MINNEAPOLIS — For all the hours of planning and scheming, NFL games can be decided on a handful of plays.
Such was the case Sunday when Minnesota lost 24-21 to Green Bay at TCF Bank Stadium. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to deliver a difference-maker on each of the Packers three touchdown drives:
- Facing third-and-10 on Green Bay's third possession, Rodgers rifled a spiral through a drinking straw-sized opening for a 29-yard completion to Randall Cobb to the Minnesota 25-yard line despite smothering coverage by Captain Munnerlyn. The Packers scored three plays later.
- In the second quarter, Green Bay had a first-and-goal, and Rodgers adjusted when the play didn't work out the way he wanted. He moved to his right, backpedalling and fading away as he launched the ball across the width of the field to reserve tight end Richard Rodgers. It went down as a 1-yard score, but the ball travelled approximately 50 yards in flight.
- Leading 17-13 and facing third-and-6 from the Green Bay 44, Rodgers was trying to convert with a pass, but his options were covered. The QB, who often extends plays by moving around the pocket until a receiver can break free, spotted running room and took off for an 18-yard gain. The Packers scored their final touchdown four plays later.
They were three plays not many quarterbacks can make, and three that the Packers (8-3) had to make to defeat the Vikings (4-7).
View images from the week 12 matchup at TCF Bank Stadium between the Vikings and Packers.
Munnerlyn said he asked Rodgers, "How did you fit that in there?"
"He was like, 'I don't know. I kind of threw it to a spot, and Cobb made a great catch,' " Munnerlyn said. "I was like, 'Yeah, because I never saw the ball,' and I was literally playing almost perfect defense, but it's the NFL. They make plays, and we've just got to make our share of plays."
Rodgers the QB said his throw to Rodgers the tight end "was a little bit of freestyling, if you will."
"That was not exactly how the play is designed, he said. "It is a play action with (Andrew) Quarless as the first look in the right flat, and there are only two guys in the route and Richard is the other option. Based on the motion, pre-snap when we sent (Justin) Perillo in motion, I felt like I was going to need to extend the play out to my right in order to hit Andrew. It didn't feel great that the back side was going to be open so as I came off the fake and extended the play, Andrew got caught up a little inside so that was dead. At the last minute, I kind of saw him out of the corner of my eye and I knew I had to put a little something on that to get it over there."
Vikings veteran defensive end said a throw that late in a play across the field "very seldom happens, and nine times out of 10 when it does happen, it's not good for the offense, but Rodgers is the type of guy that can make those throws and find those receivers so hats off to them."
Robison, who recorded the only sack taken by Rodgers, said film study will likely show a missed assignment.
"Anytime someone is wide open it's a blown assignment, and that's just one of those plays where we make sure we don't have that," Robison said. "We've got to be assignment sound, have everybody where they need to be. Who knows? Maybe if we can get in a goal line stand there, who knows, the game might be different, but I'm not going to say that. The bottom line is Green Bay was a little better than us today."
Munnerlyn also said the play was unconventional.
"It's crazy, but at the end of the day, it's Aaron Rodgers," Munnerlyn said. "He's one of the best quarterbacks in the game. You can expect some 'wow plays' to be made, and today he did a great job of making some 'wow plays' and we didn't do a great job of making ours."
PLAY IT AGAIN: The Vikings responded to an 11-point deficit, their largest of the game, with a 79-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard pass from Teddy Bridgewater to Greg Jennings on a crossing route at the front of the end zone. Minnesota switched personnel and found success on the two-point conversion that followed by running the same play, but this time it was Bridgewater to Charles Johnson, who said Packers players "actually asked us" if it was the same play.
Bridgewater drew a roughing the passer penalty on the conversion, which placed the ensuing kickoff at midfield with 3:23 left in the game.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he considered attempting an onside kick but instead had Blair Walsh loft one that was intended to land shy of the end zone to pin Green Bay deep and then force a punt. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the ball drifted into the end zone and resulted in a touchback.
"Hindsight, I probably should have but you're trying to pop it up and keep it in play and try to pin them back down in there deep, but I assumed that we would stop them," Zimmer said.
