*In a defensive slugfest, the Green Bay Packers (12-3) landed the most punches and eventually knocked the Minnesota Vikings (10-5) out of NFC North contention in a 23-10 win on "Monday Night Football" in Week 16. Here's what we learned from the game: *
- Green Bay is your NFC North champion. That much was confirmed by the Packers' beatdown of Minnesota on prime-time TV Monday night. Green Bay's win painted the division green and gold for the first time since 2016 and kept the Packers' hopes of securing a first-round bye, or even home-field advantage, alive. As of Monday night, Green Bay holds the No. 2 seed in the NFC just behind San Francisco. A 49ers loss to Seattle on Sunday night coupled with a Packers win over Detroit would give Green Bay home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. January football in Lambeau month-round? Yes, please.
On the other pole of the NFC playoff picture, Minnesota ensured its place in the sixth seed with the loss. The Vikings clinched at least a playoff berth when the Niners stomped out the Rams on Saturday night, but surrendered the ability to host a playoff game or, at the very least, play against the NFC East "winner" by falling to the Packers. Next week's game against Chicago is essentially meaningless now, as far as the standings go, but given Minnesota's face-plant Monday night, it might serve as a needed tune-up for a stalled-out attack.
- Kirk Cousins and Minnesota's offense were no match for Green Bay's front seven and Mike Pettine's defense with their division hopes on the line. Though the Vikings entered halftime with a 10-9 lead, their offense had accumulated just two first downs and 68 yards at a rate of 2.7 yards per play. Cousins had thrown for just 39 yards, and Minnesota's two scores (a field goal and a TD dime to Stefon Diggs) had come on short fields (GB 10 and 26, respectively) that came as a result of Vikings takeaways. Minnesota would not score in the second half, seeing four of its drives end with punts, one end with an interception and the Vikings' final possession end with a four-and-out. Minnesota's final numbers are ugly, to say, the least: seven first downs, 2.6 yards per play, on 139 total yards. The only other team to accomplish such a line this season? The Luke Falk-led Jets against the Patriots in Week 3. For Cousins (who fell to an unbelievable 0-9 on "Monday Night Football") and the Vikings, there was no more dispiriting way for Monday's game to go. Minnesota's offense, sans Dalvin Cook and with a gimpy Adam Thielen, wasn't ready for prime time. Mike Zimmer, Kevin Stefanski and company have less than two weeks to right this Norse ship lost in the Baltic.
- All that being said about the Vikings' vapid offense, let's give it up for the Packers defense, which is ending the season like it started it; throttling division opponents in their buildings. Led by a hard-hitting secondary and a fierce pass rush, the Packers allowed season-lows in first downs and total yards. Pro Bowl snub Za'Darius Smith bolstered his Defensive Player of the Year campaign by logging a career-high 3.5 sacks of Cousins, five QB hits in all and five tackles for loss; his bash brother on the other side of the line, Preston Smith, added half a sack. General manager Brian Gutekunst's expensive offseason acquisitions are paying off in crunch time. Z. Smith now has 14.5 sacks on the season, while P. Smith boasts 12, the duo surpassing Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree for the most by a tandem in the league (26.5). As the Chiefs accentuated on Sunday night, Green Bay's defense is peaking at the right time. The Packers have allowed fewer than 16 points in four straight games for the first time since 2002 -- and they get the David Blough-led Lions next week.
- If you had concerns about the Packers' offense heading into Monday night, dynamic nights from Aaron Jones and Davante Adamsmight have changed your mind. Jones ran through Minnesota's front line Monday night, picking up consistent chunk gains en route to 154 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard game-clincher in the fourth quarter. Jones now owns a league-high 16 rushing scores and 19 total touchdowns with one week to go. His receiving compatriot Adams went off against Xavier Rhodes, racking up 116 yards on a career-high 13 receptions. The Michael Thomas to Rodgers' Drew Brees, Adams is Green Bay's only reliable receiving option. Allen Lazard was Green Bay's second-leading receiver Monday but suffers from the dropsies; Jimmy Graham saw just one target; and MVS, Geronimo Allison and Jake Kumerow combined for one catch on four targets. With one week until the postseason, the Packers offense is still too sluggish for my liking (5.1 YPP on Monday), but it was effective enough to win on Monday night, when Green Bay's defense held its own and the Packers held the ball (37:32 time of possession).
- Injuries bit the Vikings from the start. Neither Cook (chest) nor Alexander Mattison (ankle) was active against Green Bay, leaving key carries to Mike Boone, who was described by more than one pregame reporter as "Cook-ish." Despite the hype, the Boone Show was a underwhelming dud. The second-year back picked up 28 rushing yards on 11 carries and was spelled often by Lions castoff Ameer Abdullah. Minnesota's offense suffered from the lack of a consistent ground threat, one Green Bay had in spades. On the other side of the ball, the Vikings saw two of their Pro Bowl linebackers, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, exit with apparent soft tissue injuries; Kendricks (quad) was knocked out in the second quarter, replaced by an overmatched Eric Wilson, and Barr left in the fourth quarter and never returned. Add to that injury report an unlike-himself Thielen (no catches on four targets) and the Vikings are literally limping into the postseason. Never a good sign.