Packers vs. Vikings: Three things to watch in Week 16 showdown

Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry (53) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings win 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry (53) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings win 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports /

The resurgent 8-6 Green Bay Packers head into their Week 16 Christmas Eve matchup against the 7-7 Minnesota Vikings full of confidence.

Here’s three things that could determine the outcome of the Packers’ last regular season game at Lambeau Field.

1. Stopping Sam and Stefon

When the Packers and Vikings met in Week 2, Sam Bradford connected with Stefon Diggs for 9 catches, 182 yards, and a touchdown, much of these at the expense of Damarious Randall. But he’s only surpassed 100 yards in a game one time since then, and he’s averaging just 41 yards over the past four games with no touchdowns.

Though the passing game hasn’t been sharp, the Vikings running game is a disaster. Adrian Peterson‘s status is in doubt for Saturday’s game, but even if he plays, it’s doubtful that Minnesota can hurt the Packers on the ground. Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings’ offensive line 31st in run blocking, and they average a league-worst 70.6 rushing yards per game.

Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) catches a touchdown pass against Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall (23) during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /

So for the Vikings to score points against this Packers defense, they’ll need to go to the air.

The Packers are just as vulnerable now as they were in Week 2. Last week, Randall was benched for poor performance, and Quinten Rollins also had a brutal game. They ranked 95th and 91st out of 100 corners in Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000 rankings.

The young corners have been up and down all year, with Randall in particular seemingly following every great performance with a complete dud. They should see plenty of passes coming their way this Saturday against the Vikings’ top receiving trio of Diggs, Adam Thielen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

The good news is that the cornerbacks should have plenty of help. The lack of a running threat will allow Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to provide deep support, and Minnesota’s poor offensive line will provide opportunities for Datone Jones, Julius Peppers and Mike Daniels to pressure Bradford.

Randall will probably get the start this week, though Hyde could see extensive action covering Rudolph. All of the cornerbacks will need to play much better than they did last week and in Week 2.

2. Cooking up some Offense

While it’s a weakness of the Packers, the Vikings’ cornerbacks are outstanding. They give up just 15.8 fantasy points per game to wide receivers, second best in the league behind the Denver Broncos.

Terrence Newman is Pro Football Focus’ 9th-ranked cornerback, and Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes come in at 37th and 40th (Ladarius Gunter, meanwhile, is the Packers’ top-rated cornerback at 41st).

Save for a few untimely drops last week, Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams have been outstanding lately. So they aren’t likely to be shut out. But against such formidable defenders, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers might see fit to feature another weapon in the passing game: Jared Cook.

The Vikings are far more pedestrian covering tight ends than they are wide receivers, ranking 15th in the league in fantasy points given up per game. And Cook has been outstanding lately, ranking third among tight ends in yards per catch (13.6) and seventh in receiving yards (231) in the five games since he returned from injury.

Cook appears to have gained the complete trust of Aaron Rodgers, with the quarterback targeting him on several crucial third down plays last week. Some big plays from Cook this week would greatly help the Packers’ offense.

3. Running the Rock

While Cook could be one way to solve the talented Vikings’ pass defense, the other way is more obvious: run the ball.

James Starks has finally been abandoned as the Packers’ featured back, and the running game is blossoming because of it.

Ty Montgomery has been outstanding for the Packers lately, with patience at the line of scrimmage, explosive burst through the hole, and the strength to break tackles and get to the second level of the defense. Christine Michael has also been impressive in his limited carries.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

Minnesota has a middling run defense, ranking just 18th in the NFL in yards per game. That’s far worse than their 3rd-ranked pass defense.

So even though Aaron Rodgers is playing more and more like an MVP lately, look for Mike McCarthy to give his backs plenty of carries on Saturday. Temperatures are projected to be around freezing at kickoff, so a reliable running game will take on added importance.

Don’t be surprised if Montgomery finally surpasses 20 carries in a single game. But even if he doesn’t, consistent gains and first downs in short-yardage situations from Montgomery, Michael, and Ripkowski will be a big key to victory.

Next: Scouting the Vikings ahead of Week 16 Matchup

Prediction: Packers 31, Vikings 17

I’m officially a believer in this version of the 2016 Green Bay Packers. The passing game has come alive, Ty Montgomery looks like one of the NFL’s best running backs, and the defense is causing some huge turnovers. Even with a lack of contributions from big-name players like Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb, the team is clicking.

Since starting 5-0, the Vikings have sputtered to a 7-7 record. They’re weak in several areas, most notably the offensive line.

Playing at Lambeau Field, I think the Packers will win the turnover battle and have a much more comfortable victory than last week’s struggle against the Chicago Bears.