Pack­ers win to clinch NFC North ti­tle

Antelope Valley Press - - Sports - By DAVE CAMP­BELL

Sport­ing fresh divi­sion ti­tle shirts that few ex­pected them to wear this year, the Green Bay Pack­ers had the mes­sage printed across their chests in the ju­bi­lant vis­i­tors’ locker room: “The North is not enough.” With Aaron Rodgers tak­ing a back seat while the ground game and the pass rush led the way, the Pack­ers be­came NFC North cham­pi­ons for the first time in three years.

MIN­NEAPO­LIS — Sport­ing fresh divi­sion ti­tle shirts that few ex­pected them to wear this year, the Green Bay Pack­ers had the mes­sage printed across their chests in the ju­bi­lant vis­i­tors’ locker room: “The North is not enough.”

With Aaron Rodgers tak­ing a back seat while the ground game and the pass rush led the way, the Pack­ers be­came NFC North cham­pi­ons for the first time in three years and de­liv­ered Min­nesota’s first de­feat at home this sea­son.

Aaron Jones rushed for 154 yards and two se­cond-half touch­downs, Za’Dar­ius Smith had five tack­les for loss to lead a sti­fling per­for­mance by the de­fense, and the Pack­ers beat the Vik­ings 23-10 on Mon­day night.

“There’s re­ally noth­ing like check­ing that first box on the goal list,” said Rodgers, who was picked off with­out throw­ing a touch­down pass for the first time in 18 games.

The Pack­ers (12-3) made Matt LaFleur the 10th rookie coach in NFL his­tory to reach 12 vic­to­ries, win­ning for the first time in four tries at U.S. Bank Sta­dium with a dom­i­nant fin­ish af­ter trail­ing 10-9 at half­time. Green Bay stayed in po­si­tion for a first-round bye in the play­offs, and the top seed — with home-field ad­van­tage un­til the Su­per Bowl — is still in sight.

“Like I’ve been telling the guys the last few weeks, the only thing I want for Christmas is a hat and a T-shirt, and they came through with it, man,” said Smith, the team’s top free agent sign­ing. “My Christmas gift is here al­ready. I’m happy.”

The Pack­ers stormed back from three first-half turnovers, in­clud­ing the rare in­ter­cep­tion by Rodgers, to si­lence the deaf­en­ing crowd and seal the Vik­ings (10-5) into the sixth play­off seed. The green-and-gold-clad fans in at­ten­dance squeezed some “Go, Pack, Go!” chants in dur­ing the am­ple down time as the Pack­ers took con­trol in the se­cond half.

Kirk Cousins was sacked five times, with a whop­ping 3 1/2 by Smith, and he threw an in­ter­cep­tion in the third quar­ter that set up the first score by Jones, who leads the league with 16 rush­ing touch­downs. The Vik­ings had 132 to­tal yards, as Cousins fell to 0-9 in his ca­reer in Mon­day night games.

“When you don’t con­vert third downs, go three-and-out, you just don’t have that many plays. You don’t have many bites at the ap­ple to get go­ing,”

Cousins said. “We cer­tainly did not play well enough from start to fin­ish.”

The Vik­ings had only seven first downs and never net­ted a drive longer than 31 yards in this con­cern­ing re­gres­sion. They wasted a fine per­for­mance by their de­fense, which has pro­duced 10 turnovers in the last two games.

“Give Green Bay some credit. They did some good things, and that’s what hap­pens when you don’t play as good as you can,” Vik­ings coach Mike Zim­mer said.

Min­nesota’s frus­tra­tion over a stalled of­fense that av­er­aged nearly 30 points over the pre­vi­ous 10 games only in­creased in the se­cond half. Ste­fon Diggs caught a 28-yard pass on third-and-18 in the third quar­ter, but Cousins was in­ter­cepted later on the drive when Diggs was tan­gled up with Jaire Alexan­der and Kevin King made a leap­ing grab be­fore a 39-yard re­turn.

The Vik­ings punted on fourth-and-1 from their 45 to white-flag their en­su­ing pos­ses­sion.

Cousins cost Min­nesota the com­ple­tion of a come­back from a three-touch­down deficit at Green Bay on Sept. 15, when his se­cond in­ter­cep­tion of the game, also by King, came on an off-bal­ance throw into end-zone cov­er­age on first-and-goal late in the fourth quar­ter of a 21-16 de­feat. Since that iffy first month of the sea­son, Cousins had played as well as nearly any quar­ter­back in the league to help the Vik­ings clinch a spot in the play­offs when the Los An­ge­les Rams lost on Satur­day. That was by far the best thing to hap­pen to them this week­end.

“It’s pretty frus­trat­ing that we lost, re­gard­less if we’re in the play­offs or not. You want to win games con­vinc­ingly,” said Diggs, who caught a se­cond-quar­ter touch­down pass from Cousins three plays af­ter An­thony Har­ris picked off Rodgers by dart­ing in front of Da­vante Adams.

Pack­ers de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Pet­tine again schemed aw­fully well against Cousins and the Vik­ings, keep­ing his out­side lineback­ers ex­tra wide to pre­vent the roll­outs and screens that Cousins ex­cels with. Third­string run­ning back Mike Boone, in his first NFL start with Dalvin Cook and Alexan­der Mat­ti­son both out with in­juries, was mostly bot­tled up. Cousins was just 4 for 12 for 39 yards in the first half.

“The de­fense played out of their minds. Za’Dar­ius, I don’t even know what to say,” said Adams, who had 116 yards on 13 catches.

As­so­ci­ated Press

SCORE! Pack­ers run­ning back Aaron Jones (33) scores on a 12-yard touch­down run dur­ing the se­cond half against the Min­nesota Vik­ings on Mon­day.

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