Yesterday I posted that the Bengals/Steelers matchup is the AFC game to watch in Week 2.
Let’s get to the NFC now.
While the potent offenses – or lackluster defenses – in the Saints/Giants game will certainly be fun to watch, no matchup other than Packers versus Vikings has as many storylines or playoff implications.
First, remember when Minnesota defeated Green Bay in 20-17 Week 17 last year en route the NFC North crown? No, this isn’t the same Vikings team. No, this isn’t the same Packers team. But, losing to a division rival is a punch in the face and a kick in the nuts. Besides, I don’t know that the Packers were too upset since they drew, and beat, the Redskins in the first round of the playoffs, whereas the Vikings lost a game they should have won against the Seahawks.
Next, Minnesota gets the chance to break-in its brand new US Bank Stadium at 8:30pm EST on NBC Sunday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers. The Vikings played home games outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota for the past two seasons while their new home was under construction. No doubt the energy level and noise will be high for the home opener. Green Bay may struggle to relay play calls over headsets and could be forced to use hand signals.
Third, Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer loves to use smoke and mirrors. When the Vikings lineup on offense on Sunday, it will mark the 15th day that quarterback Sam Bradford has been on the active roster. Minnesota traded a 2017 first-round pick and conditional 2018 fourth-round pick for the embattled former Eagles’ quarterback. After Teddy Bridgewater went down with a torn ACL and dislocated knee, the Vikings were left with quarterback Shaun Hill as the presumptive starter. Hill was under center in Week 1 against the Titans and managed to come out with road win. Still, Hill completed just 18 of 33 passes for 236 yards on a day when future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson ran for just 31 yards on 19 carries. It’s impossible for Minnesota to win consistently getting low production from both players. Neither Hill nor Bradford is as mobile in the pocket as Bridgewater, but Sam Bradford is certainly a better pocket passer than Shaun Hill. There’s no doubt Minnesota plans to start Bradford at some point after paying such a hefty price, but Mike Zimmer refuses to disclose when that time may come. We won’t find out who’s starting – and perhaps the quarterbacks won’t either – until they take the field for their first possession.
While the Packers boast one of the best offenses in the league on paper, not all of their natural talent has translated to the field. Jordy Nelson and Aaron Rodgers still need to work on their timing. Nelson tore his ACL in the 2015 preseason, and was held out of all 2016 preseason games. Eddie Lacy lost 20 pounds, allegedly, and looked pretty strong in Week 1 against the Jaguars. But, the Packers won’t rely on Lacy alone. James Starks is a high-quality change of pace back, but he failed to provide much of a boost in the Packers’ first game. Jared Cook is still trying to find his niche in the offensive scheme, and the offensive line is still trying to make the necessary adjustments after the shocking release of Josh Sitton. Lane Taylor now occupies the left guard spot in his fourth NFL season. JC Tretter appears to be the starting center for now while Corey Linsley, who started at center the past two seasons, is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury.
So, for the first time in a few years, this NFC North matchup shapes up to be a defensive affair. Don’t get me wrong. I think there will be plenty of points to be had. Just don’t expect both offenses to fill the scoreboard with Madden-like numbers. Minnesota ranked fifth-best in the NFL last year in terms of points allowed. They’ll surely give up some yards, but forcing teams into difficult third down situations is this unit’s bread and butter. In 2015 Minnesota held opponents to a 34.5% third-down conversion rate, also good for fifth-best in the league.
Green Bay’s defense is predicated on high risk, high reward schemes. They rely on their defensive backs to handle man coverage on the outside, while filling the box with at least one safety. Combined with complex blitz packages, the Packers turned out to be the sixth-most penalized team in 2015 as they had to commit fouls when they got beat down the field. Whether Bradford or Hill is taking snaps doesn’t matter to the Packers. Neither quarterback has much playing time recently, but Bradford will be flustered if Green Bay generates constant pressure from pass rushers like Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, and Mike Daniels. They’ll have to rely on hurrying the quarterback since Sam Shields will miss the game with a concussion, and rookie Josh Hawkins is dealing with a hamstring injury. Green Bay enters Sunday night with three true corners on the roster in Damarious Randall, Quenten Rollins, and LaDarius Gunter, and hybrid defender Micah Hyde sure to chip in.
Sunday night looks to be a premier matchup between two teams viewed as contenders last year. The Packers are favored to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but the Vikings have yet to achieve the same hype since Bridgewater went down. Like last year, the NFC North could come down to the final weeks as these foes will face-off again in Week 16.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com