Fresh off the wire

Fast Forward: Green Bay Packers too deep for Vikings


Gregg Rosenthal watches Game Rewind every week. Then he tries to explain what he's seen.

Wild Card Weekend features four great matchups, with three games looking like virtual toss-ups.

The only team that could truly shock this weekend is the same team that made me look even dumber than usual over the final months of the regular season. Could Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings really beat the Green Bay Packers on the road?

Ponder playing his best

It's been a humbling season for Ponder. After a solid start to the season, the second-year pro had a series of games that ranked among the worst in the NFL by any quarterback this season. He had six games of 131 yards or less, with three under 100. This wasn't just about playing conservative; Ponder was wildly inefficient on a per-throw basis.

Despite facing eight defenders "in the box" on most plays, Ponder finished 31st in yards per attempt out of 32 eligible quarterbacks. Only Blaine Gabbert trailed him. Ponder often was indecisive and inaccurate. He fell deep down a quarterback hole.

Ponder has picked up his play dramatically in the last two weeks, especially on third down. He has converted eight third-and-long plays over that span, and 13 first downs from Ponder overall. He has completed 71 percent of passes and run for 57 yards on four carries. Those conversions have led to 47 points.

This is the type of football Minnesota dreams about from Ponder. He doesn't need to make huge plays all game, but the Vikings become a very difficult offense if he can make throws on third-and-long. Watching Game Rewind from his two matchups against the Packers, I still noticed some discouraging traits.

It is very rare to see Ponder complete a pass to his second read. He gets locked into a receiver. If that receiver isn't open, the play usually is done. Ponder often has to see the player open before throwing instead of anticipating. This was true even during this excellent stretch of play. Those Vikings receivers have just been open the last two weeks.

Wright and Simpson are keys

Ponder needs to see separation to make throws. That has happened the last two weeks because Jairus Wright and Jerome Simpson have done a nice job getting open.

This was especially true last week against a struggling Packers secondary. Tramon Williams had an absolutely awful game in coverage and defending the run. Cornerback Sam Shields sometimes was caught out of position.

Wright has some juice, and the Vikings have started to use him more like Percy Harvin. He's a huge key Saturday night because the Vikings need playmakers.

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Peterson makes blocking look better

The craziest part of Peterson's 199-yard performance against the Packers: Green Bay's defensive line wasn't that bad. They won plenty at the line of scrimmage, especially B.J. Raji. Practically all of Peterson's yards came after contact.

The problems with the Packers' defense really came from the linebackers and secondary. Green Bay's cornerbacks, especially Williams, wanted no part of Peterson. Other than Clay Matthews, the linebackers remain pedestrian. (Even Matthews got caught on a few plays.) Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers needs to get his house in order.

Then again, the Vikings need to keep scoring because ...

Green Bay's wide receivers are in great shape

Aaron Rodgers is playing at an extremely high level. Greg Jennings is finally back to his pre-injury form. Jennings makes such a big difference for this offense, helping turn last week's game around with a few terrific plays after the catch. He looks 100 percent.

The Packers' offense is at its best when its receivers are running free. Randall Cobb is expected back for this game. Jordy Nelson might be at less than 100 percent, but he caught a huge deep pass last week. James Jones is playing so well that he was named a team captain for the playoffs. Jermichael Finley had a few nice grabs and made a devastating block last week. No one can match the number of receivers the Packers throws at defenses. Especially Minnesota.

Antoine Winfield needs to stay on the field

The leader of the Vikings' secondary left last week's game early because of the pain he felt while trying to jam Packers receivers while playing with a broken hand. Winfield is going to tough it out and play Saturday night, but there's no telling how long he will last. Rodgers mercilessly picked on Marcus Sherels after Winfield left the game. Cornerback A.J. Jefferson wasn't much better. The Vikings' defense really had no answer for the Packers' offense once Winfield was out of the game.

The one big Minnesota advantage

The Vikings' pass rush can be pretty dangerous with Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams and Everson Griffen all on the same field at the same time. Rodgers really was afforded fine protection last week with one glaring exception: Right tackle Don Barclay struggled badly.

Griffen is extremely versatile. He can play inside, outside and even at linebacker. With all due respect to Allen, Griffen is the most dangerous player the Vikings' defense has right now. Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse actually did a nice job against Allen. If Allen and Griffen could turn up the heat at the same time, the Vikings have a chance.

The X-factor

Opponents practically take it for granted at this point that the Packers can't run. The only problem with that theory: They have run pretty well late in the season. At least for them. They had a streak of five games with at least 100 rushing yards end last week. But they might have found an answer to their weekly running back question in unknown second-year pro DeJuan Harris.

Maybe I'm crazy, but Harris could pull off a playoff run like James Starks did in 2010. I'm not sure Harris knows the offense like a veteran, but the guy runs very, very hard. He showed great vision and runs downhill. Harris isn't going to make defenders miss, but that's not the point. A rugged running back is exactly what this offense needs. That will be especially true in January conditions.

The great equalizer

Minnesota should hope for snow, wind, cold and anything else that can stymie a high-powered, timing passing attack. The Packers are better off in more pristine conditions because the Vikings' defense is not likely to slow them down without some help from Mother Nature.

The Vikings have proved me wrong before, but I haven't learned: Green Bay 34, Minnesota 17. This Packers team still has the ingredients to make another Super Bowl appearance.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.