Win and In: Packers set up de facto Week 18 playoff game with victory over Vikings
After dispatching the Vikings at Lambeau Field and getting a little outside help, the Packers now control their playoff destiny entering the regular-season finale.
The Green Bay Packers dispatched the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, setting up a win-and-in showdown with the Detroit Lions next week. This scenario, one that seemed far-fetched just over a month ago, could not have come to fruition without some help, and the Packers received it courtesy of the Cleveland Browns' victory over the Washington Commanders earlier in the day. Now, Green Bay holds its playoff destiny in its hands.
Today's edition of The Leap unpacks the Packers' dominating win over the Vikings and highlights key personnel developments.
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Which moment from Sunday's game best encapsulated the 2022 Vikings' "fraudulence" in your view?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: I'll just share this and then clear the lane for Peter.
Peter Bukowski: The best encapsulation actually came after the game, though it was something that was a result from the game. Jaire Alexander clamped down on Justin Jefferson, holding the Vikings’ star receiver to just one catch for the game, shadowing him most of the evening. At one point, Alexander broke up a pass intended for Jefferson on the sideline and hit the signature Griddy dance Jefferson does when scoring touchdowns (more on this later, with video).
Instead of taking the ribbing in stride, Jefferson complained after the game that Alexander should have been called for taunting. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard an NFL player complain about a taunting no-call.
This is front-runner behavior.
Twice in plain view of the cameras, Jefferson threw his helmet in frustration. When the Vikings have played the best teams they’ve faced this season, they’ve not just lost in most of those cases, but been demolished. And while they’re getting demolished, they can’t handle the same celebrations they, themselves, do when they’re winning.
What do you make of the Packers' pulling Yosh Nijman for Zach Tom during the game?
JBH: This development came out of nowhere during the game. On the Packers' third offensive series, Zach Tom came onto the field with the unit while Yosh Nijman, who started the game, remained on the sidelines. Nijman suffered a stinger in his shoulder during last week's win over the Miami Dolphins, so it seemed possible the offensive tackle had aggravated the injury.
However, the Packers never gave Nijman an official injury status. Instead, they simply rolled with Tom at right tackle for the remainder of the game while Nijman played on the field-goal unit.
But for as strange as the decision seemed in the moment, the Packers can't complain about the results. Tom held up well in both the pass and run game, contributing to Aaron Rodgers taking just three hits and one sack the entire game (and that fault for that sack falls almost entirely on the quarterback).
After the contest, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said that Nijman "was down for a minute" but "was available to go back into the game." However, the team decided to take a cautious approach and stick with Tom at right tackle.
Even so, the decision to essentially rest Nijman even after he felt ready to return speaks volumes about how the coaching staff views Tom. When asked last week about having David Bakhtiari and Nijman starting at the tackle spots against the Vikings' pass rushers, LaFleur dropped the first hint that Tom might factor into the equation as well.
"You're always trying to get your best guys out there," LaFleur said Friday. "Not to say Zach's not one of them. He's done an outstanding job and it makes our job tough as coaches in terms of who we put out there and in what position they're going to play. Zach, his ability to play multiple positions, is a good problem for us."
Certainly, Nijman has played well for the Packers this season. He stabilized right tackle after Royce Newman and a still-recovering Elgton Jenkins struggled at that spot and gave the Packers a solidly above-average option. That shouldn't get lost in this discussion as Nijman has established himself as a bona fide starter in the NFL.
But Tom looks like a starter too despite entering the league as a Day 3 pick this past April. He doesn't even have an NFL body yet, as he probably needs an additional five to 10 pounds to help him anchor and move defenders in the run game. And yet, Tom takes care of business wherever the Packers play him.
Assuming Nijman checks out fine during the week, he will probably return to right tackle for the season finale. However, Tom has clouded that situation in the best possible way for the Packers.
PB: Here’s what I made of it: Did Za’Darius Smith play in his game? I mean, I remember seeing him out there, but I don’t remember him actually playing.
Jokes (sort of) aside, the fact that Danielle Hunter and Smith didn’t ruin the game against Tom speaks to his value as a rookie offensive lineman. For the Packers to believe him to be a better option in a de facto playoff game against two Pro Bowl-caliber rushers when their steady starter was technically healthy enough to play, speaks to the belief they have in him.
