The teams: The Green Bay Packers (8-0) vs. the Minnesota Vikings (2-6).
The time: 7:30 p.m. CDT Monday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: ESPN. The telecast will also be simulcast on WISN (Ch. 12) in Milwaukee.
The announcers: Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden in the booth with Rachel Nichols reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 62 -34 (including 5-2 in the postseason) in his sixth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier is 5-9 in his first full season as the Vikings’ coach and as an NFL coach. Frazier, the Vikings defensive coordinator, took over for the final six games last season after Brad Childress was fired. McCarthy is 8-3 all-time against the Vikings.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 52-47-1 following their 33-27 victory at the Metrodome on Oct. 23. The Packers are 18-17-1 all-time in Green Bay.
The rankings: The Packers’ fourth-ranked offense is No. 20 in rushing and is No. 3 in passing. Their 30th-ranked defense is No. 8 against the run and No. 31 against the pass. The Vikings’ 18th-ranked offense is No. 4 in rushing and No. 29 in passing. Their 20th-ranked defense is No. 5 against the run and No. 30 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 13.5 points.
The injury report: Packers – LT Chad Clifton (hamstring/knee), DE Mike Neal (knee) and OLB Frank Zombo (knee) are out. OLB Clay Matthews (quadriceps), S Morgan Burnett (hand) and RG Josh Sitton (knee) are probable.
Vikings – CB Chris Cook (not injury related) and G Anthony Herrera (knee) are out. CB Antoine Winfield (neck) and RT Phil Loadholt (illness) are probable.
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Newhouse-Allen II: Early on in the teams’ first meeting on Oct. 23, it appeared that the Packers’ nightmare scenario – NFL sack leader Jared Allen dominating replacement left tackle Marshall Newhouse – would come to fruition, despite Newhouse’s otherwise impressive play as a fill-in starter in the weeks leading up to the game. Allen, who entered the weekend with a league-high 12.5 sacks before Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware overtook him with his 13th sack at Buffalo Sunday, tallied two in the first half against Newhouse, and the matchup Monday night is one of the few that could swing in the Vikings’ favor if Allen is even more disruptive.
“(Marshall is) three weeks removed from that. It’s a tough challenge,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers replied when asked if he was concerned about the matchup. “(Allen) is playing as good as anybody in the league right now at end. I think he’s either leading or right up there next to the lead in sacks. It’s a tough challenge. He’s not going at it alone. We’ll make sure we get a presence over there and make sure we find ways to slow (Allen) down a little bit and change the rush angles on him. He’s a great player. He’s going to be coming all game.”
That’s precisely what the Packers did after Newhouse’s early struggles against Allen at the Metrodome, keeping an extra blocker in and sliding the protection his direction when necessary. In addition, Newhouse settled in and played well.
“Marshall’s clearly a better player today than he was a couple weeks ago just from experience,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He has extra time to get ready for Jared Allen, he has a game under his belt on their turf. That’s a challenge and that’s an experience he can draw from. We look for Marshall to perform well Monday night.”
So does Newhouse.
“He has great effort and has a very high motor, and you can’t relax for one second. He takes advantage of guys who do,” Newhouse said. “I feel like I’m improved. Every week, it’s been a goal to get better and I feel like I’ve done that every week.”
Reinforcements arrive: The Vikings gave the Packers a run for their money in the first meeting, and they did it without the help of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield and center John Sullivan, both of whom will be back in action Monday night.
Rodgers, for one, believes Winfield is a difference-maker in a Vikings secondary that has been a trouble spot all year long. Winfield hasn’t played since early October because of a neck injury.
“Having Winfield back will help. I have the utmost amount of respect for him, and I love the way he plays the game,” Rodgers said. “He tackles as well as anybody in the league and he’s a great cover guy as well. I enjoy playing against him, and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Christian Ponder should benefit from having Sullivan back, McCarthy said.
“I think when you have your veteran center who’s now playing, whether you’re an young or an older quarterback, it definitely helps you,” McCarthy said. “It takes (some of the) burden off of you, particularly at the line of scrimmage and adjustments, just because veteran centers see more. I think that’s the facts; the matter of experience is priceless in this league, especially at the quarterback and center position because of the responsibility that those two positions with the offense as far as runs, protections. I think it’ll definitely help Christian Ponder to have Sullivan back.”
Tough stretch: Monday night’s game starts a three-games-in-11-days stretch for the Packers, who’ll play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday (Nov. 20) before playing the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving (Nov. 24) at Ford Field.
The Packers are hardly the first team faced with the challenge – the San Diego Chargers just went through a similar stretch, although they lost all three, including the middle game to the Packers – and this isn’t even the first time the Packers have faced this kind of stretch.
