They say to be the best you have to beat the best. For the last four years, the Green Bay Packers have been the best in the NFC North. But on Sunday night, the Vikings walked into Lambeau Field and upended Green Bay to capture their first division title since 2009 and tally one last regular season win to improve to 11-5 and earn a home playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks next week.
Here are five reasons why the Vikings came out on the right side of Sunday night's game...
1. QB pressure
The Vikings didn't record a sack until early in the 2nd quarter when Tom Johnson and Harrison Smith teamed up to bring down Aaron Rodgers on a 3rd and 8 in Green Bay territory. But the pressure from Vikings pass rushers was intense from the start and it never relented. Aaron Rodgers looked uncomfortable dropping back all night and he wasn't able to gain a rhythm with his receivers until late in the game. In total, the Vikings sacked Rodgers five times, forced him to tuck it and run three times and forced several other throwaways during the game. DE Everson Griffen had 2.0 sacks, Johnson and Smith split one and Anthony Barr also got in on the action. Griffen was credited with 4 QB hits and Johnson with another 3, while four other defenders were credited with one each.
2. Defense was good in critical situations
In what was a classic slugfest between two division rivals with a division title on the line, the Vikings defense always seemed to have an answer for Rodgers and Co. in critical situations. Green Bay mounted a late comeback and was driving twice with an opportunity to tie the game, but it was too little too late. A suffocating performance by the Vikings defense for much of the game in addition to key plays in crucial moments was too much for Green Bay's offense to overcome. Mike Zimmer's defense got off the field on 13 of 15 3rd downs, held the Packers to just 1 of 4 in the red zone and 0 of 1 in goal-to-go situations, came up with a clutch interception in the end zone (by Xavier Rhodes) with 2:18 to play in the game and then was able to bat down a Hail Mary pass at the end of the game to avoid a similar fate than what the Detroit Lions infamously experienced earlier in the season. When it's clicking, Green Bay's offense can be lethal and explosive – the Vikings know that as much as any other team. But on this Sunday night, it was the Vikings defense that had the answers.
3. Mackensie Alexander's scoop and score
After a Stefon Diggs interception by DB Micah Hyde setup Green Bay with good field position near midfield. A holding penalty against C Corey Linsley put Green Bay in a 3rd and 12 from the Minnesota 45. Rodgers dropped back to pass, was pressured and then hit by Griffen, and the ball bounded out of Rodgers' hand and toward the Vikings sideline. Half the players on the field assumed it was an incomplete pass, but CB Captain Munnerlyn was not among them. He scooped up the loose ball at the Minnesota 45 and raced 55 yards down the sideline with an escort of defensive teammates. Munnerlyn reached the end zone to give the Vikings their second touchdown of the quarter. A booth review occurred and the play was upheld. Kevin McDermott's PAT went through the uprights and the Vikings suddenly held a commanding 20-3 lead at Lambeau Field with a division title that much closer.
4. Adam Thielen came up big
A common thread in Vikings wins this season is that role players continue to step up and provide significant contributions to wins. That continued on Sunday night, with Adam Thielen authoring two of the game's biggest plays. The first play came on the Vikings first drive of the game. After picking up one 1st down, the Vikings offense stalled and was facing a 4th and 3 from the Minnesota 38. The Vikings punt team came on the field, but a punt did not ensue. Instead, long snapper Kevin McDermott centered the football to Thielen, who ran around the left edge and sprinted 41 yards down the sideline to pick up the 1st down and put the offense back on the field at the Green Bay 21. Three plays later, Walsh entered to convert a 39-yard FG attempt and the Vikings had an early 3-0. The second big-time play from Thielen came on the Vikings first drive of the second half. After explosive gains by Jarius Wright and Adrian Peterson put the Vikings on the Green Bay 37, offensive coordinator Norv Turner dialed up a jet sweep to Thielen. After a 26-yard dash, Thielen was pushed out of bounds and the Vikings had a 1st and 10 from the Green Bay 11. Three plays later, Adrian Peterson scored from 3 yards out to give the Vikings a 13-3 lead early in the 3rd quarter. Thielen also had a 16-yard reception in the 2nd quarter led to Walsh's second FG of the night and put the Vikings back ahead 6-3 with 2:58 to play in the first half.
5. Eddie Lacy was held in check
Green Bay's offense goes as Rodgers goes. But RB Eddie Lacy has been a thorn in the Vikings side ever since he entered the NFL. In his first five games against the Vikings, Lacy averaged 106.8 rushing yards per game and had scored 6 TDs – totals that included 100 yards on 22 carries back in Week 11. On Sunday night, though, the Vikings run defense held Lacy (and the rest of the Packers RBs) in check. Lacy finished the game with only 34 yards rushing on 13 carries, and James Starks didn't add much more with 24 yards on 8 carries.