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Packers-Vikings: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (7-4) vs. the Minnesota Vikings (6-5).

The time: Noon CST Sunday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.

The TV coverage:  FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).

The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline.

The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 75-40 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Vikings’ Leslie Frazier is 12-21 in his third year as the Vikings’ coach and as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 53-47-1 and have won the last four meetings.

The rankings: The Packers’ 18th-ranked offense is No. 23 in rushing and No. 14 in passing. Their 18th-ranked defense is No. 11 against the run and No. 22 against the pass. The Vikings’ 22nd-ranked offense is No. 3 in rushing and No. 30 in passing. Their 11th-ranked defense is No. 15 against the run and No. 14 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by nine points.

The injury report: 

GREEN BAY PACKERS
Out – CB Sam Shields (ankle), S Charles Woodson (collarbone), OLB Clay Matthews (hamstring), RB Johnny White (concussion), DE C.J. Wilson (knee).
Doubtful – ILB Terrell Manning (shoulder),
Questionable – WR Donald Driver (thumb).
Probable – S M.D. Jennings (rib), LT Marshall Newhouse (wrist), DT Ryan Pickett (quadriceps), WR Greg Jennings (groin/abdominal).
Note: TE Andrew Quarless (knee) and S Sean Richardson (back) were moved to season-ending injured reserve Saturday. RB DuJuan Harris and WR Jeremy Ross were promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster.
 
MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Out – WR Percy Harvin (ankle).
Probable – S Harrison Smith (concussion), CB Antoine Winfield (knee), LB Jasper Brinkley (shoulder), T Phil Loadholt (knee). DE Jared Allen (shoulder/back), DT Letroy Guion (foot), punter Chris Kluwe (left knee), RB Adrian Peterson (shoulder), TE Kyle Rudolph (concussion/shoulder).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Believe in yoursmelf: Packers fans have seen plenty of Jennings this season – during commercial breaks. The popular wide receiver did ads during the offseason for the NFL’s ticket exchange program, and of course Old Spice, with multiple skits to promote the deodorant brand. On Sunday, though, he’ll be a sight for sore eyes in between commercials, as he’s set to return from a seven-game absence caused by a lower abdominal muscle tear that he suffered in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against San Francisco and resulted in Nov. 1 surgery.

The last time Jennings returned from an extended absence – he missed two games late in the 2011 season with a knee injury – he and quarterback Aaron Rodgers weren’t on the same page in the team’s playoff loss to the New York Giants. Whether similar growing pains are in order this time around remains to be seen.

“I think just having him out there gives us another weapon,” Rodgers said during the week. “We’ve worked on some stuff last week and he looked great. I’ve been trying to go to him a little bit more in some of the walkthrough stuff where it’s actually pretty quick tempo and in practice, looking for him, just making sure we’re on the same page and we played a lot of football together so I’m not worried about that.”

Jennings isn’t either.

“I feel good physically,” he said. “Obviously they're probably going to err on the side of gradually implementing me in there. If I had a say, I would just say, ‘Just let me go. I’m good. There’s no need for that.’ But I can’t control that part of it. When my number gets called, I’m going to be ready to go.”

How much Jennings plays is a matter of speculation. With Driver, the team’s No. 5 receiver, unlikely to play because of the thumb injury, Jennings should be in line a fair amount of playing time, but McCarthy was unwilling to divulge his plan late in the week.

“I think the flow of the game will dictate that and really based on how the game’s called,” McCarthy said.

Youth movement: C.J. Wilson couldn’t have picked a worse time to suffer a knee injury, with the revitalized Peterson having strung together five straight 100-yard games and the Packers’ run defense having been sieve-like against Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants last Sunday night. Nevertheless, the Packers will battle Peterson with their top two defensive linemen (Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji) backed by three youngsters – Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels. Neal figures to get the starting nod, and the Packers seem likely to play their base defense extensively.

“Well, hey. Each week’s a new challenge. We’ve had to face our share of that, just with what’s gone on,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Friday, acknowledging that he’s no stranger to personnel issues with his group. “A couple of those young guys are going to have to step up. Mike Neal will get more of a shot, Mike Daniels and Jerel have got to play well for us. We have to get big games out of ‘Pick’ and B.J., which we always count on those guys to be solid in terms of holding point, handling double-teams, being able to get off blocks. The big thing is we’re going to have to be disciplined in our run fits and we’re really going to have to pursue and get people to the ball.”

McCarthy wouldn’t venture a guess on which of his three youngsters is the best run defender, but it would seem logical that the coaches are hoping Worthy steps to the fore. He’s been up-and-down so far in his rookie season and the defense could use a boost from him.

“That’s an interesting question. But I think it’s important for all of them to be good against the run,” McCarthy replied. “It’s something we’re going to have to obviously play the run. It’s the starting point for their offense. Everybody knows what Adrian Peterson brings to the table. More importantly, they’ll all have an opportunity to show who plays it the best.”

Bouncing back:  There’s nothing like a division game to bring out the best in McCarthy’s team. One week after a nationally televised embarrassment in a game where there was reason to question how committed the Packers were to the cause – wide receiver Randall Cobb questioned the team’s “care level” after the game, and he wasn’t alone – history would indicate McCarthy will have his guys ready.

The Packers have won a franchise-record nine straight against the NFC North in regular-season play, having gone 6-0 in the division last year and 2-0 so far this season. And McCarthy is 29-9 in regular-season play against the division, which is proof that his mantra about winning the division is getting through to his guys.

