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Aaron Rodgers, Mike Zimmer meet again – with a lot on the line

Packers QB, Vikings head coach have a long, competitive history

QB Aaron Rodgers and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer
QB Aaron Rodgers and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer

GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers and Mike Zimmer have seen enough of one another.

The two-time MVP quarterback and accomplished defensive coach playfully made that known on Thursday.

"Either me or him have to get out of this division at some point," Zimmer said in a conference call with Green Bay media. "It's too hard to go against him. He's too damn good.

"You guys should try to talk him into retiring."

Rodgers' reply?

"Tell him to retire."

Their head-to-head meetings – or perhaps more appropriately, mind-to-mind – date back to Zimmer's days as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator, when his Bengals beat the Packers twice in 2009 and '13 before he became Minnesota's head coach in 2014.

Not including the 2017 game in Minneapolis when Rodgers left in the first quarter with a broken collarbone, the two combatants are dead even at 5-5-1 heading into Monday night's big showdown at U.S. Bank Stadium.

But it's not about the record so much as the constant chess match going on between a quarterback and defensive play-caller – the checks, the adjustments, the risk-taking, the disguising.

Rodgers referred to Zimmer as "one of the best coaches in the league" and a "tactician on defense," while Zimmer called Rodgers "terrific" and "extremely smart."

The admiration truly is mutual but it shouldn't mask the ultra-competitive nature of the two men. They know the games aren't solely determined by their particular matchup, but they absolutely want to get the best of one another.

The pair didn't get into a whole lot of memories this week, but they reflected on a couple.

Zimmer recalled the Packers' visit to the Vikings' temporary home of TCF Bank Stadium in 2015, when Rodgers scrambled to his right, stopped near the sideline and fired a 40-yard dart to a tip-toeing James Jones at the edge of the end zone for the kind of off-schedule, back-breaking touchdown that keeps defensive coaches up at night.

Rodgers is four years older now, but Zimmer doesn't doubt he can still make a play like that. The memory, and possibility, prompted Zimmer's retirement plea.

For his part, Rodgers remembered one of his best games ever against the Vikings, late in the 2016 season during "run the table," when Zimmer's defenders didn't stick to the game plan and paid dearly for it.

"They went a little rogue early in the game … and Mike kind of ripped them afterward," Rodgers said. "Because he has a plan. He has a specific plan he wants run, and it's usually based on some good study and good instincts on his part."

The backdrop and history heading into Monday night is intriguing, but both sides know every game is its own entity as well.

The current Minnesota defense, as usual, features stars at all three levels. Pass rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, and defensive backs Harrison Smith and Trae Waynes are just the headliners on a unit that has played together for several years now.

The Vikings are tied for sixth in the league in points allowed, rank fourth in takeaways, and are coming off a seven-turnover outing and second-half shutout against the Chargers last week.

"It's as challenging as any defense in the National Football League," Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "When you watch them, they're just so fundamentally sound. It's really difficult to get big plays on them.

"It just seems like they're always on the same page, no matter what happens. And if you get 'em on something once, you're not getting them again."

Schematically, Zimmer's defense will present challenges not only for the quarterback, but for his perimeter weapons as well.

"They've had their rolodex, what we like to call when guys roll out a bunch of different coverages and keep you on your toes," receiver Davante Adams said. "They also have a bunch of ways of getting to different things with their disguise. It's a great scheme, not knowing if it's going to be empty or single-high or two-high safety. It makes it tough on the wideouts."

Rodgers also said the defense will show one look to bait him into making a check, and then from there get into the look they wanted to run in the first place. The stress Zimmer and the Vikings create for an offense is applied from all angles.

"He's going to throw a number of different things at you," Rodgers said. "They're as good with their disguise and their togetherness as the best Chicago Bears defenses that I faced over my time when they were rolling with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and Peanut Tillman…just the way they would play together from the front to the back end is the same way, the continuity they have."

For the record, Rodgers posted a 101.2 passer rating against the Vikings in the Packers' Week 2 victory this season, his fourth rating of 100-plus against Minnesota with Zimmer as head coach. He's also had four games against Zimmer with ratings under 85, including the losses to the Bengals, and has absorbed four or more sacks seven times.

For what it's worth, this serves as the highest-stakes contest between them to date. Back in the 2015 regular-season finale, both teams had double-digit wins and the NFC North title was at stake, but both had already secured playoff berths with no shot at a first-round bye.

This time, the division title remains in the balance, while the Vikings need another win to clinch a playoff spot and the Packers are in the running for a top-two seed and the accompanying bye.

"It's going to be one of those old-fashioned NFC North contests," Rodgers said.

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