Is balance of power in NFC North shifting toward Vikings?
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When Mike Zimmer arrived in Minnesota in 2014, the road to the NFC North title went straight through Green Bay, Wis. That's starting to change.
The Vikings will visit Lambeau Field for what for them is a big one Saturday night, Dec. 23; for the Packers, not so much. Green Bay enters the 7:30 p.m. kickoff out of the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2008.
"It's disappointing," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's a standard that's unacceptable here."
Before Zimmer became the Vikings' head coach, the Packers had won four straight division titles, and the year before starting that streak beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV.
Zimmer's rebuild in Winter Park, he said, has been "all about a process of trying to get better each day. Trying to get the football team the right way and get the right kind of guys in here and then continue to move forward." The new coach was also keenly aware of the Packers' success.
"I knew that if we were going to end up winning divisions, that's a team we probably would have to beat," he said.
Minnesota (11-3) has a chance to clinch a first-round playoff bye with a victory and a loss by the Carolina Panthers, and still has an outside chance at earning home-field advantage throughout a playoff tournament that ends with Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"We're playing for something different Saturday night, and I expect our team go out there and win the game," McCarthy said.
A successful salvo in this 66-year rivalry won't extend the Packers' playoff streak to nine seasons, but it will make the postseason harder on their rival to the west, and send a message that the Packers are still a power to contend with in the NFC North, down primarily because they played without quarterback Aaron Rodgers for all but one game since he broke his collarbone on a hit from Anthony Barr at U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 15.
In 11 seasons including this one, the Packers and Vikings have combined to win 10 NFC North titles, and six went to Green Bay.
Vikings defensive end Brian Robison has been in Minnesota for all 11 of those seasons.
"I think at the end of the day, we all realize it's probably going to be down to Green Bay," he said. "One way or the other, it's going to come down to how we play against each other, and I think when you really look at the thing, and boil down the last few years, it's the truth: It's about who can beat Green Bay. So, that's just what we're trying to do."
The Vikings have won two of the past three North titles, and three of the past four games between the clubs, but before that Green Bay was 10-1-1 with a playoff win against Minnesota since 2010. A 20-13 victory at Lambeau Field in 2015 was the Vikings' first in Green Bay since Brett Favre's return in 2009.
"We're trying to make this a good rivalry," Zimmer said this week. "I mean, we've beat 'em a few times, but I don't know if they consider it a rivalry yet."
Chicago has won three North titles, but none since 2010. Detroit hasn't won a division title since 1993, when it was the NFC Central and also featured the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Lions, however, are making their presence felt, winning three of their past four games against the Vikings. "They kind of have our number," receiver Adam Thielen said.
The Lions' 14-7 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium this season didn't cost the Vikings a division title, but with one more victory, the Vikings might not be counting on a Philadelphia loss to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Still, the Packers have been the cream of the North, with division titles in nine of the past 19 seasons. They also are the only division team to win a Super Bowl — after the 1997 and 2010 seasons — since the mid-1980s.
"If you can sweep the Packers, or get one of those games, it's pretty important for winning the division," Thielen said. "In the past, it's kind of been one of us coming out on top."
Under Zimmer, the Vikings are 3-4 against the Packers, but they have a chance to make it to .500 on Saturday. The balance in the NFC North seems to be changing.
"We definitely want people to look at it and say, 'The division runs through Minnesota,'" Robison said. "That's what we want to do. We were able to do it this year, but we've got to keep that going."
What's at stake?
• First-round bye: The Vikings have clinched their second NFC North title in three years but their playoff positioning remains in flux. They can secure a first-round bye with a victory at Green Bay on Saturday combined with a Carolina loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday.
• Home-field advantage: To secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Vikings must win their final two regular-season games (at Green Bay and against Chicago on Dec. 31) and Philadelphia must lose their last two regular-season games (at home vs. Oakland on Monday and Dec. 31 against Dallas).
Kings of the North
Since 2007, the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings have combined to win 10 of 11 NFC North championships. The one exception was in 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl.
Year Winner (record) Season ended
2007 Green Bay (13—3) In NFC championship
2008 Minnesota (10—6) In wild-card playoff
2009 Minnesota (12—4) In NFC championship
2010 Chicago (11—5) In NFC championship
2011 Green Bay (15—1) In divisional playoffs
2012 Green Bay (11—5) In divisional playoffs
2013 Green Bay (8—7—1) In wild-card playoff
2014 Green Bay (12—4) In NFC championship
2015 Minnesota (11—5) In wild-card playoff
2016 Green Bay (10—6) In NFC championship
2017 Minnesota (11-3*) TBD