MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Minnesota Vikings entered the NFL in 1961, it was expected they would initially be dominated by Green Bay. During a stretch when Vince Lombardi’s team dominated the NFL, the Packers beat Minnesota in 10 of their first 12 meetings.
Five decades later, though, the Vikings actually had a worse 12-game stretch against the Packers. Between 2010-15, they went 1-10-1 against them, including a playoff loss.
“It was very frustrating, especially when you’re looking at your cross-state rival, and you’re just not able to get it done,’’ said Brian Robison, a Vikings defensive end from 2007-17. “So when you’re on the losing end of that over and over again, it becomes very frustrating. It was like we were in quicksand, and we just couldn’t seem to fight our way out of it.”
Eventually, things began to change. The Vikings upset Green Bay, 20-13, at Lambeau Field in the 2015 regular-season finale to win the NFC North and give then-second-year coach Mike Zimmer his first win over the Packers in his fourth try. From that game on, the Vikings have a 6-4-1 record in the series.
Entering Sunday’s game against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium, you better believe Packers fans don’t like that.
“I’ll be honest with you,’’ said LeRoy Butler, a star safety for Green Bay from 1990-2001 and now one of three hosts on “The Big Show” on Milwaukee radio station WSSP-AM. “We expect to sweep the division. That’s just what we expect, to beat each team twice.’’
One figured it was bound to happen last season, when Green Bay was on its way to a 13-3 record and a second straight berth in the NFC Championship Game. But on Nov. 1, 2020, with the Packers coming in 5-1 and the Vikings 1-5, Minnesota won in stunning fashion, 28-22, at Lambeau Field. It was Green Bay’s only loss last year to an NFC North foe.
“That one stung,’’ Butler said. “If you bring up (that game in Wisconsin), they’ll put you out of the bar.”
That win broke a three-game losing streak against the Packers after a stretch in which the Vikings had been 5-1-1 against them before Mike McCarthy was replaced as head coach by Matt LaFleur. And it showed again that, with Zimmer able at times to dial up ways to slow down star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings are always a threat to beat Green Bay.
The Vikings (4-5) might need some more creativity on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, where they will be 2½-point underdogs to the Packers (8-2), who would all but wrap up the division with a win. But there haven’t been any feelings of gloom among the Vikings this week. That wasn’t always the case during that ugly stretch in the first half of the last decade that coincided mostly with a period before Zimmer’s 2014 arrival.
“You got frustrated because there’s just nothing you can do,’’ said Chad Greenway, a Vikings linebacker from 2006-16. “You go out and play your best and things don’t go your way. And they were the better team for a number of those games, and then there would be games where we should have won and we couldn’t pull it off.”
Green Bay’s dominance, though, eventually subsided after Zimmer, who is 6-7-1 overall against the Packers, replaced Leslie Frazier as head coach.
“The biggest change was when Zimmer came in and the schematic changed so much from when Leslie Frazier was here that it really gave Rodgers a lot to look at and made it a lot harder for him,’’ Greenway said. “If we’re sitting back and just playing coverage, Rodgers can sit back and pick you part if you can’t get a pass rush. … But you look at what Zimmer has done. You bring the right players in to fit Zimmer’s system and the stuff he’s thrown at that offense and Rodgers has at times had a tendency to throw them off.”
Always about Aaron
Rodgers has had some big-time games against Zimmer’s Vikings, including passing for 347 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-28 win at Lambeau Field in 2016 and throwing for 364 yards and four TDs in a 43-34 win last year at U.S. Bank Stadium. But he’s also had some pedestrian outings.
Rodgers completed just 20 of 36 passes for 213 yards with one touchdown and an interception in a 17-14 loss in 2016, the first regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium. And he completed 17 of 28 passes for just 198 yards with one touchdown in a 24-17 loss at U.S. Bank in 2018.
“I think a lot of it is how aggressive we are with them and the way we rush the Green Bay Packers (under Zimmer),” Robison said. “You have to be smart in the way you rush (Rodgers). And we always come up with a good plan of how we want to rush him and keep him in the pocket, but also be able to collapse the pocket around him as well.”
The Vikings have a series lead over the past half decade, but it must be noted that their two 2017 victories came when Rodgers was injured. Minnesota won 23-10 at home when Rodgers was lost for the game with a broken collarbone on a hit by linebacker Anthony Barr late in the first quarter. He missed all but one of the final 10 games and didn’t play when the Vikings won 16-0 at Lambeau Field in the penultimate regular-season game.
Overall, the Vikings are pleased with having mostly held their own in recent years against Green Bay. Since 2015, the Vikings have won two NFC North titles to three for the Packers.
“Playing Rodgers twice a year is never fun and he’s got good people around him,” Zimmer said. “They’re coached well. They’re much improved defensively this year. I understand the fans, and they’re right next door and everything, and it’s a big rivalry. But it’s also a division game, and they’ve been the division leaders for many years. So, for us to be able to come in and hang with them and compete and win a few games, it’s been good.”
On offense, the Vikings have been able to beat the Packers with big games through the air and on the ground. In their two most recent wins in the series, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns in the triumph at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2018, and running back Dalvin Cook rolled up 163 yards rushing last year at Lambeau. Cook tied a team record with four touchdowns in that game, three on the ground and one on a 50-yard reception.
“Any given Sunday, anybody can win,” Cook said of the upset.
This Sunday, the Vikings will see if last year’s formula again can lead to an upset. They no doubt will want to establish the run and try to keep the ball away from Rodgers.
“Zimmer’s all about running the football and playing good defense,” Butler said. “If they do that, they’re going to hang around the game in the fourth quarter, and then anything can happen.”
ZIMMER VS. PACKERS
The Vikings are 6-7-1 against NFC North rival Green Bay in Mike Zimmer’s seven-plus years as head coach. A look:
Oct. 2, 2014: L, 42-10
Nov. 23, 2014: L, 24-21
Nov. 22, 2015: L, 30-13
Jan. 3, 2016: W, 20-13
Sept. 9, 2016: W, 17-14
Dec. 24, 2016: L, 38-25
Oct. 15, 2017: W, 23-10
Dec. 23, 2017: W, 16-0
Sept. 16, 2018: T, 29-29
Nov. 25, 2018: W, 24-17
Sept. 15, 2019: L, 21-16
Dec. 23, 2019: L, 23-10
Sept. 13, 2020: L, 43-34
Nov. 1, 2020: W, 28-22