Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was near perfect in throwing for 335 yards and three touchdowns, and his defense made just enough plays to keep Vikings rookie Christian Ponder from pulling off one of the more improbable upsets in the history of the rivalry as Green Bay beat Minnesota, 33-27, Sunday at the Metrodome.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. Minnesota has their QB
The final stats (13-for-32, 219 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) were far from Rodgers-like, but it certainly looks like the Vikings have found themselves a young, franchise-type quarterback in Christian Ponder. Unlike most rookies making their first NFL start, Ponder kept his poise, made plays with his legs and converted 9-of-16 third downs.
His first touchdown throw was more a result of blown coverage from the Packers than an elite play from Ponder, but credit the Vikings for opening the playbook right out of the gates and catching the Packers sleeping. He made the throw rolling to his left and without his feet set. Ponder looked his best early on rolling out outside on bootlegs, but he made plenty of big throws from the pocket, including a 24-yard TD strike to Michael Jenkins that cut the Packers lead to just seven points with 7:49 left. He also had third down completions to Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe and Greg Camarillo that extended drives. The two interceptions he threw were rookie mistakes and directly contributed to Minnesota falling down 16 points. But the Vikings’ brass has to feel good about their decision to take Ponder with the 12th overall pick last April. At the very least, he gives the Vikings a chance to compete in a division that has three established starting quarterbacks.
2. Same story
“Adversity football” is a term that coach Mike McCarthy loves throwing around, but it was needed again Sunday. With just 1:02 gone from the first quarter clock, the Vikings had already taken a 7-0 lead and given their crowd something to be loud about. The offense didn’t blink on its ensuing possession, as Rodgers hit six different receivers and led the Packers on a 9-play, 91-yard drive that tied the game. It was the kind of drive we’ve come to expect from the Packers offense no matter what the score or venue.
Randall Cobb’s muffed punt allowed the Vikings to re-take the lead in the second quarter, but the real adversity didn’t come until the fourth quarter. After the Packers had scored 20 third quarter points to take a 16-point lead, the Vikings made it a game by tightening their defense and feeding the ball to Peterson, who finished the game with 175 yards. The upset looked like a real possibility once Ponder found Jenkins for a touchdown and the Vikings defense held the Packers on their next series. With under six minutes to go, Ponder converted two straight third downs and looked to be gaining confidence. The drive stalled, however, as the Packers held firm and forced three incompletions at the Vikings’ 36-yard-line. Confident in a defense that had given up just one first down over the previous three Packers possessions and holding three timeouts plus the two minute warning,Vikings coach Leslie Frazier punted it away. Packers teams of yesteryear might have allowed Ponder and the Vikings to go down on that possession and get a winning score. But this battle-tested defense made its stand when it absolutely had to, and maybe that’s the bar by which we should judge the Packers defense in 2011.
3. Third quarter swings the game
More or less, the Packers won this game in the third quarter. But they got some breaks from the Vikings on both sides of the ball to hang a 20-spot on the scoreboard in the third. Vikings safety Husain Abdullah jumped Donald Driver’s underneath route on the second play of the half, vacating his responsibilities in the deep zone of the Cover-2 defense. Greg Jennings snuck past Asher Allen down the sidelines and was wide open for as easy a 79-yard touchdown pass as you’ll ever see. Minnesota went three-and-out and punted on their next possession, which Randall Cobb promptly returned to the Vikings 32-yard-line. Four plays later, Rodgers found Jermichael Finley along the back of the end zone for an easy pitch-and-catch touchdown. Just like that, the Packers had taken a 10-point lead.
Charles Woodson then put an end to the Vikings next two possessions with veteran interceptions. On the first, Woodson stayed in Shiancoe’s back pocket on a square out and undercut the route like only he can. It was never a ball that Ponder should have thrown. On the second pick, Ponder failed to get his pass far enough in front of Jenkins as he worked back across the field. Woodson’s understanding of both routes and his uncanning ability to break on passes in the air led to each turnover. Both of Woodson’s interceptions led to field goals from Mason Crosby, who has made a franchise-record 20 straight kicks. His last kick was good from 58 yards out, another Packers record. By the time the game had ended, Crosby’s two kicks in the third quarter were the difference in the final scoreline.
4. Conservative eventually pays off
The Packers got awfully conservative on offense after taking a 27-17 lead in the third quarter, and it nearly cost them. Woodson’s second interception and a pass interference penalty on the Vikings gave a red-hot Rodgers the ball with first-and-goal at the 5-yard-line. Instead of giving Rodgers a couple shots at his fourth touchdown pass, McCarthy decided to run John Kuhn up the middle and Ryan Grant off left tackle. The two runs combined for a yard, and Rodgers was sacked on the next play as he scrambled to his left and the Vikings overloaded the end zone. Mason Crosby’s 24-yard field goal made it a 13-point lead. The next three drives all stalled, as the Packers attempted to run the ball to drain clock. That offensive dysfunction allowed the Vikings to creep back into the game.
When the Packers got the ball back up six with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter, the Vikings had three timeouts and were, for lack of a better word, stonewalling the run. Instead of going to Rodgers to win the game, McCarthy stuck with the conservative approach. This time, it paid off. James Starks busted off right tackle for 15 yards to start the drive, then sealed the win with 20- and -13-yard runs. I wondered out loud if the Packers would throw on that final drive, but credit McCarthy for his unwavering confidence in the run game.
5. Without a blemish
Even an untrained eye could dissect the film of Sunday’s game and come out with a list of reasons for concern about the way the Packers played. They were out-gained in yards, 435 to 421. Peterson ran for a whopping 175. The offense failed to put their foot on the Vikings’ throat when given the chance. Rodgers was sacked four times. Three more passes were dropped. But at the end of the day, the Packers left the Metrodome—a place of horrors that has dispatched the most talented of Packers teams—unbeaten at 7-0. That’s nothing to sneeze at, even with the Vikings having just a single win in 2011. Now, the Packers head into the bye week up two games in the NFC North and 1 and 1/2 in the race for the No. 1 seed in the conference. They’ll be playing in November without a loss. Rodgers is the unquestioned MVP after seven weeks. On the whole, you simply can’t ask for anything more at this point in the season. They’ll take the next week to rest up before preparing to travel west to take on the Chargers in another tough road test in Week 9.
If I’m Roger Goodell, I suspend DE Brian Robison without hesitation for the Vikings next game against the Panthers. It was a gift that he wasn’t ejected when the umpire had a clear look at his groin kick on G T.J. Lang. He was playing on borrowed time Sunday. Punish him rightfully for the act next week…On back-to-back plays, LT Marshall Newhouse allowed Jared Allen to hit Starks in the backfield and then sack Rodgers. After that tough start, however, Newhouse settled in and played well against the NFL’s sack leader…The roughing the passer penalty on Clay Matthews in the fourth quarter was ridiculous. Ponder had not even completed his delivery by the time Matthews made contact. There was no helmet-to-helmet contact, either. On the next play, the Vikings were in the end zone…Speaking of Matthews, he might have played his best game of 2011. 52 was all over the field…Packers rookie RB Alex Green left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury. He was on crutches and could miss significant time…Green Bay was once again poor on third downs, converting 2-of-8 Sunday after going 4-for-13 against St. Louis.