By Tom Pollin
Black and Blue Division Bruiser (@tjpollin)
Four weeks ago the Minnesota Vikings were in third place in the NFC North, two games behind the Bears and facing the toughest stretch run in the division to make the playoffs.
With their exciting 37-34 victory over the Packers the Vikings finished a sweep through those four weeks to make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the NFC.
Adrian Peterson gained 36-yards on five carries in the Vikings final drive to put them in position for the game winning 29-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.
Peterson ended up falling nine-yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105-yards but gets to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 as a consolation prize.
The Packers tied the game three times in the second half but couldn’t get the go-ahead score or come up with a defensive stop to put the Vikings away.
In Detroit, the Bears held off the Lions for a 26-24 win that kept their playoff hopes alive and would have put them in as the No. 6 seed if the Packers could have come from behind for a victory in Minnesota. Instead, their season is over after finishing with a 10-6 record.
With the playoffs set to begin next weekend here are five things we learned in week 17.
1. Christian Ponder played to Aaron Rodgers’ standards.
Not that anyone expects Ponder to make a habit of that but for one must-win game he came up big.
Rodgers completed 28 passes for 365-yards, 4 TD’s, averaged 7.4 Real Passing Yards per Attempt and finished with a Passer Rating of 131.8.
Ponder didn’t throw as many passes but made the most of his 16 completions. He threw for 234-yards, 3 TD’s, 7.8 Real Passing Yards per Attempt and finished with a 120.2 Passer Rating, his highest for the season.
Ponder has had problems finding receivers to make plays since Percy Harvin went on IR with his ankle injury. Against the Packers he completed passes to eight receivers with Jarius Wright making the biggest plays. Wright caught three passes for 90-yards and a touchdown.
His most important catch was after the Packers had tied the game at 27 in the fourth quarter. On the first play of their next possession Ponder connected with Wright for 65-yards to set up the Vikings with first and 10 at the Green Bay 14.
2. Minnesota won the battle of the defenses.
Similar to their first meeting the Packers couldn’t shut down Adrian Peterson. Early in December at Lambeau Field Peterson gained 210-yards on 21 carries. In this game they held him to 199-yards in 34 carries for a 5.9-yards per carry average.
The Packers were also unable to put pressure on Ponder to force him into mistakes. Clay Matthews chased him down from behind for the only sack by the Packers in the game.
The Packers only created one opportunity to force Ponder into a mistake. With just under four minutes remaining in the first half Casey Hayward shot through the middle of the Vikings’ line and forced Ponder to throw up a floater as he was hit. Not only didn’t the Packers not come up with the interception, Wright snuck between two defenders to grab the pass for a 17-yard completion.
Their inability to take advantage cost the Packers when Ponder finished the drive with an eight-yard completion, again to Wright for the touchdown that put the Vikings ahead 20-7.
The Vikings kept pressure on Rodgers all afternoon. They sacked him five times for 32-yards in losses. They also recorded seven quarterback hits. Defensive end Everson Griffen did the most damage against the Packers with three sacks and four of the seven quarterback hits. Jared Allen also had an important sack.
3. The Bears played to their strengths.
There’s an old saying that “you dance with the one that brung ya”, a saying my prom date was obviously unaware of but one the Bears took to heart in Detroit.
The Bears forced the Lions into four turnovers to put them at +20 in turnover differential for the season, second only to the Patriots. They converted those turnovers into 16 points, a touchdown and three Olindo Mare field goals.
The Bears’ No. 2 Defensive Passer Rating ranking took a hit with the 90.6 rating Matthew Stafford achieved but they did hold him to a 5.93 Real Passing Yards per Attempt average.
Calvin Johnson was held below 100-yards receiving for the first time in eight games by second year Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, who held Johnson to 36-yards receiving earlier this season. Johnson finished 36-yards short of the 2,000 for the season.
The Bears’ No. 5 ranked Defensive Hog unit held running back Mikel Leshoure to 57-yards rushing and the Lions as a team to 72-yards and a 3.6-yards per carry average.
On offense running back Matt Forte ran hard to finish with 103-yards, a 4.3-YPC average and a touchdown that made the score 17-3 in the second quarter.
4. The Bears’ inability to convert field position into touchdowns almost cost the game.
The Bears’ offense benefited from drives starting at the Detroit 23, 10, 23 and 13-yard lines and could only convert one of those opportunities into a touchdown. Their lack of touchdowns when inside the red zone has been a problem all season.
The Bears have converted red zone opportunities into touchdowns at a 52.4 percent rate, No. 16 in the NFL. That percentage is almost identical to their conversion percentage in 2011. That’s the reason the Bears are unable to score enough points to win when their defense doesn’t contribute to scoring.
The Bears were 8-0 in games when their defense scored at least one touchdown, 2-6 the rest of the time. The Bears thought they had taken steps to fix that problem when they brought Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush to the team during the past offseason. They’ll need to address it again before 2013.
5. The Packers and Vikings beat each other up to earn…
…the opportunity to beat each other up again next weekend in Green Bay at Lambeau Field. It will be the third time in six games the Packers and Vikings will play each other.
This is the second time these two teams will play each other in the postseason. Minnesota beat the Packers, 31-17, at Lambeau Field in the 2004 wildcard round ... that game is remembered for the famous "Randy Moss moons the crowd" moment.
The Packers will also be looking to recover from the 37-20 humiliation the Giants laid on them on the way to their Super Bowl XLVI victory last season.
The last time the Vikings were in the playoffs Brett Favre threw one of his “gunslinger mentality” cross-body passes to the Saints’ Tracy Porter to cost the Vikings a trip to Super Bowl XLIV.
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