The Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings aren’t accustomed to having any of their biannual clashes be a showdown for second place.
The two franchises have combined to win 10 of the last 11 NFC North titles. Yet with the 8-3 Chicago Bears holding a commanding lead in the division, the Packers (4-5-1) and the Vikings (5-4-1) are scrambling to remain relevant in the playoff picture, even if that means trying to get in as a wild card.
The rivals fought to a 29-29 stalemate in Week 2, so Sunday night’s game could have a significant effect in a potential tiebreaker scenario. Amid speculation about Mike McCarthy’s future in Green Bay, the Packers’ outlook once again could come down to what Aaron Rodgers can do to rescue a disappointing campaign.
Despite consistent questioning of the offense, Rodgers has thrown for 19 touchdowns with one interception. And though he could have used increased help from running back Aaron Jones, who sat out the first contest while suspended, the emerging second-year back hasn’t been given 15 carries in a game this season. In all likelihood, the two-time MVP will once again need to muster some heroics to revive the Packers’ postseason hopes.
Green Bay, however, has yet to win on the road this season and is 0-2 at U.S. Bank Stadium against Minnesota. And for all his ability, Rodgers stands with the second-lowest completion rate of his career (61.8 percent), though he attributed the decline in part to a number of throwaways.
The Vikings’ defense, however, could further exacerbate those problems. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes can trail leading receiver Davante Adams, leaving the rest of an inexperienced group of pass catchers to get by against the league’s fifth-ranked defense. And linebacker Anthony Barr, who broke Rodgers’ collarbone last season, is expected back after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury.
Rodgers’ ability to make plays outside the pocket always has been a critical component of this matchup, but the importance of that element became even more clear after Mitchell Trubisky’s scrambling ability vexed the Vikings’ defense last week in a loss to the Bears.
Here are four more matchups that will define Week 12 in the NFL:
Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey vs. Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner
Leading receiver Devin Funchess is doubtful for Sunday, so Carolina is even more likely to rely on checkdowns and quick throws to carry the passing game. McCaffrey, ninth in the NFL with 196 total touches, should see an even heavier workload. The shifty second-year back has exceeded 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his last three games and recorded five touchdowns in that span.
Having fellow linebacker K.J. Wright ruled out will shift even more pressure onto Wagner. Seattle ranks 28th in yards allowed per attempt (4.9) and had trouble covering the Packers’ Aaron Jones (five catches for 63 yards and a touchdown) last week. Wagner has held the Seahawks’ defense together amid big changes, but Sunday could prove to be an inflection point for the unit if it can’t contain the Panthers.
Giants RB Saquon Barkley vs. Eagles’ front seven
While this season might not be salvageable for New York, Eli Manning and Co. have back-to-back wins for the first time since December 2016. As small a step that might be, it’s still important for Pat Shurmur in the rebuilding process. Integral to that effort has been Barkley, who last week against the Buccaneers posted a season-high 142 rushing yards and three total touchdowns in leading the Giants to their highest point total (38) in three full years.
Philadelphia has a dire outlook in the secondary with four of the team’s top cornerbacks already either ruled out (Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox) or on injured reserve (Ronald Darby), but New York might still be content to let Barkley set the tone given the 344 rushing yards the Eagles have allowed in the last two weeks. If Jim Schwartz’s defense can’t find a way to hold up against Barkley and pressure Manning to assist the secondary, Doug Pederson’s team could take another step toward becoming the first group to follow a Super Bowl championship season with a losing record the following year since the 2003 Buccaneers.
Colts QB Andrew Luck vs. Dolphins’ secondary
With four consecutive wins and seven games in a row with at least three touchdowns, Luck and the Colts’ offense have almost everything going their way. The quarterback’s supporting cast has stepped up, too. The offensive line hasn’t surrendered a sack in its last five games and 214 dropbacks. The resurgence has pushed the Colts to a five-way tie for the second AFC wild-card spot.
The Dolphins also find themselves in that pack of 5-5 teams but have perhaps the least reason for hope after dropping five of their last seven. With a languishing pass rush (17 sacks), Miami will have to rely on its secondary to answer Indianapolis’ passing attack by generating turnovers. But while the Dolphins rank second in the NFL with 15 interceptions, Luck has thrown for 13 touchdowns with just one giveaway during the winning streak, and he might again be able to pick his spots against a defense that also has struggled to stop the run (142 yards allowed a game).
Titans OTs Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin vs. Texans DE J.J. Watt and LB Jadeveon Clowney
Tennessee has had a bewildering season, but one of the most puzzling results was a Week 2 win over Houston in which the Titans, playing without Lewan and Conklin, lost Marcus Mariota and were outgained by 154 yards (437-283) yet prevailed 20-17. Similar luck can’t be expected in the rematch. The Texans have won seven consecutive games and are in position to run away with the AFC South. For the Titans, reigniting a 30th-ranked offense might depend on getting improved play from their tackles, both to protect the dinged-up Mariota and generate a push for Dion Lewis.
After Clowney sat out and Watt was held without a sack in the first meeting, the Texans’ edge rushers should be eager to get to work against their division rival. But while Houston ranks in the top 10 defensively against the pass (234.5 yards allowed a game) and rush (96 yards), the unit has been vulnerable on third down with a 40.3 percent conversion rate allowed. Buckling on that front could undue the Texans if the Titans can keep things close.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 12 matchups to watch: Can Aaron Rodgers rescue Packers’ season vs. Vikings?
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