GREEN BAY – The old adage says division games count double, and the math in this particular case illustrates it clearly.
When Sunday's Packers-Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium ends, Green Bay will either be up 4½ games on Minnesota in the NFC North, or only 2½ (barring an overtime tie). In other words, the division will become either an actual race or all but a foregone conclusion.
From the perspective of the 8-2 Packers, this game is all about not giving the 4-5 Vikings any realistic hope of catching them.
"That's a big opportunity," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "First goal is winning the North."
With a victory and a 4½-game lead in the North with six games to play – that's the closest the Bears would be as well, if they beat the Ravens to improve to 4-6 – the Packers would need only two more wins to effectively clinch the division.
The only reason they'd need three is if either the Bears or Vikings ran the table (both can't, because they play one another twice down the stretch).
Green Bay has larger goals than winning the division, of course, one being the best possible playoff seeding. The Packers are currently tied for the best record in the NFC with the Cardinals, whom they beat head-to-head. They'll be chasing the top seed in the NFC and the lone bye as long as it's out there for them.
Can the Packers still win the North and pursue the NFC's No. 1 seed with a loss on Sunday? Absolutely. Nothing's off the table by any means if Green Bay falls to 8-3.
But a look at this game from the Vikings' perspective helps to show how important it is for the Packers to keep their distance.
If the Vikings win in front of their home crowd Sunday, they'll be energized to make a run at the North, and they'll see a path to doing so. With only a 2½-game deficit and seven games left after this week, here's how a 5-5 Vikings team would perceive the landscape:
- Win while the Packers are on their bye to pick up a half-game.
- Pick up one more game from Weeks 14-16.
- Come to Lambeau Field in Week 17 (Jan. 2) and complete the head-to-head sweep to create a tie atop the division, owning the tiebreaker.
That would allow the Vikings to steal a division title that has seemed the Packers' for the taking since mid-October. It's a lot required to go right for Minnesota, and wrong for Green Bay, in that scenario. But stranger things have happened. This is the NFL after all.
The point is to not even bring such a scenario into play. That's what the Packers can accomplish by winning Sunday in Minneapolis.
They can effectively bury the Vikings in the division and relegate them to the wild-card chase. Meanwhile, Minnesota is looking to stay alive in the North, and will gain all kinds of life division-wise and playoff-wise in general by knocking off Green Bay.
"I think both teams look at it the same way … it's a great opportunity for both teams," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "They're going to be fired up and I'm sure we're going to get their best shot, just like they're going to get our best shot."
Another old adage says
"I feel like every week, everybody seems desperate to me, including us. These wins are so tough to come by. You need every one of these just to help put yourself in the best position possible for the end of the season."