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It's the Packers 'versus the entire stadium'

Sunday’s opener in Minnesota kicks off Kevin O’Connell era for Vikings

U.S. Bank Stadium
U.S. Bank Stadium

GREEN BAY – The Packers and Vikings haven't faced one another to open a season all that often, but when they do there's usually significance attached.

Sunday's showdown at U.S. Bank Stadium will mark just the eighth meeting between Green Bay and Minnesota in Week 1, and this one will go down in history as Kevin O'Connell's first game as Vikings head coach.

The others? In 2020, it was the first game of the COVID era played in empty stadiums. In 2008, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers started his first game. In 2003, the renovated and redeveloped Lambeau Field debuted.

Going back further, in 1992, it was the first game for both Mike Holmgren and Dennis Green as head coaches of these rivals. And in 1962, the Packers opened the defense of their first title of the Lombardi era against the Vikings and began what many consider the greatest season in franchise history.

There's not much to tag onto the 1974 and '94 openers, but those are the exceptions.

Historical footnotes aside, the beginning of the O'Connell era in Minnesota only adds to all the usual unknowns that go into the first game of a season, which include unscouted looks, the deployment of new personnel, and the like.

Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur even admitted this week that coaches spend "way too much time" on their game plans for Week 1. There's so much time available combined with so much nervous energy they can't help but watch just a little more film to come up with yet another new idea.

In the end, a lot of that overprepared-ness goes out the window once the ball is kicked off.

"Week 1, it's always a crapshoot," LaFleur said. "It's always interesting. It's just how do you respond and make adjustments along the way?"

One thing the Packers won't have to adjust to is being the target in the NFC North. Green Bay has won the division title in each of LaFleur's first three seasons, and a fourth straight crown would tie the franchise record for the longest streak (2011-14) since the advent of divisional play in 1967.

The longest such run of dominance in the NFC Central/North is owned by the Vikings at six years (1973-78), followed by the Bears with five (1984-88). But no team except the Packers has won this division three consecutive times since, and the current streak is the fourth of at least three games for Green Bay dating back to the mid-'90s.

"Everybody's trying to knock us out," Rodgers said.

The Packers are used to that, and veteran players are also accustomed to the anxiousness that comes with every season opener. Interestingly, the accomplished pros don't deny they still feel it, but they handle it by knowing it's coming and embracing it rather than trying to block it out.

"When you get to Sunday, the first time you walk through that tunnel, I'll have nerves too," said receiver Randall Cobb, now in his 12th NFL season. "It's part of the game. It's excitement and some anxiety and all these things mixed together."

Added Rodgers: "The nerves definitely are less than maybe 2008 against Minnesota at home, thankfully, but it's still exciting. I think if you're not nervous or don't have the butterflies, maybe you're doing the wrong thing. So I'll be excited to see how I feel before the game."

Nothing locks a player in like the reality check of a noisy indoor venue, too. U.S. Bank Stadium will be "insane in there," center Josh Myers said, from the player introductions through the final whistle.

Experienced, confident teams look at that as, again, a challenge to embrace, not a distraction to try to ignore.

"Going into a hostile environment like Minnesota and hearing that annoying horn that they like to blow and the 'Skol' chant, it just creates (an atmosphere) for the team to really stay together," LaFleur said. "It's kind of, the guys on that sideline, the guys in that locker room versus the entire stadium. So hopefully it'll bring us even closer together."

Team chemistry and tightness have been hallmarks of LaFleur's Packers teams to date, and early indications are this one is no different as it embarks on the upcoming journey.

These players enjoy playing the game, together, and they can't wait to do it again. The grind doesn't change, but neither do the high expectations, nor the desire to live up to them.

"We just have to control those emotions," safety Darnell Savage said. "First game, everybody's emotions are going to be through the roof. Coach said it today in the meeting, … just be in the moment, stay in the moment, and let everything else run its course."

The reason is simple, as fellow safety Adrian Amos so succinctly put it:

"Now everything counts."

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