Packers-Vikings. Outdoors, the way it always used to be and probably still should be. For the lead in the Black and Blue Division.
Sure would be appropriate if a little snow would fall in the Twin Cities, too. At least the forecasts have been for a high temperature in the mid-30s.
Minnesota (7-2) has won five in a row to surge past slumping Green Bay (6-3) in the NFC North. When the Packers come to TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday, they will be an underdog for the first time all season.
Could the Vikings actually get a bit overconfident? Coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t see that happening.
“Sometimes guys that try to do too much, they get caught up in all the hype,” Zimmer says. “But usually guys that are focused and understanding the fundamentals of things, the things that got you to this spot are really what carries you through.”
What has gotten Minnesota to this spot is the running of Adrian Peterson, whose 961 yards easily leads the league. And a defense ranked ninth overall that hasn’t allowed more than 23 points in a game, giving up 154 overall, second stingiest in the NFL.
Green Bay went into its bye undefeated and hasn’t won since. The offense has stagnated and the defense has regressed.
“We need a win man. We need a win, period,” receiver James Jones says. “We need to get back to the type of football we were playing the first couple games of the season.”
The Packers are 9-1-1 in the last 11 games against the Vikings, and coach Mike McCarthy is 14-4-1 in his career vs. Minnesota.
The action began Thursday night with Jacksonville’s 19-13 home victory over Tennessee.’
Rashad Greene returned a punt 63 yards, setting up Blake Bortles’ 5-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas with 3:30 remaining to give the Jaguars (4-6) a 16-13 lead. Jacksonville won consecutive games for the first time in more than two years and gained ground in the muddled AFC South. The Titans (2-8) lost for the eighth time in nine games.
This is the last week with byes. Off are the Giants (5-5), Saints (4-6), Steelers (6-4) and Browns (2-8).
Washington (4-5) at Carolina (9-0)
The Redskins have turned around their season behind Kirk Cousins’ passing, moving within a game of the NFC East lead. They will be tested by the Panthers, who have the best record in franchise history.
Cam Newton has matured into a force as the Panthers have won 13 straight regular-season games, scoring at least 27 points in seven consecutive games. Carolina’s defense, paced by linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman, has helped it to a plus-8 turnover margin, tied for second best in the league.
“You definitely need to be aware of great players like that, understand where they are, try to study them the best you can through film as to what their style of play is,” Cousins says.
Buffalo (5-4) at New England (9-0), Monday night
If Tom Brady is standing outside Gillette Stadium with a welcoming sign for both the Bills and the ESPN cameras, that’s understandable. The Patriots have won 27 of the last 31 meetings dating back to 2000, Brady has 24 regular-season wins against the Bills — more than against any other opponent in his career — and has more touchdown passes (61) against Buffalo than any team. He also is 13-6 on Monday nights and has thrown three or more touchdowns in nine of those 19 games.
Both clubs come off emotional victories at the Meadowlands. Buffalo beat the Jets in coach Rex Ryan’s return to where he worked for the previous six seasons. New England needed a 54-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski in the dying seconds to edge the Giants.
Cincinnati (8-1) at Arizona (7-2)
The Carson Palmer show.
Palmer was the top overall pick in the 2003 draft by the Bengals who had some success there, forced a trade in 2011 (to Oakland) and has revived his career in the Valley of the Sun. Palmer ranks second in the NFL in passer rating (108), with Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who has started every game for the Bengals since Palmer left, ranking fourth (104.6).
Cincinnati tasted defeat for the first time last Monday night against Houston. The league flexed this to prime time and who can blame it? The Bengals play their third straight night game, the Cardinals their second.
Denver (7-2) at Chicago (4-5)
John Fox facing the team he led to four straight AFC West titles has taken a back seat to the Peyton Manning saga. Manning has been benched because of a slew of injuries that resulted in the worst game of his career last Sunday, with a 0.00 passer rating against the Chiefs.
Brock Osweiler gets his first NFL start in his fourth pro season. Manning promises not to “be in his ear” all the time, but rest assured he will have some input.
With Matt Forte out, Chicago has gotten breakout performances from rookie Jeremy Langford with 324 scrimmage yards (145 rushing, 179 receiving) and three TDs in two games.
