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NFC Wild Card Preview: Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings

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ADRIAN PETERSON
AP
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Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings

Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013

8:00 p.m. (EST)

NBC

Packers' offense vs. Vikings' defense

The Vikings' defensive line has been a disruptive force this season, tied for fifth-most sacks in the league with 44, including 13 in the final three weeks of the season. Five of those sacks came against the Packers last week, and getting to Rodgers with the same frequency as in the season finale gives the Vikings the best chance of achieving the same final result.

Rodgers is without a doubt a top quarterback in the NFL, but his biggest weakness is his tendency to scramble out of the pocket too soon when a heavy pass rush starts getting in his face often throughout the game.

Normally he's able to just get rid of the ball before rushers get to him, but when his receivers are too well-covered or his offensive line is having a bad game, he'll roll out of the pocket before the play has a chance to fully develop. Rodgers is extremely accurate outside of the pocket, but if he's abandoned the pocket too soon and none of his receivers are open, he ends up having to throw the ball away and wasting a play.

The Vikings were able to flush Rodgers out prematurely quite often last week, but two injuries will play a role in their ability to do so two weeks in a row: Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield's broken hand, and Packers receiver Randall Cobb's ankle pain.

After Winfield left the game with pain in his broken right hand, the Packers' passing offense found new life and Rodgers was able to find open receivers as the Vikings' coverage broke down more often when he rolled out of the pocket. If Winfield is fully able to play, his presence will give the Vikings a major boost and help give the defensive line more time to harass Rodgers.

Extra time will definitely help the Vikings' defensive line, as the return of Cobb will help slow the pass rush. One of the Packers' staple plays is a quick screen to Cobb, which the Packers will need to throw early and often to force the pass rush to hesitate out of uncertainty of whether to pursue Rodgers or a screen.

If Winfield's at full health, the Vikings' defense has a good chance of limiting Rodgers and possibly forcing a key mistake or two. If Winfield's injury hampers his play, his limitations plus Cobb's presence will likely cause the Vikings headaches all day long.

Vikings' offense vs. Packers' defense

Running back Adrian Peterson is the force driving the Vikings' offense, and rightly so. His ability to escape tacklers behind the line of scrimmage is unparalleled in the league today, and his combination of speed, vision, cuts, jukes and power make him as close to unstoppable as any one player can be in such a team-driven sport as football.

It's no secret the Vikings will feed Peterson the football as much as possible, but what happens when Peterson doesn't have the ball will determine the Vikings' offensive success against the Packers. Quarterback Christian Ponder's youth still shows, as he doesn't really go through his progressions and will often throw an incomplete pass to his first read instead of locating an open receiver elsewhere on the field.

Ponder's play doesn't help the offense in any way, but it doesn't have to. What's more important is for Ponder's play to simply not hurt the offense. All the Vikings need Ponder to do is avoid any drive-killing mistakes and the offense will run smoothly due to Peterson's dominance. Ponder threw only four touchdowns, but more importantly, only one interception, in the final four weeks of the season. Not coincidentally, the Vikings' record in those games was 4-0.

As long as Ponder can keep from turning the ball over, the Vikings' offense can continue to stay on the field, putting the ball in Peterson's hands (and out of Aaron Rodgers' hands), and giving the Vikings their best chance of winning.

Special teams

The Vikings have an immediate advantage in terms of ability to score field goals. Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh has enjoyed a tremendous rookie season, connecting on 35 of 38 field goals, including an astounding 10-for-10 on field goals from a distance of 50 or more yards. Packers kicker Mason Crosby, on the other hand, is 2 for 9 on field goals from 50 or more yards.

In a game where both defenses have extremely potent pass-rushers, the ability to get three points after a disrupted third-down play will be a massive benefit. Given the two kicking units' track records, the Vikings will be able to do so from farther down the field than the Packers.

On kickoff coverage, the Vikings are significantly better than the Packers. The Vikings are eighth-best in the league in average net kickoff distance (average kickoff distance minus average kickoff return distance allowed) and in opponents' average starting field position after kickoffs. The Packers rank 16th and 19th, respectively, in each of those categories.

In punt coverage, the Vikings also enjoy a numerical advantage over the Packers. Although the Packers have the league's fifth-lowest average punt return distance allowed (compared to the Vikings, whose average punt return distance allowed is ninth-best in the league), the key difference is in average net yards per punt.

Measured in terms of average punt distance minus average return distance, the Vikings' are 13th in the league in average net yards per punt. The Packers are ranked 19th. In terms of on-field advantage, this means the Vikings' punt unit is statistically better than the Packers' at forcing the opposing offense to travel farther down the field to score.

The Vikings' kickoff and punt return advantages could be negated by the Packers' advantage in the return game, though. When Cobb was out last week, the Packers used Jeremy Ross as their returner for both kickoffs and punts, and Ross didn't disappoint. He averaged more yards per both kickoff and punt than Cobb.

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