgers loves to scramble in the red zone, so that makes it extra difficult if he gets out of the pocket.
"So you have to put an extra guy on him, you got to put an extra guy in coverage, whatever it is," Zimmer added. "And then with [our offense], we work hard on it."
The Vikings will be without running back Dalvin Cook, who has scored 12 of Minnesota's 33 touchdowns inside the 20-yard line.
But even without one of the NFL's top running backs, Packers Head Coach Matt LeFleur said this week that his team will need to be at their best on both sides of the ball when the field gets shortened on Monday night.
"Yeah, they're definitely a tough football team," LeFleur said of the Vikings. "Extremely consistent, and you know you better buckle that chin strap up tight when you're playing the Minnesota Vikings."
Revamped Packers defense features pair of pass rushers | By @LindseyMNSports
The Packers paid attention to their defense this offseason, and now it's paying off.
Minnesota's offensive players know they could have their hands full Monday night with a number of Green Bay defenders – and especially outside linebackers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith (no relation), whom the Packers signed in free agency.
Preston previously teamed with Vikings QB Kirk Cousins in Washington and this season leads the Packers in sacks with 11.5. Za'Darius, who started his career in Baltimore, is just behind with 10 sacks.
"They've got two phenomenal rushers," Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph told Twin Cities media members this week. "I think they put a good amount of pressure on the quarterback from those two spots. That was a priority for them this offseason, addressing those edge rushers, and they did it. Going against those guys in Week 2, it's four quarters, it's a battle, and it's a fight. You've got to bring it on every play if you want to keep those guys away from the quarterback."
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski said that Za'Darius and Preston are "excellent" players that need to be accounted for at all times. But he believes his men are up for the challenge.
"They're going to give us a full 60 minutes' worth of effort on Monday night, and I think our guys will be ready for it," Stefanski said. "Just an impressive stable of guys over there that can rush the passer."
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said the Smiths are "bigtime playmakers," but there are others to note, as well.
"Za'Darius is a guy that is hard to handle on the outside, especially in the rush game. They play real wide guys, so they're trying to create space for their guys to maneuver on the tackles the best they can," Zimmer said. "It just makes it difficult, but those two guys have added a lot to them."
"Kenny Clark is playing good," he continued. "[Blake] Martinez is playing good, and [Jaire] Alexander, the corner. The two safeties, [Darnell] Savage is a good player, and [Adrian] Amos is also a really good player. They've got good, talented guys over there."
Thielen & Diggs vs. Packers Secondary | By @pcraigers
It's fitting that Zimmer mentioned Alexander, Savage and Amos in ticking off players that could challenge the Vikings.
Alexander was tabbed 18th overall in 2018, and Savage was tabbed with the 21st pick in April. Amos was initially a fifth-round selection of Chicago. His signing in free agency didn't receive as much fanfare as the Smiths' arrivals in Green Bay, but he has a chance to be an impact player for consecutive division winners.
The investment in the secondary seems akin to the one made by the Vikings in recent years to offset Rodgers and his prior Pro Bowl-caliber receivers like Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
The Vikings have had a prolific passing attack of their own, with Thielen and Stefon Diggs doing plenty of damage in recent Border Battles.
Thielen returned to the lineup last week, working his way back from a hamstring injury and reuniting with Diggs as one of the NFL's top tandems.
Both have played well, particularly in home games against Minnesota's closest neighbor.
Thielen has recorded 21 receptions for 262 yards (12.5 yards per catch) and a touchdown on 27 targets (catch rate of 77.8 percent) since the venue opened in 2016.
In two outings (2016 and 2018), Diggs has caught 17 passes for 259 yards (15.2 yards per reception) and two scores on 22 targets (catch rate of 77.3 percent).
Will the Packers try to take one receiver off the table or alternate between trying to stop Thielen and Diggs?
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Packers.
— Diggs leads Minnesota in receiving yards with 1,073, marking his second consecutive season with more than 1,000. He is averaging an impressive 17.9 yards per catch (fourth in NFL).
— Monday will mark the 119th overall meeting between the teams, a series that includes a split of two playoff games. Minnesota is 54-61-3 all-time against the Packers.
— Green Bay is 4-0 thus far in division games, having won those four games by a combined 21 points. The Packers have defeated the Bears (7), Vikings (5), Lions (1) and Bears (8), respectively and will finish out their season with games against Minnesota and Detroit.
— Kirk Cousins will enter Monday's game with a passer rating of 111.1. Entering Week 16, that mark ranks fourth in the NFL.
"We're excited to get in U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night and get in front of our home crowd. We'll play hard, hopefully we play really well and have a good night."
— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster for the 2019 season.
Perfect against the Packers
Minnesota is 3-0 at U.S. Bank Stadium against Green Bay in games that have seen their fair share of drama.
Here's a look back at those game, with a highlight from each Vikings win.
2016: Vikings open U.S. Bank Stadium with a 17-14 win over the Packers
Highlight: Sam Bradford makes his Vikings debut, throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 121.2.
2017: Minnesota gets 23-10 victory over Green Bay in Week 6
Highlight: Anthony Barr's hit on Aaron Rodgers forces the quarterback to leave the game. Minnesota's defense allows just 227 total yards on the day.
2018: Vikings capture 24-17 win on Sunday Night Football
Highlight: Minnesota's offense racks up 416 total yards of offense behind three Kirk Cousins touchdown passes. Cook, Diggs and Thielen each found the end zone.