GREEN BAY – Teams often say they learn from their losses.
So, how about learning from other team’s losses?
Two weeks ago on a Thursday night, the Minnesota Vikings took the Arizona Cardinals to the wire, with a strip-sack in the waning seconds preventing the Vikings from getting a shot at a game-tying field goal in a 23-20 decision.
It was one of only two times the Cardinals’ current eight-game winning streak has been seriously threatened, and it wasn’t a case of Minnesota catching Arizona on a bad day.
The Cardinals rolled up 393 yards of total offense, a couple of first downs under their season average (423). They converted a solid 46 percent on third down (6 of 13), almost right on their season mark (47.2). They didn’t turn the ball over in 66 offensive snaps. They committed only four penalties for 30 yards.
Yet, on the road on a short week, the Vikings were right with them at the end, which is right where the Packers will want to be on Sunday in Arizona with the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed still available.
How did the Vikings put themselves in that position? They showed the Packers two things that would serve Green Bay well, and one thing no opponent can afford to do against a team as well-rounded as the Cardinals.
1. Rise up in the red zone – The Cardinals moved the ball and the chains, racking up 22 first downs, but the only two times in the game they were in goal-to-go situations, the Vikings got stops to force field goals.
Arizona burned Minnesota for two big-play touchdowns on passes of 65 and 42 yards, and the Cardinals have thrived on explosive gains all season. The Vikings mitigated the damage those caused, though, by playing their best defense near the goal line.
They sacked Cardinals QB Carson Palmer only twice in the game, but one of them came on second-and-goal late in the third quarter with Arizona looking to extend a seven-point lead. It was a huge play, and Minnesota’s deficit only reached 10 points.
Arizona’s offense is ranked 11th in the league in touchdown percentage in the red zone. Green Bay’s defense is ranked 15th. The Packers have to rise up and win that phase once or twice on Sunday.
2. Stick with the run – Trailing by those 10 points early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings, to their credit, didn’t give up on the ground game and go all pass-happy trying to rally. In coming back with an eight-play drive for a field goal and an 11-play drive for a tying touchdown, Minnesota gave the ball to running back Adrian Peterson seven times.
Those seven carries weren’t particularly productive. They gained only 21 yards. But Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t sacked on either of those two drives, and Minnesota got back into the game by staying balanced on offense when the game situation might have lent itself to one-dimensional urgency, especially against an Arizona defense now ranked fourth in the league against the run.
Peterson is a breed all his own at running back, of course, and the Vikings are fifth in the league in rushing offense. The Packers are a very respectable ninth, with a running game that has been particularly effective in the fourth quarter of late. It could prove valuable.
3. Don’t turn it over – Minnesota’s downfall was turnovers, and not just the strip-sack at the end. As mentioned, the Cardinals didn’t turn it over, but the Vikings did twice before the final drive, both times on fumbles in scoring territory.
Since their 6-0 start, the Packers – who have the fewest giveaways in the league, with just 11 – have committed costly turnovers that changed the early complexion of games. An interception at Detroit contributed greatly to a 17-0 first-quarter hole. First-half fumbles vs. Chicago and at Oakland shifted momentum in games the Packers initially controlled.
Those types of mistakes must be avoided. Arizona’s 29 takeaways are second-most in the league, behind only unbeaten Carolina’s 35.
Winning, or at least not losing, the turnover battle is key in any game, and its importance this Sunday cannot be overstated. It’s the one factor that can undermine an otherwise well-executed, start-to-finish effort.
Just ask the Vikings.
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