“It is a little different, but we went through a schedule like this in 2009. We had a similar stretch and came out pretty good after those three games,” Rodgers said, recalling how the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers at home before winning at Detroit on Thanksgiving that year. “We’ve been through a schedule like this where you’re playing Monday, Sunday, Thursday and know how important this is going to be to our final record and the way we finish up the season. So, you pray for help and we come out of these three games healthy and you also want to win all three. Tough stretch, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
McCarthy actually started planning for this stretch when the schedule came out this spring, knowing it would be a “stress point” in the Packers’ season. Of course, he didn’t know his team would be the league’s lone remaining unbeaten.
“Research will tell you any time you come off your schedule it adds stress. How much? I’m sure it varies,” McCarthy said. “But stress is additive as you move through a season. (That’s) something I’m very conscientious of with scheduling. That’s part of the deal. (Playing on) Monday is a different schedule, it’s great being at home then to have the opportunity to follow it up with a home game against Tampa Bay, so it’s as limited as it can be as far as adding stress to your preparation.
“The challenge of Monday Night Football is the following week. I’ve never looked at playing on Monday night football as a challenge, because you have more time to get ready, players have more time to get their bodies ready. It’s really the week after that’s the challenge.
Of course, the Packers have one thing going for them that the Vikings, Buccaneers and Lions do not: The play of Rodgers, who enters Monday night having completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 2,619 yards with 24 touchdowns and only three interceptions for a NFL-high passer rating of 129.1. While this stretch may be difficult, Rodgers is making everything look easy – even if it isn’t.
“No, I don’t think it’s easy at all. I think it’s a tough job. It takes a lot of preparation that goes in,” Rodgers said in his weekly radio show on ESPNMilwaukee and ESPNMadison. “The toughest job is Monday through Saturday. It’s a grind, the work we put in, the preparation. … So by the time Sunday hits I feel very confident that I should play well.”
Starks contrast: It’s become quite clear: The Packers’ No. 1 running back is James Starks. Veteran Ryan Grant is now clearly the No. 2.
Since playing 34 of 79 snaps in Week 3 at Chicago, where he ran for 92 yards on 17 carries despite suffering a bruised kidney late in the game, Grant’s role has diminished. Whether that’s because he lost a fumble at Atlanta the week of his return or not, it’s hard to say. But he played 21 of 68 possible snaps against the Falcons, 19 of 63 against St. Louis, 19 of 66 against Minnesota and a season-low 12 snaps out of 62 last Sunday in San Diego. While Grant has started seven of the Packers’ eight games this season, it’s been largely ceremonial of late.
Asked how he felt about his current role, Grant replied last week: “All good. We’re winning. We’re winning. Some guys get coddled, some guys don’t. If I wanted to be coddled, I probably could be. But I don’t want that. That’s not me. I wouldn’t look for that. I’m good. On the record, I’m good.”
Starks, meanwhile, has shown better vision of late and has certainly earned more carries in the Packers’ pass-oriented offense. He enters Monday night with 96 carries for 440 yards a touchdown and, after carrying 13 times for 75 yards against the Vikings and 13 times for 66 yards against the Chargers, is averaging 5.4 yards per carry over the past two games.
Getting his kicks: The enduring image from the Packers’ Oct. 23 win over the Vikings at the Metrodome – at least, if you were watching the game on TV – had to be Vikings defensive end Brian Robison kicking Packers left guard T.J. Lang below the belt after Lang threw him to the ground while blocking on a field-goal attempt.
“If I see him, I’m sure we’ll even things out face to face,” Lang said jokingly. “No, I don’t have any plans for it. It’s something I put behind me two weeks ago. If we see each other, I’m sure we’ll talk and have a few words and smooth things out. As of right now, I’m not going to look for revenge or anything.”
What is funny is that the incident is really the only time Lang has been in the news since taking over as the starting left guard for departed free agent Daryn Colledge. Lang, who won the job in training camp by beating out rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod, has been more than solid in his new starting role and, after some inconsistency earlier in the year, has been playing well of late.
“T.J.’s played very well. He’s had a little too much up and down, if I was going to be critical, but I really like T.J.’s style of play,” McCarthy said. “He brings a real physical-ness, a toughness to the left guard position. He’s only going to get better. T.J.’s mistakes area all things he can learn from: He has too many pre-snap penalties (a team-high six false starts), but he’s a good young football player that’s going to really improve. He just needs to stay healthy and continue to play, because he’s the type of player, his demeanor, approach, his style of play is exactly what we’re looking for. I’m very happy with the progress he’s making.”
After going out on a limb last week and predicting that the downtrodden San Diego Chargers would put an end to the Packers’ perfect season, my perfect record has vanished while the Packers’ remains intact. There’s no temptation to pick against the Packers this week, however. Maybe on Thanksgiving, but after watching the Detroit Lions’ performance in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, who knows? All we know is this: The Packers won’t suffer their first defeat on Monday night. Packers 34, Vikings 21. (Season record: 7-1.)
– Jason Wilde