Role reversal: Playoff-bound Vikings had Packers' fate one year ago


GREEN BAY, Wis. — Things didn’t get off to a great start the last time the Minnesota Vikings played at Lambeau Field.

Just like this year, the Vikings played the Packers in the second-to-last week of the season in December 2016. Upon landing in snowy Appleton, Wisconsin, which is about 30 minutes south of Green Bay, the Vikings’ team plane skidded off the runway and became stuck in the grass for several hours before a local fire department intervened and helped players, coaches and team personnel get safely off the plane.

The team finally reached its hotel with less than 14 hours until kickoff.

“I remember being on that plane hungry, tired, super-irritable and cold,” Anthony Barr said. “It was a tough day.”

At 7-7, Minnesota was hanging on to its postseason hopes by the thinnest of threads after a 5-0 start stemmed a 2-7 record after the bye week. The Vikings needed to not only win in Green Bay to make the playoffs, but they also had to rely on the fate of other teams to determine their destiny.

A day after their plane fiasco, the Vikings lost to the Packers 38-25 in a game in which Aaron Rodgers threw for 347 yards and four touchdowns. Jordy Nelson went off against Minnesota’s secondary, gaining 154 receiving yards and two touchdowns after a controversial decision resulted in a short-lived mutiny when several defensive backs switched their assignments for one series early in the game.

The Packers went on to the playoffs and clinched the NFC North a week later, while the Vikings finished the season 8-8, missing the postseason.

One year later, their fortunes are reversed. Minnesota enters Week 16 vying for a first-round bye in the playoffs after locking up the NFC North last Sunday. Green Bay was eliminated from postseason contention after Atlanta beat Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football earlier this week.

The Packers subsequently decided to place Rodgers on IR after his brief return against Carolina. Green Bay will also be without top receiver Davante Adams, who remains in the league’s concussion protocol after being hit on an illegal blindside block by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis.

Adam Thielen and the Vikings are going for a season sweep of the Packers on Saturday night. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Vikings know the position the Packers are in because they were in that same spot not long ago. It might have felt like they had nothing to play for at the time, but in retrospect, the way they closed the season — with a loss at Green Bay and a win in Week 17 against Chicago — gave the team some offseason momentum.

“We still were playing our tails off and trying to get better,” Adam Thielen said. “I think that kind of helped us transition to this year, the way we played the last couple weeks last year and that carries into this season. I don’t think there’s ever a time where you’re not playing for anything. I think you’re always trying to get better as a team and as an individual and will help you in the following year if you’re out of the playoffs.”

For someone like Packers quarterback Brett Hundley, the next two games serve as a chance for him to show that he can serve as a viable backup for Rodgers in the future. Hundley is 1-3 in his home starts this season, averaging 131 yards passing with zero touchdowns and five interceptions.

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“It doesn’t matter if you’re 0-15 or 15-0, you’re going to treat each game the same and you’re going to try and show what you can do every game because every game is an audition in this league,” Thielen said. “This is your chance to either earn a job or some guys lose jobs because of their performance.”

Their last time at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had eight penalties for 70 yards, lost two fumbles, allowed four sacks on Sam Bradford and missed two opportunities to convert in the red zone. An emphasis in cleaning up those errors down the stretch is what players believe sparked Minnesota’s turnaround this season.

“You go back and look at the 3-8 finish that we had, it’s because we were doing things like that,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “We were killing ourselves on offense with penalties, not executing in critical situations, so we worked on that the entire offseason. … Now, you go back through the course of this year and look at the games we’re winning, close games in the fourth quarter. We’re executing in those critical situations; we’re not hurting ourselves with penalties. That’s a big part of our success.”

After winning their first meeting with the Packers after Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in Week 6, the Vikings have a chance to sweep their heated NFC North rival for the first time in the regular season since 2009.

The Vikings’ last division title came in 2015 in Mike Zimmer’s second year. Before that, the Packers won the NFC North in four consecutive years and have nine titles since 2002.

“We’ve beat them a few times,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know if they consider it a rivalry.

“We’re still trying to make it a rivalry. In order to do that, you have to keep winning. I think it’s getting to be more that way.”