It also offers some potential hints on what the plans for the Packers could be moving forward. If they believe they have three starting-caliber tackles, plus Elgton Jenkins and Royce Newman who can play there in a pinch, it may hasten the departure of David Bakhtiari who coincidentally just returned to the team this week.
What the Packers have done in the draft with Day 3 offensive lineman is sui generis in the NFL. Even if Tom doesn’t become Bakhtiari, to draft and develop yet another quality starter at one of the hardest positions to find in the NFL speaks to the infrastructure in Green Bay built across two coaching staffs.
Should Keisean Nixon make the All-Pro team for kickoff returner?
JBH: To some, it might seem hyperbolic to tab someone who didn't become the kickoff returner until midseason as an All-Pro. However, Keisean Nixon's season warrants consideration.
Despite garnering fewer opportunities to make an impact than other candidates, Nixon has somehow registered 13 missed tackles on kickoff returns, according to Pro Football Focus. That ranks as the most for any returner since Cordarrelle Patterson's 2013 season.
And beyond the pure numbers, Nixon has come up big in the most important moments for the Packers. In de facto playoff games each of the past two weeks, Nixon provided the team with a 93-yard return that nearly reached the end zone and a 105-yard return which did. Those plays alone hold more value than the vast majority of return men have delivered during the entire season.
Keep in mind that Nixon entered the weekend questionable to play with a groin injury. By his own account, he didn't expect to play against the Vikings as of Friday but woke up on game day feeling "like a Ferrari."
Put the sports car on the All-Pro team.
PB: He’s played half a season and is already the most productive kick returner in the NFL. If that’s not an All-Pro, I don’t know what is.
The more interesting question to me at the moment is where he ranks in single-season Packers history. He returned the first kick of any kind for a touchdown since 2014 when Micah Hyde did it. He turned out to be a pretty good player. Nixon’s score marked the first kick-return touchdown since Randall Cobb back in 2011 … another future star at a non-returner position.
Nixon feels different than both because he consistently rips off chunk returns, whereas those players were more boom-or-bust during their time as returners.
We probably have to go back to the days of Allen Rossum to find a player this good, this regularly at the job. Nixon went from a fun experiment to full-blown special-teams superstar, advocating for the Devin Hester offensive reps package in what felt like a month.
Don’t sleep on Nixon’s impact on defense either. He won the nickel job from Darnell Savage who looks to be squarely back in the mix at safety. The Packers can now play whatever combination of Nixon, Savage, and Rudy Ford best suits the situation on a given down against whatever matchup they face with that team. That’s not a luxury we thought the Packers would have coming into the season, and Nixon’s emergence sparked it all because Green Bay might not have been able to sit Savage when they needed to if Nixon hadn’t proved capable.
Savage’s reemergence with strong play in the last 1.5 games gives Joe Barry and Co. a unique mix of speed and playmaking at safety and in the slot. Maybe Matt LaFleur really should consider a jet sweep or two.
JBH: Jaire Alexander took considerable heat for calling Justin Jefferson's Week 1 performance (nine catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns) a "fluke." The star corner has never shied away from expressing himself, but the statement generated a lot of attention given the stakes of the game and Jefferson's arrival as arguably the best receiver in the NFL.
Of course, the hot-take-industrial complex ignored the context. Alexander didn't spend much of the season opener matched up with Jefferson. The cornerback also praised the soon-to-be All-Pro wideout in the same media availability. Still, that didn't stop innumerable talking heads from screaming about Alexander providing the Vikings with "bulletin-board material."
On Sunday, Alexander backed up his words. Jefferson finished the game with one catch for 15 yards on five targets. But Alexander's finest accomplishment of the day won't appear on the stat sheet:
The Packers needed Alexander to play like the best cornerback in the game. He delivered the performance in his signature style.
PB: Green Bay gets a win-and-in game against the Lions coming up on Sunday made possible only because the Washington Commanders lost to the Cleveland Browns, a team already eliminated from playoff contention. In the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks kept their postseason hope alive beating the New York Jets to eliminate Robert Saleh’s crew from the chance at extra football in January.
Both the Jets and Commanders beat the Packers and, after doing so, thought it would be cute to mock a certain fan accouterment after those wins.
At the time, it felt like a slap in the face with two long-standing dysfunctional franchises mocking one of the most storied organizations in American sports. Now? It’s just kind of funny.