Vikings have opportunity to hinder Packers’ playoff hopes

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Two weeks after ending the Green Bay Packers’ three-year reign as NFC North champions, the Minnesota Vikings have a chance to give their division rival’s playoff hopes a devastating blow.

Green Bay lost 23-7 at Minnesota in the season’s opening weekend as part of a 4-8 start but has since won three straight games to move back into playoff contention heading into Sundays’ rematch with the Vikings at Lambeau Field.

The Packers (7-8) can earn a fourth straight playoff bid if they win their final two games, and either the Washington Commanders (7-7-1) lose once or the New York Giants (8-6-1) fall twice.

“We’re building each week,” Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb said. “And with every win, that snowball effect continues to grow, and we’ve just got to find a way to put ourselves in position to give ourselves a chance.”

The Packers can be eliminated from the playoff picture if they lose Sunday and either the Commanders win at home against the Cleveland Browns (6-9) or the Detroit Lions (7-8) win at home against the Chicago Bears (3-12). The Browns-Commanders game and Bears-Lions matchup should be finishing up right around the time the Packers and Vikings have their opening kickoff.

Minnesota (12-3) is seeking its first regular-season sweep of the Packers (7-8) since 2017. The Vikings went 1-0-1 against Green Bay in 2018.

“Vikings-Packers week, so everything is on the board,” Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said. “It’s time to go play some ball. I don’t care if it was Week 20, it’s time to go play some ball and live out this dream Vikings-Packers rivalry.”

The Vikings still have an outside chance of earning the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and the conference’s lone first-round playoff bye, but that goal might be out of reach by the time they start this game. Philadelphia (13-2) can wrap up the No. 1 seed by winning at home against New Orleans (6-9) earlier Sunday.

Minnesota earned its playoff spot because of its ability to win close games. The Vikings’ Sept. 11 triumph over the Packers is their only victory that was decided by more than eight points.

The most notable example of the Vikings’ tenacity came Dec. 18 when they clinched the NFC North title by erasing a 33-0 deficit to beat the Indianapolis Colts 39-36 in overtime, completing the biggest comeback in NFL history.

“You can tell they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “They’re going out there, they’re competing at a high, high level. Obviously one of the best teams in the league, so we’re going to have to play at our best and prepare at our best to give ourselves a chance because they’ve just been so consistent throughout the entire course of the season.”

SMITH’S RETURN

Minnesota’s Za’Darius Smith played for the Packers from 2019-21 and had a combined 26 sacks his first two seasons in Green Bay. After playing just one regular-season game and one playoff contest due to a back issue last year, Smith got released in a cap-saving move.

Smith has bounced back in Minnesota with 10 sacks this year.

The Packers have their own pass-rushing Smith in Preston Smith, who isn’t related to Za’Darius. Preston Smith has a team-high 8½ sacks, including three in his last two games.

JEFFERSON’S RECORDS

Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson already has set franchise single-season records in catches (123) and yards receiving (1,756). His record-setting season started when he caught nine passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the Vikings’ victory over the Packers.

Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander called Jefferson one of the top three receivers in the NFL, but said he was looking forward to rectifying things in Sunday’s rematch.

“He’s a really good receiver,” said Alexander, the Packers’ lone Pro Bowl selection. “But at the end of the day, I’m a really good corner, we’ve got really good corners, we’ve got really good linebackers, D-line, whatever it is. You don’t want to put too much focus on that one person because it’s like, the first game, that was a fluke.”

FORCING TURNOVERS

The Vikings have allowed the most yards passing of any NFL team. Only the Lions are giving up more overall yards per game or yards per play.

Yet the Vikings are going to the playoffs in part because of a plus-6 turnover margin that ranks fifth in the league.

The Packers also have done a good job of producing takeaways lately. The Packers have a plus-5 turnover margin during their three-game winning streak after being at minus-5 through their first 12 games.

PACKERS’ INJURIES

The Packers are coming off a 26-20 victory at Miami that proved costly, with injuries knocking wide receiver Christian Watson (hip), cornerback/kick returner Keisean Nixon (groin), right tackle Yosh Nijman (shoulder) and defensive lineman Dean Lowry (calf) out of the game.

Lowry was placed on injured reserve. Nixon and Watson are questionable for Sunday’s game, though Nijman is expected to play.

The Packers also expect to have left tackle David Bakhtiari back after he missed three games to recover from an appendectomy.

Minnesota will be missing center Garrett Bradbury (back) and defensive lineman James Lynch (shoulder).

WEATHER REPORT

The weather report in Green Bay calls for highs of around 37 and lows in the mid-20s. Midway through the week, the Sunday forecast didn’t call for snow.

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AP freelance writer Brian Hall contributed to this report.

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