Dallas (2-7) at Miami (4-5)
Tony’s back. And fans of America’s Team expect Romo to save their season.
Dallas dropped all seven games he missed with a broken collarbone. Romo still believes 2015 is not a lost cause.
“I don’t think that anyone in this locker room thinks by any means that this season is over,” Romo said Wednesday. “You lose enough games, sometimes it can creep in where it feels that way, and I don’t think our team has not ever given 100 percent commitment. That’s exciting to see. That’s how you can turn it around.”
The Dolphins benefited from Eagles mistakes in last week’s victory, and remain on the fringes of the AFC wild-card race.
Indianapolis (4-5) at Atlanta (6-3)
The Colts are 2-0 with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback for Andrew Luck, who is out injured for this one. Few teams can rely on their backup QB the way the Colts can on the 40-year-old veteran.
What Indy must find is someone who can cover Julio Jones. Then again, no team has found that person this year.
Jones leads the league with 80 catches for 1,029 yards and six touchdowns and has a shot at beating Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record of 143). Jones is coming off his fifth 100-yard receiving game of 2015.
Atlanta has lost three of its last four, while Indianapolis got its best win of the season by beating then-undefeated Denver. Then both teams had a bye week.
Oakland (4-5) at Detroit (2-7)
Coming off their stunning win in Green Bay, probably the biggest upset of the season, the Lions have been a .500 team since starting 0-5, even with the upheaval in the front office
The Raiders seemed to be a threat for the playoffs after three straight wins, but have dropped the last two and were manhandled by Minnesota last week. Their passing game, with budding stars at quarterback in Derek Carr and receiver in rookie Amari Cooper, will test the Lions’ mediocre defense.
New York Jets (5-4) at Houston (4-5)
Two teams headed in opposite directions, with New York dropping three of four, Houston taking three of four.
Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had surgery on thumb ligaments of his left hand on Nov. 13, started 12 games for Houston last season and is expected to start Sunday.
One key matchup could be Jets CB Darrelle Revis against emerging star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
The Jets have won five of six in the series, but the Texans won the last meeting in 2012.
San Francisco (3-6) at Seattle (4-5)
The two powers of the NFC West in recent years, and neither has a winning record. Still, this is a nasty rivalry in which the Seahawks have won four in a row, including 20-3 win one month ago when they sacked Colin Kaepernick six times and held the 49ers to 142 total yards.
QB Blaine Gabbert will make his second start after Kaepernick was benched. Gabbert led the 49ers past Atlanta two weeks ago.
Crazy stat: CB Richard Sherman, a 2014 All-Pro, has gone 10 straight regular-season games without an interception, the longest drought of his career.
Kansas City (4-5) at San Diego (2-7)
While the Chiefs have turned around things with three consecutive wins based on a strong defense and Alex Smith avoiding picks, the Chargers have sunk into San Diego Bay with five straight defeats. In their last two games the Chiefs have 11 sacks, seven interceptions, and now face the injury-ravaged Chargers, who come off a bye and hope to get some of the wounded back.
Through it all, Chargers QB Philip Rivers has played well with 19 TD throws, seven interceptions and a 100.7 passer rating. He must watch out for linebacker Justin Houston, who has 7 1/2 sacks.
Tampa Bay (4-5) at Philadelphia (4-5)
Despite their similar records, these teams are in totally different situations. The Eagles will be tied for the NFC East lead if they win, while the Buccaneers can barely see Carolina at the top of the NFC South.
Tampa has shown significant improvement from last season’s 2-14 mark, with top overall draft pick QB Jameis Winston progressing nicely. It might be the ground game that helps the Bucs the most at the Linc: Philly has allowed a 100-yard rusher in its past three games.
St. Louis (4-5) at Baltimore (2-7)
Nothing goes right for the Ravens, who found yet another way to lose last week as an officiating error hurt them.
An interception by Lardarius Webb last week was Baltimore’s first takeaway since Week 3. The Ravens have recovered one opponent’s fumble all season and own a minus-10 turnover differential.
They’ll face a new quarterback as Rams coach Jeff Fisher benched Nick Foles, who missed open receivers all over the field in a loss to Chicago, with Case Keenum. St. Louis leads the NFC with 29 sacks.
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