A lot on the line for Vikings, Packers in finale
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have surged in December and head into the final game of the season looking to lock up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
And kick a division rival to the curb.
Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings head into the regular-season finale with their eyes on their first playoff berth in three years, and on a few major milestones for their peerless running back.
Heading into Sunday's game, it would be hard for the stakes to be much higher, and that's just the way it should be.
"That's what I'm excited about," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said, "having the opportunity to play a playoff-type game, a playoff-game atmosphere, on the road with the crowd noise and both teams have a lot on the line. Shoot, I think it's great for our football team."
The Packers (11-4) have won 10 of their last 11 following a shaky start and need a win for a first-round bye and the chance to open another push for the Super Bowl in the comforts of home. Rodgers is rolling like the reigning MVP that he is. Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson have returned from injuries to get the Packers as close to full strength as they've been in months.
"The guys have to understand whoever is open is going to get the ball and be selfless in that respect," Rodgers said. "Too many weapons is a good thing."
The Vikings need a win to avoid having to sweat out any convoluted playoff scenarios, and Peterson is chasing 2,000 yards and Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105. Peterson needs 102 yards to become the sixth running back in league history to hit 2,000, and 208 to top Dickerson's 28-year-old record.
"I feel like I have a good chance," Peterson said. "I believe it and in order to accomplish it, you have to believe it."
He's done some of his best work against the Vikings' biggest rival. Peterson has rushed for more yards against the Packers than any other team, including 210 in a loss at Lambeau Field on Dec. 2. Now he's at home on the fast track turf of Mall of America Field, knowing another monster day could propel his team into the playoffs after two rough seasons.
"It's that rivalry. Just my mindset automatically clicks when we play the Packers because they're such a good team," Peterson said. "Playing those guys, they're definitely the team to beat. It brings the best out in you."
Even some of the Packers wouldn't mind seeing Peterson make history, if it didn't have to come this week. They have loads of respect for a humble star who has come back from a devastating knee injury to reclaim his title as the best running back in the league.
They just don't want to be the team in the highlight reel that is played forever.
"If anybody deserves to get the record, it's definitely A.P., no doubt about it," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "But unfortunately, they're playing us. We want to put our best foot forward. It's going to be a tough task; we know that already."
Peterson had a string of eight straight games in which he topped 100 yards snapped last week against Houston, where he rushed for 86 yards on 25 carries. The Texans threw everything they had at him, using an array of run blitzes to try to take the ball out of his hands, or at least limit his effectiveness. Peterson was able to rip off a couple of nice gains, but nothing of the breakaway sort that allowed him to rack up major yardage during his prolific eight-game streak.
All that has done is set the bar a little higher for Peterson in the finale.
"It's definitely something I still want to accomplish," Peterson said. "Ultimately the most important thing is getting to the postseason and getting a W. I'll be satisfied with both, but definitely satisfied with the W first."
The Packers come into the game ranked 14th in run defense, and while they do expect to get run-stuffer C.J. Wilson back from a knee injury, they don't have a disruptive force up front like Houston's J.J. Watt to disrupt everything.
"A lot of blitzing, bringing people off the edge, not unlike a lot of other teams, but their personnel, they have good personnel," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of the Texans. "We'll see similar schemes (from Green Bay), but if you don't have a similar personnel, good luck."
If the Vikings lose, they'll need the Lions to beat the Bears, the Eagles to beat the Giants and the Redskins to beat the Cowboys to get in. Plenty of pressure there, but the Vikings have been playing with essentially a must-win attitude ever since that loss to the Packers dropped them to 6-6. They've reeled off three wins in a row, and they desperately need one more.
Which means lots of Peterson for the Packers to deal with.
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