If you set out to write the story of the 2021 Minnesota Vikings on the day the schedule was released, it would have seemed too obvious to pen a tale that brought the entire season to a head in a game at Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
The jaded authors would have written the narrative exactly as it has gone in reality: Green Bay leading the division, looking down from its pedestal at the sputtering Vikings, who desperately needed an upset victory to hang around in the “In The Hunt” graphic. The particularly clairvoyant could have seen conversations about hot seats being already underway and fans peeking at mock drafts with QBs by Week 17.
The dreamers, of course, would have drawn it as a fable. They would have drafted up a matchup in the sub-zero temperatures for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
That’s a long way of saying that the Vikings trying desperately to stay alive while Aaron Rodgers makes his case as a Super Bowl favorite isn’t a debut novel, it has as many volumes as Goosebumps.
The kicker to the 2021 book is that the same people who were brought in to dethrone Rodgers are the ones whose futures are in question as the Vikings travel east.
It was never said out loud but it’s safe to surmise that a major part of the Vikings hiring Mike Zimmer as their head coach in 2014 was that the NFC North’s king was the quarterback in Green Bay. With Cincinnati, Zimmer had gone to battle with Ben Roethlisberger for years and was not KO’d on a regular basis.
That has been the case in Minnesota with his matchups against Rodgers, where Zimmer’s defenses have given Rodgers fits at times through the years. But lately it hasn’t been the same without all of the stars that made it possible. In November, Rodgers went 22-for-33 with 385 yards and four touchdowns, in a performance that skyrocketed his chances at taking home another MVP. Since then he’s won four straight with a 119.9 quarterback rating.
The Vikings came away with a win in that contest as Kirk Cousins had his signature performance of the season with 341 yards and three touchdowns of his own. Similarly to Zimmer, Cousins has been able to hang in the fight with Rodgers in the four years they’ve been foes of the Border Battle. They tied 29-29 in Cousins’ first showing against Rodgers as a Viking and they’ve more or less exchanged victories since.
The Packers have gotten the better of the last matchup that had something on the line. In 2019, the Vikings had a chance to fight to the end for the NFC North with a victory over Green Bay in Week 16 but Cousins threw for just 122 yards and the Vikings produced 10 points. They ended up as the No. 6 seed while Green Bay tied for the best record in the NFC.
Though the coach who was hired to slow down the future Hall of Fame QB has done alright and the quarterback who was signed to go blow-for-blow in shootouts with Rodgers has done alright, the Vikings have found themselves at the end of the last three seasons looking up from the middle of the division and seeing green and yellow.
For that reason, it would be appropriate if Green Bay was the final resting place for the 2021 season. Over the years, the Vikings haven’t been a terrible football team like the New York Jets or Detroit Lions but the Packers have always shined a light on how far away they are from truly being a championship contender.
That has never been more true this season. Rodgers is playing his best ball in December while Cousins has five of his worst six PFF graded games over the last month-and-a-half. Zimmer’s defense has shown some flashes and has schemed its way to leading the NFL in sacks but they have melted down over and over in clutch situations.
It’s the story of the Zimmer-Cousins era in a nutshell. Always something missing. Always a step behind the big boys.
Now the Vikings head to Green Bay on Sunday night with a 13% chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight. If the Vikings win, their playoff odds jump to 50-50. They’re essentially out with a loss. The Packers have a 93% chance at the No. 1 seed if they win. There’s a stat that defines the last decade for both franchises.
In that way, Lambeau is the perfect crypt for the Zimmer era. Betting odds have Zimmer as having the fourth highest odds to be fired after the season and with Cousins set to carry a $45 million cap hit into next year, there’s already credible writers mocking up trades to send him to Pittsburgh or New Orleans. Losing in Green Bay on Sunday night in miserable fashion like they did in 2019 would all but close the door on the coffin for each of their times in Minnesota.
Of course, the book isn’t finished yet. If the Vikings can find one last breath against the Packers and then beat the Bears on the final day of the season, they have a good chance of making the playoffs. Then it becomes less clear what types of changes could be coming this offseason. Coach searches and first-round quarterbacks might not be in the cards if Zimmer and Cousins find a way to make things interesting in the postseason.
It doesn’t feel that way. It feels similar to what happened in Green Bay in 2016 when the Vikings’ playoff chances were on life support and Rodgers and Jordy Nelson put those hopes to rest in an eye blink.
But this is the Vikings, where things rarely go by the book.