NFL 1st Round: Minnesota-Green Bay

It’s time preview the NFL first round playoff matchups on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll start with a basic outline of how the teams match up with each other, mix in some historical context, check out the betting lines and make a prediction. It’s time for Saturday night’s prime-time affair, with Minnesota going to Green Bay (7 PM ET, NBC).

THE MATCHUP:  You can make a pretty good case that Adrian Peterson and Aaron Rodgers should finish 1-2 in the MVP voting, so it’s easy to see why NBC wanted this game for their prime-time show. Green Bay will have strong safety Charles Woodson back healthy, and if Woodson is really game-ready, this is a big deal. The Packers could use the veteran Woodson to help in run support and keep Peterson under control. The Viking runner has gone for over 400 yards in the two previous games this year against Green Bay, including 199 in last week’s 37-34 thriller that put the Vikings in the playoffs.

The obvious concern for Minnesota is what happens if Peterson rushes for “only” 125-150 yards. In today’s NFL, normally a running back putting up that kind of night means an automatic win. With the unique structure of Minnesota’s offense it means they’re in trouble. The phrase “unique structure” is really a polite way of saying that Christian Ponder is just Tim Tebow without the leadership or charisma.

If you see Ponder’s good game last week, including two extremely clutch throws in the fourth quarter, as the equivalent of Tebow beating Pittsburgh in the first round of last year’s playoffs, it would then follow that this Ponder game would be the equivalent of when Tebow’s Broncos got waxed in New England a week later in prime-time against a future Hall of Fame quarterback. The analogy obviously has its flaws—Ponder has the greatest running back in the game to distract the defense, but how confident are Minnesota fans about him facing down a blitz package led by Clay Matthews in the face of a hostile Lambeau Field crowd?

What Minnesota has going for them is that they’re the kind of defense that gives Green Bay problems. The ability of the Vikes to get pressure from both sides of their defense, through defensive ends Brian Robison and Jared Allen, put them in the mold of front sevens like San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago, all of which at least slowed the Packers down and in some cases outright stopped them. Last week, Rodgers was brilliant in spite of being sacked five times and hit seven more. But that was indoors in a passer-friendly environment. On Saturday night, the crowd might be friendly to Rodgers, but the weather is unlikely to be.

If Green Bay can’t find a way to protect #12, it’s asking too much for him to personally carry the offense again. That means a running game, and between Alex Green, DeJuan Blair and occasionally Ryan Grant, the Packers have pieced together the bare minimum of a run to keep defenses honest, and they’ll have to run it at least 25 times and find a way to generate 80-85 yards on the ground, if only to keep Allen and Robison at home.

THE CONTEXT: This has always been a good rivalry. The Packers and Vikings have often been good simultaneously, leading to some big divisional games over the years and then when Brett Favre jumped sides in 2009 in ratcheted everything up to new levels. The teams have met in the playoffs once, back in 2004, when Minnesota came into Lambeau and won a first-round game. That game pales next to this one—in ’04, both teams were fairly pedestrian. This year, Green Bay has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations and Minnesota is a tremendous story, even if you aren’t sold on their ability to advance deep. And the rivalry is about more than the Vikes and Packers. The local college teams, the Badgers and Gophers are heated rivals and even the Brewers and Twins mix it up every year in interleague play. So if you have a multi-tiered regional rivalry, with its most heated grudge match taking place on prime-time, in the playoffs, with arguably the league’s two best players on display.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: If you believe Minnesota put everything into last week and that they’re a different team outdoors, then you have plenty of company. Green Bay is the biggest favorite of the first round, at (-7.5). That number sounds right, because while I don’t have much doubt about picking the Packers to win, I hesitate at going more than a touchdown. The Over/Under is 46.5, a reasonable number, although if the January winds whip through Lambeau, it could be tough to hit.

PREDICTION: A heavy dose of January winds that take away the passing game and turn the flow of play in Minnesota’s favor is really the only shot at an upset. While Green Bay’s defense did not play well last week, that’s mostly an aberration of what’s been a good finish. Peterson will get his yards, but the Packer defense will get to Ponder, force turnovers and even under duress, Rodgers will make enough plays to win. Looking at the spread, I’ll give the points and take the Over, in both cases because I believe the Packer defense will set up points with turnovers. Let’s call this one 38-20 for the Packers, making Rodgers the rare quarterback who gets his first home playoff win two years after his first Super Bowl win.