Can the Minnesota Vikings put the Green Bay Packers’ stranglehold on the division in Jeopardy! in 2022?
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Even if it’s admitted through gritted teeth, it’s impossible to deny that the Packers have been the kings of the NFC North over the past decade. In the past 10 seasons, Green Bay has won the division seven times, with the notable exceptions that often coincided with Aaron Rodgers missing time or playing hobbled. But, for the most part, a healthy Rodgers has meant Green Bay was winning the division.
That’s what made all the offseason speculation about the disgruntled relationship between Rodgers and the Packers so fascinating. Unfortunately for the Vikings, all it took was a 3-year, $150.8 million contract, and now Aaron is ready to be a good soldier again.
But with that monster contract came consequences, and the Packers are not without weaknesses on their roster. Can this retooled Vikings team exploit these defects and challenge Green Bay for the NFC North in 2022?
I’ve been profiling our division rivals the last two weeks with pieces on the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, and there’s a lot of reason for optimism in those matchups. But should Kevin O’Connell feel nearly as confident heading into his first Border Battle with Green Bay this season?
How much does the loss of Davante Adams matter?
We spent the last two years speculating that Rodgers could leave Green Bay over the lack of offensive talent around him. Turns out that’s not true.
General manager Brian Gutekunst traded away Davante Adams, arguably the best receiver in football, this offseason. But so long as Aaron can hang out with his buddy Randall Cobb and count his $150.8 million, he doesn’t seem too perturbed.
Still, the Packers already had a deficiency at receiver before sending Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders, as evidenced by their anemic offensive performance against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. The Niners loss led to a whirlwind of speculation that the Packers would be desperate to get in the wide-receiver market. They were candidates to trade for or sign a high-profile veteran or take advantage of a talented class at receiver in the draft.
Gutekunst stayed patient, though, leaving Packers fans in some suspense. Rather than breaking the bank, he elected to go bargain-shopping in free agency, signing a potentially washed-up Sammy Watkins. Gutekunst also stayed patient on draft night, electing to draft two Georgia defenders in the first round, linebacker Quay Walker and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt, rather than getting aggressive for a pass catcher.
He made a deal with Minnesota on Day 2 of the draft, though, much to the chagrin of some Vikings fans. Green Bay paid a hefty price of two second-round picks to move up and select NDSU wide receiver Christian Watson. The long, athletic NDSU receiver has intriguing size and speed combo, but he was a polarizing player for many scouts. His 4.36 40-yard dash makes the 6’4″ receiver a tantalizing prospect. But by many accounts, he still has a ways to go as a route-runner and doesn’t have the most natural hands.
Even with some of the deficiencies at receiver, they’ve got a lot of talent on the roster. Rashan Gary has come into his own and should pair nicely with Devonte Wyatt on the defensive front. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are a dynamic running back tandem and excellent fits for Matt LaFleur’s rushing scheme. Jaire Alexander has a hefty price tag after signing his big extension this offseason but is easily the best corner in the division.
But, ultimately, the entire roster construction comes down to Aaron Rodgers. Does it matter if Allen Lazard is your WR1 if a future Hall of Famer is throwing him the ball? Gutekunst is betting on Matt LaFleur’s ability to scheme around the receiving deficiency and Rodgers to elevate the talent around him.
Can the Vikings make a statement in Week 1?
Kevin O’Connell faces a daunting test in his first career game as head coach.
The Border Battle has a chance to be a statement game for this new regime. Starting the season with the home crowd cheering them on is undoubtedly a boost, but will it be enough?
Rodgers will be building chemistry with his rookie receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Dubbs while leaning on veterans like Allen Lazard and Sammy Watkins for stability. However, he benefits from breaking them in against a young secondary.
New Vikings Andrew Booth and Lewis Cine will be just getting their feet wet in the NFL. Even veterans like Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith will be adjusting to the new defense under Ed Donatell. Whether the Vikings’ secondary can find a way to stymie Rodgers could be the key to the game.
On the other hand, what greater test for this new offense led by Kevin O’Connell than a stout Packers defense? The Kenny Clark-Devonte Wyatt tandem could cause fits for Minnesota’s interior offensive line, making things uncomfortable for Kirk Cousins. The Vikings must get Cousins into a confident rhythm so he can utilize Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook to their fullest potential, allowing for complementary football. It would also keep the defense from getting cooked all afternoon.
The stakes of Minnesota’s penultimate game will likely be dependent on how the season plays out beforehand. It’ll be essential that Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings enter Week 17 with more than pride on the line.
That late in the year, it will be a good litmus test for how these teams have grown and what their future could hold. Has Watson developed into a consistent threat by the end of the year, leaving Vikings fans furious that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah let Green Bay slide up to get him? Has the young secondary in Minnesota come together to play as a cohesive unit? We should know a lot about the long-term future of these position groups by how they perform in the rematch.
The Packers remain the final boss for Minnesota to overcome before truly taking the next step. They’ve got a solid, consistent roster construction and a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. Conversely, Minnesota still has plenty of work to do in its “competitive rebuild.”
But Minnesota has a chance to move ahead of schedule in their plans if they can challenge Green Bay this season. A victory at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 1 could set the tone for the season and make a huge statement for this new Vikings regime. Then they’ll have to earn their right to have something at stake for the rematch at the end of the year.