NFC North arch rivals renew pleasantries this weekend when the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings square off in a pivotal showdown.
A Green Bay win would essentially end the race for the division crown, as the Packers would be up four games in the loss column over Minnesota. A Vikings win would mean a lot more, as it would keep Minnesota in the hunt for a wild card berth in the tightly-contested NFC.
Can the cardiac Vikings make it two in a row? Or will Aaron Rodgers and the Pack pull away from their rivals? Let’s break it down.
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- Opening line: Green Bay -2.5
- Current line: Green Bay -1.5
- Total: 47.5
Packers piling up wins, despite injuries
It’s pretty amazing to see Green Bay at 8-2 and atop the NFC considering all of the injuries they’ve endured this season. Star defenders Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith have been on injured reserve for weeks. They’ve lost tight end Robert Tonyan for the season, and dealt with COVID issues involving both Davante Adams and Aaron Rodgers.
Now, the latest players to land on the injury report are tailback Aaron Jones, who will miss 1-to-2 weeks with a knee sprain, while starting defender Rashan Gary will try to play through a hyperextended elbow. Tailback A.J. Dillon should be able to shoulder the load in Jones’ absence. But Gary likely won’t be 100% and Green Bay’s depth in the front seven is starting to get thin.
Despite all of this, the Packers keep winning. That’s what happens when you’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback and a very good head coach. Green Bay ranks seven in offensive DVOA and 11th in defensive DVOA despite all of the injuries.
The Packers defense has stepped up as of late against three tough opponents. They held Arizona to just 334 yards and 21 points. They contained the Chiefs to just 237 yards and 13 points. And last week they shutout Seattle and held them to 208 yards.
But none of those teams have Dalvin Cook in the opposing backfield. And a Packers defense that ranks 24th in rush defense DVOA will be tested by Minnesota’s star tailback.
Is the wrong team favored?
This line has dropped a full point since opening. Why? Because what if I told you that the 4-5 Vikings were actually better than the 8-2 Packers? It’s hard to believe, but the analytics suggest these two teams might be closer than their records would indicate. Minnesota actually ranks higher in overall DVOA. The Vikings are ninth, while the Packers are 12th.
After an off-year in 2020, Mike Zimmer has gotten this defense playing at a high level again. Minnesota ranks eighth in defensive DVOA, including sixth in pass defense DVOA. The unit should also benefit from the return of cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland, plus linebacker Anthony Barr.
Kirk Cousins is quietly having a very good season. He’s completed 68% of his passes, thrown 18 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. The question is whether Cousins wants to be aggressive, or become captain check down. Last week, Cousins was more aggressive, averaging 7.1 intended air yards per pass attempt. Coincidentally, he had one of his best games of the season in a winning effort over the Chargers.
When Cousins gets frustrating is when he becomes overly conservative. Case in point, his performance against the Dallas Cowboys on Halloween, in which he averaged only 5.5 intended air yards per pass attempt. To no surprise, Cousins had his lowest yardage output of the season.
The key to this game will be whether Minnesota can get Cook going against Green Bay’s subpar run defense. While Cook has dominated Green Bay in the past, he doesn’t have a great offensive line blocking in front of him. Minnesota ranks 26th in adjusted line yards and is dead-last in stuff rate. If the Vikings can’t get a push in the trenches, it’ll be tough sledding for this offense.
Minnesota has probably been the team I’ve bet on the most this season, and I’m going back to the well again.
I maintain that Minnesota’s record doesn’t reflect the strength of this team. And I don’t think the Packers are that much better than the Vikings. In fact, FootballOutsiders lists both of these teams with 6.4 estimated wins. So why does Green Bay have four more wins? It comes down to close games.
Minnesota lost to Cincinnati in overtime because of a poor replay review. They lost against Arizona on a missed chip shot field goal. And they lost in overtime to Baltimore after getting a stop on the first possession of overtime.
Meanwhile, Green Bay beat Cincinnati in overtime after both teams missed about 25 kicks in OT. And if not for a terrible miscommunication between A.J. Green and Kyler Murray, the Packers might’ve lost to Arizona several weeks ago.
I’m not giving Minnesota a pass for losing these close games. But it’s just to illustrate that these teams are both pretty good, which is why I’m taking the home divisional dog. I also think Minnesota makes for a great teaser piece.
The picks: Minnesota +1.5, tease Minnesota to +7.5
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Matt Barbato is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Matt, check out his archive and follow him @RealMattBarbato.