Green Bay closed it out with five straight run plays by Eddie Lacy for gains of 3, 5, 4, 5 and 10 to allow Rodgers to take two knees and head out of the Border Battle with the win. The 4-yard gain converted a third-and-2 and moved the clock to the two-minute warning. Minnesota had only one timeout left to stop the clock after that.
"We played hard, we played physical," Robison said. "I thought we did everything that coach wanted us to do, we just didn't get it done today."
FIRST AFTER FOURTHS: Johnson caught his first career touchdown, a 22-yard pass from Bridgewater in the second quarter to tie the game against the team that drafted him.
"It was pretty exciting for me, I'm not going to lie," Johnson said. "I got to give thanks to the offensive line and Teddy for getting the ball to me. I wish we would have won. I would have rather had that."
The touchdown occurred on a drive during which Zimmer went for it on fourth downs twice. On fourth-and-5 at the Green Bay 39, Cordarrelle Patterson drew a holding penalty that nullified the play and gave Minnesota a fresh set of downs. Zimmer went for it again on fourth-and-1 four plays later and was rewarded with a 3-yard run by rookie Jerick McKinnon.
"I want our team to have an aggressive mindset," Zimmer said. "I want to try to do things to sustain drives. There's times in ball games where you take those chances and if you hit them, their offense gets to stay off the field, you get to continue to sustain drives. It's a lot about mindset, too, and them believing that you can get it done. There's times when you're not going to, you're going to have to punt the ball. I told them upstairs we're going to go for it if it's close."
CARRYING THE LOAD: Minnesota claimed Ben Tate III late last week after he was waived by Cleveland, but opted to go with the combination of McKinnon and Joe Banyard at running back.
McKinnon had 58 yards rushing on 15 carries, becoming the seventh rookie in franchise history with more than 100 carries and 500-plus rushing yards in a season. Banyard recorded his first career carry (an 8-yard gain) and finished with 26 rushing yards on five attempts. He added three catches for 19 yards, including a one-hander.
"It's all erased in my head because we lost," Banyard said. "Regardless of what any individual has done, we lost the game and that's all that matters."
Zimmer said Banyard "did well when he was in there."
"He made some extra yards after contact a bunch of times," Zimmer said. "He looked like he had some juice running and carried his pads low. He deserved to keep playing."
FOUR PLAYERS, FIVE KICK RETURNS: Patterson lined up deep to return kicks multiple times, but Green Bay opted not to kick it deep every time. Patterson showed why with returns of 33 and 42 yards on the day, but suffered ankle and knee injuries on the later return. Marcus Sherels filled in for Patterson as the deep man and had a kick return of 18 yards. Adam Thielen had a return of 21 yards, and Chase Ford had a return of 12 yards during the shorter kicks.
"We felt like he wasn't going to kick it deep, but he did, and each opportunity we get, we try to make the most out of it," Patterson said. "Chase, Adam, they did a great job of fielding the ball, getting up in there and hitting the hole."
Conversely, all five of Walsh's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
WALSH ADDS FGS: Walsh had field goals of 39 and 51 yards, improving to 17-of-21 for his career on field goals of 50 or more yards. That number is the most in the NFL since Walsh's 2012 rookie season, and he is 5-for-6 on the season from 50 or longer.
RUDOLPH'S ROLE INCREASES: Tight end Kyle Rudolph was worked back into the mix from injury in Week 11 at Chicago, and the Vikings made sure they got him more involved this week, with Bridgewater delivering a well-thrown strike to Rudolph over the middle of the field for a 23-yard gain on Minnesota's first offensive play of the game. Rudolph finished with three catches for 50 yards.
BACK TO THE ELEMENTS: The renewal of the rivalry marked the first outdoor game in Minnesota between the teams since 1981 and was the second time for the teams to meet on the campus of the University of Minnesota. The first time that happened was Oct. 5, 1969, when a Twins playoff series shifted the football game to Memorial Stadium, which has been replaced by TCF Bank Stadium.
The Border Battle is scheduled to be at the same venue next season but move in from the elements in 2016.