By Jason Keidel
Can you really be a sleeper when everyone brands you one?
Like many football devotees, I took a shine to the Minnesota Vikings as a dark-horse candidate for the NFL playoffs. Now we’re all jousting for a spot on the Vikings bandwagon.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater shocked most of us with a robust rookie season, erasing all doubts spawned by his hideous showing at the Combine.
The Combine has a way of turning pretenders into contenders, and the inverse. Just recall the name “Mike Mamula” — a total combine contrivance. Mamula short-circuited stopwatches and scoreboards and then was a sliver of his sublime, combine form in real life.
Had you said a month ago that the Packers (6-3) would be peering up at the Vikings (7-2) in the NFC North, you would have been arrested for public indecency. Yet here we are. Minnesota is 60 minutes from putting a chokehold on the NFC Central. Green Bay is four quarters from tying the Vikings for the division lead, and a restoration of historical order.
The old, Black & Blue Division — formerly the NFC Central — has been the province of the Packers since Vince Lombardi was pacing the sidelines, with a couple exceptions in the 1970s (Vikings) and the 1980s (Bears). Through the serendipity of bagging two iconic quarterbacks — Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers — in the pass-happy epoch of pro football, the Packers have enjoyed a biblical joyride through the NFL for nearly 25 years.
Green Bay sprinted out to a 6-0 record. Aaron Rodgers was still toying with the sport in ways we’ve never seen, his streak of passes without an INT at Lambeau Field was reaching mythical contours. It seemed like the Pack was poised to finish the job they blew 10 months ago. Up 16-0 in the third quarter, and then an onside kick from the Super Bowl, they left Seattle feeling quite sleepless and helpless, but not hopeless.
Hence their brilliant beginning to this season, with Rodgers improvising his way through a phalanx of fresh faces to replace Nelson. James Jones returned from the vocational grave. Richard Rodgers became increasingly vital, and, with Davante Adams on the shelf, Randall Cobb was trying to fill several sneakers as the top gun at WR.
Then it all seemed to collapse. Some see the turning point as that afternoon against San Diego. Philip Rivers shredded the Packers with an epic performance — 43-65, 503 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT — and left Green Bay’s secondary with more holes than a chunk of Swiss cheese.
Rodgers is in an odd refrain — confused or frustrated or both. Way too often we’re seeing him swing and swear, brooding into a tablet on the bench, wondering why he either missed the open man or why one didn’t exist. He was so desperate for a new receiver he targeted Davante Adams 17 times against Detroit, despite Adams’ long list of injured limbs.
Eddie Lacy, the former rookie and fantasy football sensation, suddenly forgot how to play running back, and has now been benched in favor of James Starks. Jones started looking his age and wage. Cobb vanished. Adams was in and out of the doctor’s office, on and off the trainer’s table.
Rodgers went from unbeatable to unwatchable in three weeks, including a career-worst 77 passing yards at Denver, then culminating in that horrific defeat to Detroit — the first time Green Bay lost at home to the Lions since Bill Clinton’s first term (1991). For some perspective, Billlboard‘s top songs then came from Paula Abdul, C +C Music Factory and Color Me Badd. Thelma & Louise and Boyz n the Hood were among the top films. Just as surreal was the football game. At 18-16, the game set the sport back to the single-wing formation.
Turns out Jordy Nelson is pretty good, after all. For all of Rodgers’ obvious talent — and he’s still the QB nonpareil despite this November speed bump — not even the iconic Packer can play sans receivers. Rodgers has a unique talent for throwing receivers open, unleashing the ball before they break, only to have it nestle nicely into their cradled arms. Yet not even he can do it on every play.
And replays are showing no separation from a formerly potent group of wideouts. It can’t just be Jordy Nelson’s absence. Something is missing. Is it Nelson and Lacy? Is it Mike McCarthy surrendering his role as play-caller? Is Rodgers in a slump? Is this Olivia Munn PR mess wearing on him?
So in the absence of a nuclear passing game, opponents are blitzing Rodgers. Normally, he welcomes an extra rusher. His lightning release and howitzer arm usually lights up a blitzing defense. During their first four games, Rodgers was completing 77 percent of his passes against the blitz. Since then, however, he’s connected 52 percent of the time.
Either he needs help on the field or between the ears, or both. The Packers are renowned for protecting draft picks like diamonds. It’s a system that works. And while the Packers always have the most home-grown players on an NFL roster, they may be wise to peel off a pick or two to get some stud into Mr. Rodgers’s Neighborhood.
This game isn’t a referendum on Rodgers, per se, as much a referendum on the Packers’ season. If they lose in Minnesota, it would be their fourth straight, a loss within the division, and the loss of a vital tiebreaker. If they win, the Packers are back in the mix.
If it feels like the Vikings aren’t getting love from pundits or ample plaudits, that’s how it goes when a once-floundering franchise is on the rise. To borrow a boxing cliche, to be the champ, you have to beat the champ. Fitting when you consider Aaron Rodgers’ renowned TD move, wrapping a symbolic belt around his waist.
But let’s give it up for the Vikes. Bridgewater has been a beacon for the men in purple. Not long ago, we had a tome on Teddy’s shortcomings. His hands were too small. His delivery was too slow. He wasn’t nimble enough in the pocket. His frame was too frail. No one takes a jeweler’s eye to his game today.
Adrian Peterson is still a force. While virtually impossible to root for in light of those grotesque reports of violence against his son, Peterson has more than enough in the tank after serving a yearlong suspension in 2014. While on the wrong side of 30, piercing that mysterious membrane for all running backs, when the tread notoriously peels off those gifted wheels, the rugged running back is still doing his thing on the field.
Peterson leads the league in attempts (195), total rushing yards (961) and yards per game (106.8), and he still manages about five yards per carry (4.9).
While Mike Wallace hasn’t provided the spike in speed that the Vikings anticipated, rookie wideout Stefon Diggs has been a revelation. Toss in a stingy defense, molded by second-year head coach, Mike Zimmer, and they may soon resemble another celebrated defense from Minnesota — the Purple People Eaters. Not sure who would play the roles of Carl Eller, Jim Marshall or Gary Larsen. Or who would play Paul Krause, who still holds the NFL record for career interceptions, with 81. But the results are evident.
The 2015 Vikings have a stout defense, surrendering just 17.1 points per game, second in the NFL, barely behind the Bengals (16.9). Zimmer’s influence was immediate. The former Bengals defensive coordinator has brought a brand of toughness and discipline that seems to have eluded the Vikings lately. It’s been awhile since they were notorious for a rabid pass rush, be it current Hall of Famer John Randle, he of the frightening energy, ghoulish shouts, comic-book strength and eye black smeared across his menacing face, or future Hall of Famer Jared Allen.
Defense and running, while not most sexy, are still most salient. It works in January, when the weather is worst and the foes are feeling ornery, when the red faces bark and the clouds of white breath puff from their face masks. Fans slide in, equally cold and rabid, perhaps a flask of holiday cheer in the breast pocket. People on the field and in the stands bounce up and down like piano keys to keep warm in the frosty dark.
Perhaps no team, save the Packers, can enjoy frigid home-field advantage like the Vikes, who will play in a meat locker of a stadium in six weeks, when the winter closes on Minnesota like the lid of a white box.
Perhaps the best way to make Green Bay go home for the winter is to not let them even reach it. And a win Sunday will go a long way to ending the mastery and mystery of the Green Bay Packers, and reverse the hold they have over the Purple People.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.