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Packers, Vikings coaches' first seasons reflect one another in key category

Both cultures changed from winning close games

Head Coaches Matt LaFleur and Kevin O'Connell
Head Coaches Matt LaFleur and Kevin O'Connell

GREEN BAY – Three years ago, an NFC North team with a new head coach found itself in a lot of close games, and won almost all of them.

Eight of nine one-possession games, in fact, wound up in the win column, with a ninth close victory chalked up in the playoffs.

That was the Green Bay Packers in Matt LaFleur's first year as head coach, of course, and their opponent Sunday at Lambeau Field in a huge Week 17 matchup is enjoying a season reminiscent of that one, only perhaps better.

Kevin O'Connell's first year in Minnesota has featured 11 one-possession games, and the Vikings remarkably have won every single one of them on their way to a 12-3 record and NFC North title.

Both teams had missed the playoffs the two previous seasons before the close contests started going their way. In short, nothing changes a culture like pulling out down-to-the-wire games.

"That's the league, you know," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "You win those games, you're going to be playoff-bound. You struggle or break even, you're going to be struggling or finding yourself at home in January.

"They've won like six on the last play of the game, or something like that. So obviously they've had to play really well in crunch time."

It's not just that so many games have been close, either. In half of the Vikings' wins, they've trailed at the end of the third quarter, with the most dramatic (and historic) comeback occurring two weeks ago. Indianapolis led Minnesota by 33 points at halftime and by 22 points with one quarter to go, yet the Vikings prevailed in overtime.

"They definitely have shown the resiliency it takes to play in this league," LaFleur said, specifying a trait he espouses as crucial to success in the NFL. "Our guys know that you've got to play the full 60 minutes."

Coincidentally, the Packers and Vikings met in the second-to-last regular-season game in LaFleur's first season in 2019, in Minnesota. Only the stakes were vastly different.

Back then, both teams were headed to the playoffs, but that game would decide the division title. This time around, the NFC North race is over, the Vikings are jockeying for the best possible seed, and the Packers are fighting for their playoff lives.

Similar to then, though, the teams' first meeting of the year was very early (Week 2 in 2019, Week 1 this season) and both teams are entering the rematch having evolved a bit.

The Packers have changed the most. For the opener nearly four months ago, they didn't have Elgton Jenkins or David Bakhtiari on the offensive line, and Bakhtiari is expected to return from his appendectomy this week. Jon Runyan and Yosh Nijman started at left guard and tackle back in Week 1, but they're on the right side now.

Green Bay also didn't have receiver Allen Lazard for that game, while Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs were playing their first NFL contests. Keisean Nixon was not the team's sparkplug in the return game he's become, nor a defensive fixture as the nickel corner, though Watson (hip) and Nixon (groin) are questionable to play due to injuries from the Miami game.

On the minus side, Rashan Gary and Eric Stokes are both on injured reserve for a defense that continues to experience ups and downs with its play.

For the Vikings, Austin Schlottmann has replaced the injured Garrett Bradbury at center, kick return threat Kene Nwangwu only had one attempt in the opener before going on to become one of the league's best this season, and the midseason trade for tight end T.J. Hockenson has given an explosive offense "another great weapon," according to LaFleur. Hockenson caught 13 passes for 109 yards and two TDs last week against the Giants in his best game for Minnesota.

"Both sides know we're two completely different teams by now," Lazard said. "We're not really expecting the same team from them, and I don't think they probably are about us, either."

The bigger question is whether the Vikings can pull out what promises to be yet another close game this year, or if the Packers can conjure up some of the magic from LaFleur's inaugural season and be the better team at crunch time.

Minnesota's 11 one-score wins already are an NFL record for one season, while Green Bay is trying to become the third NFC team (following Chicago in 2020 and Philadelphia in 2021) to take advantage of the seventh playoff spot and snag a wild card despite eight losses.

The Packers have come a long way from 4-8 but still have a lot of work to do, which includes beating the team that started this season's tumultuous path.

"The only way to grow is to go through adversity," said Bakhtiari, who knows plenty about that on a personal level. "And you either don't grow and to the other way, or you become stronger.

"I'm excited to see the trajectory of this team, I'm excited to see the trajectory of each one of the units, and the way you show it is on Sundays."

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