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Packers revving up for final playoff push

Green Bay ready for high-stakes NFC North showdown in Minnesota

QB Jordan Love
QB Jordan Love

GREEN BAY – After ringing in 2023 with a dominant New Year's Day victory over Minnesota, the Packers now look to close the calendar year in similar fashion this Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The high-stakes NFC North showdown closely mirrors last year's Week 17 encounter between the two teams at Lambeau Field, which saw Green Bay register arguably its best performance of the 2022 campaign in a 41-17 triumph.

The Packers kept their playoff hopes alive with that win and now must do the same in a battle of 7-8 squads looking to keep their nose in the NFC postseason picture.

"It's going to be a great challenge for us," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "I think one that we've got to make sure we put in the work throughout the course of the week and our guys will be excited for that challenge come Sunday Night Football."

Following their New Year's Day meeting, the Packers and Vikings met again in an October game that marked a turning point for both teams. Minnesota got the better of Green Bay, 24-10, but lost quarterback Kirk Cousins for the season to a torn Achilles.

Since then, the Vikings have gone 3-4 behind veterans Josh Dobbs and Nick Mullens. Head coach Kevin O'Connell has yet to name a starter for Sunday after Mullens threw four interceptions in Sunday's 30-24 loss to Detroit. It's possible rookie fifth-round pick Jaren Hall could make his second NFL start.

Offensively, the Packers and first-year starting quarterback Jordan Love enter the rematch with Minnesota in a much-improved place. In eight starts since that Week 8 loss, Love has completed 186 of 280 passes (66.4%) for 2,095 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions (103.2 passer rating). Green Bay's offense has averaged 370.3 yards and 24.1 points per game during that stretch.

Love said he re-watched his first start against Minnesota on Tuesday. The 25-year-old quarterback credits the Vikings for mixing up their coverages and pressures, but also believes he and the offense have come a long way over the past two months.

"I think we're definitely a different team and a different offense," said Love, who went 24 of 41 for 229 yards with one touchdown and an interception (72.1 passer rating) vs. the Vikings two months ago. "Some of those plays we missed on, we've grown into understanding what we need to do and ways to fix that going forward. So, I definitely think we're a better offense than we were the first time we played."

A testament to his personal growth, Love led the Packers to a 33-30 road win over the Carolina Panthers on Christmas Eve despite missing tight end Luke Musgrave (lacerated kidney), and receivers Christian Watson (hamstring) and Jayden Reed (chest/toe).

Running back AJ Dillon also played through a broken thumb, while promising fifth-round pick Dontayvion Wicks exited at halftime with a chest injury.

Beyond just the win, perhaps the biggest silver lining to come out of Carolina was the return of running back Aaron Jones. Slowed by hamstring and knee injuries earlier this season, the former Pro Bowler rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries against the Panthers.

It was the first time a Packers running back eclipsed the century mark in a game since Jones rushed for 111 yards on just 14 carries against Minnesota on New Year's Day 2023. To see Jones back in the lineup was an encouraging sign for Green Bay's burgeoning run offense.

"He's obviously a tremendous player," said Dillon of Jones. "The plays are drawn up on paper but it's awesome when you're like 'Oh man, that block happened, that block happened, block happened,' or Aaron hits it and stiff arms and makes a guy miss. That's how it's supposed to look. I was happy we were doing that at a high level."

Looking to mount a playoff surge, the Packers couldn't have asked for a more competitive way to end the regular season than back-to-back NFC North matchups against Minnesota and Chicago.

To the Packers' locker room, however, it feels as though the playoffs have already begun. One game back from the Los Angeles Rams (8-7) and Seattle (8-7) for the final two NFC Wild Cards berths, Green Bay knows it has little room for error.

Continual offensive progress has the Packers feeling like they are peaking at the right time.

"I think that's once again those building blocks," Dillon said. "I keep talking about keeping that momentum and building off each game. I think we're good. Obviously, there's stuff we can clean up, stuff we can get better at like there is every week on every team, but as far as if you're looking at the graph, I think it's charting up."

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