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In Wednesday’s key matchup, we look ahead to Saturday’s wild-card round game between the Vikings and Packers.
Key matchup: Vikings QB Christian Ponder vs. Packers pass defense
As strange as it may sound given RB Adrian Peterson’s ability to take over a game on his own, the Packers have to concern themselves with Vikings QB Christian Ponder this week.
If they don’t do a better job against Ponder in the nightcap of Saturday’s wild-card round doubleheader than they did in Week 17, there is a good chance Minnesota will be extending its winning streak and the Packers will be exiting the playoffs without a playoff win for the second straight season.
The Packers’ pass defense, which was historically awful last season, improved in 2012, but it could not stop an efficient Ponder in Week 17. Just four weeks earlier, the Packers had held Ponder to a passer rating of 41.9 — his third lowest of a mostly disappointing season. Ponder struggled and threw two bad interceptions in the second half of that 23-14 loss. He bounced back, though, with the best outing of his career when the Vikings hosted the Packers in the regular-season finale with a playoff berth on the line. Ponder threw three touchdown passes and had a passer rating of 120.2 — both career highs — as the Vikings clinched a wild-card spot and kept Green Bay from securing a first-round bye with a 37-34 win.
Ponder is clearly getting more confident, and one way for the Packers to knock him down a peg would be with a more disruptive pass rush than the one that produced only one sack and two QB hits in Week 17, according to press box statistics. Ponder's decision making has been better in recent weeks. He didn’t throw an interception in the final three games of the season, but he threw at least one in 8-of-9 games prior to Week 15. We can probably count on Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers pulling out a few disguises that Ponder didn’t see when the two teams met in Minnesota, and if Ponder gets rattled, turnovers likely will follow.
Ponder is expected to also be seeing a defender in the secondary who was absent the two times Minnesota played Green Bay in the regular season. Charles Woodson has been cleared to return from the broken collarbone that sidelined him for the past 10 weeks and is expected to play Saturday. Woodson might show some signs of rust after the long layoff, but he is another playmaker — in a secondary that boasts a few, like Tramon Williams and rookie Casey Hayward — that Ponder has to be aware of at all times.
It will be interesting to see whether Ponder and the Packers’ pass defense return to the form they showed for much of the season or surprise us for the second week in a row at Lambeau Field on Saturday night.