“I feel the week of preparation has been good,” McCarthy said at the end of the week. “I think you find out something about your team every week. Obviously, we have a different challenge because of what happened last week. More importantly, when you get hit like we did Sunday, it’s important for us to bounce back and show what kind of team you are, but more importantly, we need to go win this division game. That’s how clear it is to us. We’ve gone through the process of dealing with last week’s game, like you do every week. Obviously, it’s different this week, it’s higher because there’s negativity involved, but it’s energy you can tap into.

“But the bottom line is we need to go beat Minnesota, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

The loss to the Giants wasn’t the first time the Packers looked like they were somewhat disinterested – their Oct. 28 victory over Jacksonville had a similar feel – but Rodgers said the group has moved on. We’ll see if that equates to a better effort against a Vikings team that started 5-2 but has bottomed out since.

“We came in and watched the film (from the Giants game), graded it, critiqued it, talked about it, and now we’re moving on so it’s the usual a week after a loss,” Rodgers said. “I mean it’s frustrating, you go five straight weeks, six really with the bye, without losing, so then you lose a game. It’s a good refocus for us so we’ll be ready. We have four out of five against the division everything is right there in front of us and will be renewed, refreshed, and hopefully ready to play.”

No showdown:  The Packers and Vikings face each other again in the regular-season finale Dec. 30 at the Metrodome, and perhaps then we’ll get to see a Cobb-Harvin duel. But it won’t happen this time around, as Harvin was ruled out on Saturday (Frazier downgraded him from doubtful) and will miss his third straight game with an ankle injury suffered against Seattle. The Packers prepped for Harvin all week, despite the unlikelihood of him playing. Now, the focus shifts directly to Peterson.

“We haven’t known all week whether Harvin was going to play or not. Harvin’s obviously a difference-maker,” Capers said. “Harvin’s such a multiple guy. He’s a running back playing receiver. He played running back in college. And they’ve used him a lot. You’ve got to be ready for him to do both. (But) you’ve seen here of late, Peterson having the kind of year he’s having. It doesn’t make any difference. The focus is still on him. You’ve got to get him on the ground.”

Cobb faced the Vikings last year – he had a punt return for a touchdown at Lambeau Field – but the two haven’t faced off since Cobb’s role on offense evolved to the point where he’s become Rodgers’ go-to guy, at least with Jennings out and defenses using their Cover-2 schemes to shut down Jordy Nelson. Even Frazier, whose defense certainly will be challenged by Cobb, wanted to see both men do their thing.

“(Harvin) is so important to our offense, our team. He's a great kickoff return guy, as well. To not have him, it definitely has an impact,” Frazier said. “Percy, he's in a league of his own. But it definitely changes how Bill Musgrave, our offensive coordinator, calls play without Percy in there.

“I take a look just at what Green Bay is doing with Randall, it reminds me so much of the way we use Percy. So there are a lot of similarities there. I'm sure as teams draft multi-purpose wide receivers, they can look at what we've done here with Percy and maybe model some of the things they do schematically from that. We definitely use Percy in a lot of different ways and I can see the similarities with the way Green Bay is using Cobb.”

Laying it on the line: It’s hard to imagine the Packers not making some changes in how they protect Rodgers after the five sacks the Giants put on him last Sunday night. Rodgers himself predicted just that.

“I think you have to make some adjustments, obviously. I think we need to make some adjustments, we can’t just drop back every time,” Rodgers said on his radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com on Tuesday. “I think we need to incorporate some of the (play-)action stuff with some sort of backfield action. Obviously we got to run the ball effectively to slow them down a little bit as well and mix in some screens and stuff.

“It’s tough. … I think it’s a combination of we got to do it a little better in our 1-on-1s for sure, but we got to help those guys out a little bit too and make sure we’re giving some different looks in the backfield to at least slow down some of the angles.”

So while you may see the Packers move the pocket for Rodgers, alter play-calling – McCarthy has admitted two weeks running that he didn’t call good games – or do other things differently, there’s also another possibility: Put it on the linemen, a proud and sometimes grumpy group, to simply play their tails off. They instituted something of a media boycott this week – they used excuses like needing to shower, hit the tub or play backgammon – but make no mistake, the linemen were sending a message by not wanting to be quoted in stories or on broadcasts.

The coaches could give them a chance to send another message Sunday.

“I want their performance to reflect the type of player they are. If we’re sitting here and we’ve got zero sacks and zero pressures and zero hits and no penalties and everyone graded 100 percent, it’s not me beating on my chest. I’ve never coached that way. It’s about the player,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “If you’re asking me if I felt like crap afterward, you’re damned right I did. Do I absorb that, too? Yeah. Do I take accountability for the action of that group? You’re damned right I do. But I’m never going to beat my chest on their performance. That’s not me.”

We’ll see if Campen’s guys give him any reason to beat his chest Sunday.

PREDICTION

If the Packers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender – something many are not convinced of at this point – then this is a must-win. At home, against a division rival, after an embarrassing performance on Sunday Night Football, with the Vikings playing without Harvin, against a quarterback who’s regressed, with an offensive line that has to redeem itself … There’s simply no excuse to lose this game. The guess here is that they won’t. Packers 30, Vikings 13. (Record: 5-6)

– Jason Wilde

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