Aaron Rodgers has the Green Bay Packers on a roll, even without three of his best receivers.
With help from a powerful running game, Rodgers picked apart what was left of Minnesota's defense on Sunday night.
Ignoring the injuries around him, Rodgers threw two first-half touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson and guided the Packers to a 44-31 victory over the Vikings on 24-for-29 passing for 285 yards.
Christian Ponder's encore went poorly for the Vikings (1-6), who sent out a different starting quarterback for the third straight week. Adrian Peterson gained a quiet 60 yards on 13 carries, Greg Jennings had just one catch against his old team and the Vikings offense counted only three plays in the third quarter as the Packers (5-2) pulled away in their final game at the Metrodome, now known as Mall of America Field.
Ponder didn't turn the ball over, but he was again out of sorts in the pocket all night and unable to make much happen at all if his intended target was covered. He finished 14 for 21 for 145 yards against a defense missing three starting linebackers to injury and added a late touchdown run.
The Vikings beat the Packers 37-34 last December to make the playoffs. But they needed 199 yards rushing from Peterson and the best game of Ponder's career to do it, because Rodgers has rarely found resistance from this defense in purple. In his last eight games against the Vikings, he has 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions while completing roughly three-quarters of his passes. The Packers have won seven of those.
Micah Hyde had a punt return for a touchdown for the Packers, who never punted and held the ball for more than two-thirds of the game to counteract Cordarrelle Patterson's opening 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Packers have won 15 of their last 16 games against NFC North teams.
"We've got a great team, very well-coached," Rodgers said. "Guys are ready to play. It was loud in here. It was a tough environment, but guys stepped up."
Patterson put the Vikings in front before Ponder even touched the ball, with a breathtaking run through the middle of Green Bay's kickoff coverage that was so fast only Hyde, the rookie cornerback from Iowa, had a chance to tackle him.
Even the longest possible play in the sport wasn't enough for the Vikings to feel good about facing Rodgers, though.
The Packers scored on their first two possessions, running a total of 31 plays for 160 yards that drained 15 minutes and 48 seconds off the clock. The touchdown to cap the first drive was a Rodgers classic, a laser on a corner route that somehow slipped past Josh Robinson into Nelson's outstretched hands despite the cornerback being about as close as could be to the receiver without interfering.
"He's the top quarterback in the league in my opinion," Nelson said.
The Packers helped keep the Vikings close in the first half with a pair of ill-timed penalties. Rookie defensive end Datone Jones was flagged for unnecessary roughness after Ponder's nowhere-close incompletion on third-and-6 in the second quarter, extending a drive for a field goal.
Then with 14 seconds left before the break, Tramon Williams was called for pass interference along the sideline during an overthrow on Jennings, putting the ball at the 14. Peterson powered through the teeth of the Packers defense for an 8-yard score, cutting the lead to 24-17.
The harsh reality for the Vikings was that gutsy run came after the 76-yard catch and run by Nelson on third-and-6 and the 93-yard backbreaking punt return by Hyde, just 2 minutes apart. The Vikings, already having a hard time this season finding reliable play from their cornerbacks, had to play their backup safeties, too. Harrison Smith is out with a turf toe injury, and Jamarca Sanford hurt his groin early in this one. Linebacker Chad Greenway was trying to cover Nelson on the touchdown, and safety Andrew Sendejo was late to help.
The way Lacy has been pounding the ball, as the leading NFL rookie rusher, Rodgers hasn't had to come up with as many clutch throws with his top targets missing. Lacy and Starks took turns trampling an exhausted Vikings defense, with each guy contributing a touchdown on the ground and the Packers reaching a season-high 182 yards rushing.
Sixteen of the last 21 regular-season games between these rivals were decided by a touchdown or less, but this went down as one of the outliers in this historically even series that has tilted hard toward the Packers since Rodgers hit his stride in 2010. Since the dome was first inflated here in 1982, and the Vikings went 16-15 under the roof against the Packers.
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