The Minnesota Vikings have finally deemed Christian Ponder ready for action, though the rookie quarterback hasn't exactly been placed in the softest of spots for his anticipated first career NFL start.
Ponder will attempt to invigorate a sputtering Minnesota offense when the 2011 first-round draft pick leads the Vikings into battle against the league's highest-scoring and only remaining unbeaten team, the Green Bay Packers, who'll be invading the Metrodome on Sunday with a chance to break a 49-year- old franchise record for consecutive wins.
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier finally pulled the plug on the Donovan McNabb experiment after the declining veteran struggled once again in last Sunday's lopsided loss at rival Chicago. McNabb was removed in favor of the untested Ponder in the fourth quarter of Minnesota's eventual 39-10 defeat after the offense mustered a mere 176 total yards and 10 first downs under his command.
Ponder completed 9-of-17 passes for 99 yards in his official debut and showed enough for Frazier, who had previously remained steadfast in his support of McNabb during the Vikings' slow start, to give the talented 23-year-old an extended opportunity.
"When he got a chance to play in the game on Sunday, some of the things he did let me know that the game is not too big for him," said Frazier of his new quarterback. "It's not too fast for him and he did some good things in a short period of time. As you noticed, they [the Bears] did not take their number one defense off of the field. They continued to bring pressure, continued to run their system and he handled it very, very well, and that was an indication for me that if we're going to do something, this is the time."
The Vikings have amassed the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL this season, though McNabb wasn't solely to blame for the team's wretched performance against the Bears. The six-time Pro Bowler was sacked five times behind a suspect offensive line that also failed to open holes for star running back Adrian Peterson, the defense failed to mount consistent pressure on Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler and the special teams surrendered a back- breaking kick return touchdown to Devin Hester early in the second half.
With fellow NFC North contender Detroit losing last week, Green Bay is now the sole owner of a perfect record this season after running its mark to 6-0 with a 24-3 ousting of still-winless St. Louis this past Sunday. The victory was the 12th in a row for the reigning Super Bowl champions when including the 2010 postseason, which matched the longest streak in club history set from 1961-62.
The Packers would also register their first 7-0 beginning since 1962 with a win on Sunday, though they haven't been entirely devoid of problems during their present surge. Green Bay has permitted nearly 300 passing yards per game thus far, the second-highest total in the league, and gave up 424 total yards to the hapless Rams last week.
There have been far fewer concerns on the offensive side, as the Packers have averaged an NFL-best 32.8 points per game over the initial six weeks and continue to get nearly-flawless play under center from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Super Bowl XLV Most Valuable Player became the first player since the 1970 merger to record six consecutive outings with a passer rating of 110 or better to open a season with his 316-yard, three-touchdown effort against the Rams.
Minnesota, which came through with a 38-10 rout of slumping Arizona in Week 5 in its most recent test at home, has not started off 1-6 since 1990.
Sunday's game marks the 100th all-time regular-season meeting between the Packers and Vikings, with Green Bay owning a slim 51-47-1 overall margin after taking both 2010 encounters. The Packers hung on for a 28-24 win over Minnesota at Lambeau Field in Week 7 of last season and walloped the Vikings by a 31-3 score at the Metrodome last November in what turned out to be the final game for Brad Childress as Minnesota's head coach. The Vikings did sweep the 2009 season set from Green Bay and posted a 28-27 home victory over the Pack the previous year, though the defending world champions are 3-2 in their last five trips to Minneapolis.
The teams' only postseason matchup to date was the Vikings' 31-17 upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field in the 2004 NFC Wild Card Round, a game best remembered for a broadcast overreaction by FOX announcer Joe Buck as Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss performed an end-zone celebration.
Mike McCarthy has compiled a 7-3 record against Minnesota during his time as the Packers' head coach, while Frazier will be taking on both Green Bay and McCarthy for the first time since taking over the Vikings.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Green Bay sports the most precise passing attack in the game today, with the incredibly accurate Rodgers (2037 passing yards, 17 TD, 3 INT) expertly operating an offense that's piled up an average of 326.2 yards per week (3rd overall) via the air. The standout signal-caller has completed an astounding 70.3 percent of his throws on the year and is backed by a bevy of excellent targets, with Pro Bowl wideout Greg Jennings (35 receptions, 530 yards, 4 TD) the headliner of the team's deep receiving corps. The Packers also possess a premier tight end in the athletic Jermichael Finley (23 receptions, 3 TD) and a pair of big-play artists in wide receivers Jordy Nelson (20 receptions, 413 yards, 4 TD) and James Jones (15 receptions, 3 TD), with the former averaging nearly 21 yards per catch on the year and connecting on a 93-yard scoring strike from Rodgers last week and Jones having reached the end zone in three consecutive games. The Packers primarily utilize the running game as merely a change of pace but do have two capable backs in 2010 postseason hero James Starks (299 rushing yards, 1 TD, 15 receptions) and two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant (200 rushing yards, 7 receptions), while a solid front line has been able to compensate for an injury to stalwart left tackle Chad Clifton and continue to provide protection for Rodgers, who was sacked just once by the Rams last week.
