MINNEAPOLIS -- In no way were the Minnesota Vikings mathematically facing an elimination game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12, but there’s no denying the matchup carried that type of feel into Sunday night.
In the midst of a stretch that likely will decide their playoff fate, the Vikings needed this victory -- a 24-17 win over their division foe -- to remain the fifth seed in the NFC playoff picture while also owning the tiebreaker over Green Bay.
The win lifted the Vikings' chances of making the postseason from 51 to 71 percent, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. With back-to-back road games coming up in New England and Seattle, a pivotal win over the Packers keeps Minnesota’s playoff hopes very much alive.
All week, the message stressed repeatedly out of the Vikings locker room was the sense of urgency they needed on the national stage. In prime-time games this season against the Rams, Saints and Bears, Minnesota came up empty-handed. That was largely due to the Vikings' defensive lapses in Los Angeles and red zone turnovers leading to missed opportunities against New Orleans and Chicago.
"Last week left a bad taste in our mouths and the chance to come back on Sunday Night Football against a division rival at home was a great opportunity and I'm glad we made the most of it,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “It took a great team effort, a lot of people involved to make that happen and I'm thrilled with the outcome.”
Cousins, too, bucked his own prime-time struggles after entering Sunday with a 4-12 career record in such games, finishing with a 129.6 passer rating after completing 29-of-38 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns, which earned him the game ball from coach Mike Zimmer.
“He did a great job of managing what we needed to get done,” Zimmer said. “I thought (offensive coordinator John DeFilippo) did a great job of putting him in the right situations all night. And some of the things we talked about, me and him this week, I thought he did tonight. I was really proud of him and I thought he played exceptional.”
At times on Sunday, the Vikings looked shaky, unable to put the Packers away sooner than the third quarter. But Minnesota was able to bounce back after a 14-14 tie at the half and grab a critical victory before heading off to continue this brutal stretch on the road.
The common denominator in Minnesota’s past two losses? Turnovers. Too many of them. On Sunday night, ball security was of utmost importance, and it paid off in the form of zero fumbles or interceptions.
“It’s become very clear to me that turnovers really tell the story in this league,” Cousins said. “The fact that we were a 5-4-1 team with a turnover margin that was plus-one. It wasn’t really anything special, but we had five wins and we’re in position to be a playoff team because weren’t minus-five. Hopefully we can get that margin to creep up in the plus these last five games of the year. Coach Flip did emphasize that when you hold the football in your hands you hold the livelihoods of a lot of people in that building and their families. It has to matter to us. One coach told me many times ball security it job security, yours and mine. It’s very important to take of the ball.”
The success the Vikings achieved against the Packers was predicted off what had worked so well for Cousins and the offense historically.
Coming into Week 12, the Vikings ranked 21st in the NFL in the percentage of plays utilizing play-action. Cousins, whom Mike Zimmer lauded for being "terrific in the boots," got to shine in that area on Sunday. Two of Cousins’ three touchdowns came off designs utilizing play-action: a 30-yard TD to Stefon Diggs and the use of boot action on a 14-yard pass to Adam Thielen. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Cousins has been able to generate more big plays off play fakes against the Packers than against all other teams.
The Vikings also had success with screen passes to running backs, which has not been seen too often this season. A quick screen in the first quarter to Dalvin Cook was taken 26 yards for a touchdown. That one screen pass was longer than all of the running back screens combined by the Vikings before Sunday night (15 yards on eight screen passes).
“Somebody asked me that this week: Do we have to be better at screens? And we do,” Zimmer said. “It helps slow down the rush. They had a couple of screens on us and we have to continue to be good at the screen game. The screen to Dalvin was big. (Pat) Elflein did a great job getting out there blocking whoever it was on the perimeter and Dalvin made a great run.”
Defensively, Minnesota broke the game open in the third quarter, holding the Packers to 30 net yards on 14 plays coming out of halftime. Zimmer implemented a handful of new A-gap looks on third down, forcing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to try to figure out the new look pre-snap.
The Packers were held to a 20 percent conversion rate on third down, which is their lowest since Week 17 of the 2015 season, which coincidentally came against the Vikings. On Rodgers’ eight third-down drop backs, he was sacked or under duress on five of them.
A frustrated Rodgers, who saw his team’s playoff chances fall to 15 percent with the loss, was held to 198 yards passing and one touchdown. He was sacked four times, once each by Tom Johnson and Everson Griffen and twice by Sheldon Richardson, who continues to prove his worth as a major spark behind the Vikings’ success along the defensive line.
Sunday was the first prime-time game the Vikings were favored in this season, and through the first 12 weeks of the year, Minnesota has beaten most of the teams they’ve been projected to beat, sans Buffalo. But none of their wins came against teams with a record over .500.
That’s a feat the Vikings hope to achieve next Sunday in Foxborough when they take on the Patriots for a chance to tighten their grip on a playoff spot.