Defense, ground game fuel NFC North-clinching win for Packers

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MINNEAPOLIS – The Packers are back on top of the NFC North.

It took good, old-fashioned dominance by the defense and the running game, but it was plenty to overcome several early miscues and forge a 23-10 victory over the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night.

"We've got a resilient group – a group that doesn't blink, doesn't flinch in tough times and sticks together," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "That's what we talk about all the time. Credit to that locker room and I couldn't be happier to be their coach."

That first-year coach now has a division title to his name, as the Packers needed their resilience to battle back from three first-half turnovers and missed opportunities to score. But they controlled the second half and as a result have a lot to play for as the regular season wraps up next week.

At 12-3, the Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win at Detroit. They could also get the NFC's No. 1 seed with a win and a Seattle win over San Francisco.

Either way, their playoff prospects are considerably brighter after winning for the first time at U.S. Bank Stadium in four tries.

"One of our goals was to win the division, but I think there's more out there for our football team," LaFleur said. "It's time to reassess those goals and move forward."

The Packers will take this kind of defense and ground game whenever they can.

Green Bay's defense was stifling. First, it held the Vikings to just 10 points off those three first-half turnovers, including a goal-to-go stop after an opening-drive fumble.

Then, it buried Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins with a barrage of pressure, producing five sacks and holding the Vikings to just seven first downs and 139 total yards.

Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith was the defensive star, compiling 3½ sacks and a couple other plays in the Vikings' backfield. He's now the team leader with 13½ sacks on the year.

"It seemed like he was unblockable," LaFleur said. "I can't say enough about him not only as a player but as a leader, how he totally embraces the team concept."

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Offensively, the Packers simply hung in there until the Vikings started to crack.

Missed chances in the first half produced just three field goals for a 10-9 deficit at halftime. But given all that had gone wrong – down 3-0 in turnovers, some missed throws and dropped passes – the Packers were still in good shape.

"We just said we'll take that any day of the week, because it's usually not like that," LaFleur said.

The second half was all about the running game, as Aaron Jones rushed for two touchdowns, including a back-breaking 56-yarder midway through the fourth quarter that gave the Packers a two-score lead.

Jones, who had the fumble on the game's opening drive, finished with 23 carries for 154 yards. The two scores gave him 16 rushing touchdowns on the season and 19 total TDs, both closing in on team records.

"We controlled the clock," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "Had the ball for 37-plus (minutes). It doesn't matter who you are, that'll wear you out. We sustained some drives and moved the ball well.

"We stuck to it."

LaFleur kept the offense pounding away, as Jamaal Williams added 33 yards on six carries before leaving with a shoulder injury.

Jones' 12-yard run around left end for a score gave the Packers their first lead in the third quarter, and then he broke it open later with the big run on a similar look. The Vikings were playing two safeties deep much of the game to take away the explosive passing plays, and the Packers found a way to take advantage.

"We tried to get some guys down the field and it just wasn't happening, so at that point in time we really committed to the running game," LaFleur said.

"Our guys up front were doing a great job maintaining the line of scrimmage, and I thought our receivers were the difference. They were making some huge blocks downfield. They were very physical."

Rodgers threw for just 216 yards and had one interception (26-of-40, 68.3 passer rating), but he still had a better night than Cousins, who was picked off on a deep ball by cornerback Kevin King right when Minnesota appeared to have some momentum in the third quarter.

Cousins finished 16-of-31 for just 122 yards, one TD and a 58.8 rating.

The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings faced off in a Week 16 matchup on Monday Night Football.