MINNEAPOLIS -- They have watched the Green Bay Packers exert something just short of totalitarian control over the NFC North the past five years, following up a Super Bowl championship with four straight division championships. The Minnesota Vikings have gone 1-10-1 against their rivals in that time, with their lone win -- a thrilling 37-34 victory in Week 17 of the 2012 season -- rendered a mere footnote to the Packers' victory in the NFC wild card round the following week.
The past two years, the Vikings have finished the season with inconsequential division games, before the Packers have beat back two different challengers -- first the Chicago Bears, then the Detroit Lions -- in NFC North title games that will occupy their own places in Aaron Rodgers' anthology.
Now, the Vikings will get their shot, in a nationally televised division championship game at Lambeau Field next Sunday. They'll face a Packers team that played with two backup tackles in the worst loss of Rodgers' career in Arizona on Sunday. And they'll come in with a groundswell of confidence, after a near-comeback in Arizona begat two lopsided wins at home to set up the Sunday night showdown.
Put simply, the Vikings have the Packers right where they want them. But will this time be any different?
"The NFC North championship is on the line," running back Adrian Peterson said. "We're here now and not looking in the past. We're going to look to our coaches to put us in the best position as far as how we want to approach and attack these guys. It's on the line; this is for the title. So forget the past, worry about the future and take care of business."
That all sounds good, but the Vikings had plenty of tough talk for the Packers five weeks ago, when they faced them at TCF Bank Stadium with the NFC North lead up for grabs. The Packers had lost three straight, the Vikings had won five in a row and they returned from Oakland to find "Beat Green Bay!" T-shirts in their lockers. The Packers beat them 30-13 before a national TV audience.
"No T-shirts this week," coach Mike Zimmer said Sunday night.
Things have changed, though, since that loss started a 1-3 skid for the Vikings. They've seen Teddy Bridgewater post a 123.2 passer rating in his past three games, completing 70.2 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns without an interception. They've diversified their offense, as Bridgewater has found a rhythm with tight end Kyle Rudolph and offensive coordinator Norv Turner has unleashed Jerick McKinnon on screens, jet sweeps and routes from a receiver's split. Their defense was rejuvenated Sunday night by the returns of safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, intercepting Eli Manning three times and pressuring him on 45.5 percent of his dropbacks while blitzing on just 21.2 percent of them, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.
Perhaps most importantly, the Vikings shouldn't be scared by the moment again, not after getting thumped by the Packers at home, nearly coming back against Arizona on a Thursday night and thrashing the Giants in prime time on Sunday. After the Packers loss, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn lamented, "Every time we get in a big-time game -- excuse my language -- but we piss down our leg." The corner struck a more optimistic tone Sunday night.
"I came out and said we don't play well at all in prime time [after the Packers loss]," Munnerlyn said. "I think this is the first prime-time win since I've been here. Every time we've played in prime time, it's seemed like we didn't play the type of football we're capable of doing. Tonight, we were hitting on all cylinders. ... We know it's going to be a tough game. They're the defending champs of the NFC North. But at the same time, this team, we're built for that. You look at some of our losses, how we came back and played in the next game, we're built for that."
They might well be. But for anyone beyond their locker room to believe it, the Vikings will have to topple the team their NFC North brethren couldn't. On Sunday night, they'll have their chance.