Minnesota's goal on defense will be to take Rodgers out of his comfort zone by constantly bringing pressure on the difference-making quarterback, and the team may in fact have the personnel to accomplish the task. The Vikings have compiled 17 sacks through the first six games, more than half of which have been accumulated by high-motor end Jared Allen (23 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 1 INT). The three-time All-Pro leads all individuals in that category and has notched at least one sack in five straight weeks, while opposite-side starter Brian Robison (15 tackles, 4.5 sacks) has been a factor in that department as well. The duo will need to make their presence felt again this week in order to protect a troublesome secondary that's permitted nearly 270 passing yards per game (24th overall) and will likely be without two starters in veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) and strong safety Jamarca Sanford (concussion). The Vikings have been considerably tougher versus the run, with decorated tackle Kevin Williams and the brother combo of linebackers E.J. (35 tackles) and Erin Henderson (31 tackles, 1 sack) spearheading a front seven that's held opponents to a scant 83.5 rushing yards per game (5th overall).
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
With Ponder having a mere 17 professional pass attempts to his credit and working with what's been an inconsistent group of receivers, it'll be a shock if the Vikings don't rely heavily on Peterson (537 rushing yards, 7 TD, 10 receptions) come Sunday. That's usually the case anyway, as the powerful running back leads the NFL in run attempts (122) as the centerpiece of an offense that's currently third in the league in rushing yards (142.2 ypg). Peterson should be somewhat fresh as well after carrying the ball a season-low 12 times for only 39 yards in last Sunday's fiasco in Chicago. With an inexperienced rookie now at the controls, expect Minnesota to employ a short passing game focused around dangerous playmaker Percy Harvin (25 receptions), provided the oft-injured receiver's not too hobbled by a nagging injury that's limited his snaps in recent weeks, and reliable big body Michael Jenkins (24 receptions, 2 TD). Harvin has also averaged better than 11 yards on 14 rushes this year, and his versatility adds another wrinkle the Packers will have to prepare for. Minnesota will have a change up front for Sunday's matchup as well, with journeyman Joe Berger set to take over at center for injured regular John Sullivan (concussion).
While the Vikings are expected to try to establish the run on Sunday, doing so effectively could be tricky against a Green Bay defense that's yielding just 82.8 rushing yards per game (4th overall) and is anchored by a top-notch space-eater in nose tackle B.J. Raji (13 tackles, 1 sack). Veteran end Ryan Pickett (11 tackles) and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (57 tackles, 3 sacks) are two other proven pluggers up front, while the secondary's ability to come up with turnovers have helped offset the startling amount of passing yards the unit has allowed. The Packers have recorded 11 interceptions on the season, second only to Buffalo for tops in the league, and perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson (22 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) is among the game's most accomplished ball-hawks. Safeties Morgan Burnett (47 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) and Charlie Peprah (26 tackles, 2 INT) have combined for five picks for the opportunistic Packers, who are projected to be without valuable nickel back Sam Shields (23 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PD) for this game after he suffered a concussion last week. 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Clay Matthews (16 tackles, 2 sacks) leads a pass rush that has been sporadic over the course of the season, a contributing factor to Green Bay's No. 31 ranking against the pass.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How this game starts will go a long way towards determining how it ends. The Packers want to jump out to an early lead and force the Vikings to deviate from their game plan of feeding Peterson and controlling the clock, and there's little question they have the quick-strike offense to do so. If Minnesota is able to take Green Bay's best shot and remain standing by keeping the score close into the second half, that will keep the crowd in the game and give the underdogs the confidence they'll need in order to pull off the upset.
The Bears were able to neutralize Peterson last week by crowding the line of scrimmage, mainly because the Vikings' passing game posed a minimal threat. Ponder's going to have to make some plays to prevent Green Bay from using those very same tactics, and if the rookie has some success, the easier it will be for Minnesota's best offensive weapon to be a factor.
Minnesota shouldn't have much of a problem handling the Packers' running backs, but containing Rodgers and his collection of receivers will be a far more difficult assignment, especially with the Vikings short-handed in the secondary. It's vital that Allen and Robison bring the heat on Rodgers and get him out of his rhythm. If they can't, Green Bay's MVP candidate could have a field day throwing to matchup nightmares such as Finley and Jennings.
The Vikings' offense could very well be in better hands under Ponder's direction as opposed to an ineffective McNabb, but this is still an awfully tough draw for the rookie. Green Bay has given up its share of passing yards this season, but the defense has still been pretty stingy in surrendering points and hasn't lacked the ability to come up with the big play. To beat the Packers, you have to outscore them, and it's highly questionable to believe Minnesota has the firepower to accomplish that feat as it's presently comprised.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 30, Vikings 17