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Vikings shut out Packers 16-0, keep eye on 1st-round bye

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GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Case Keenum stopped one last time before heading up the tunnel at Lambeau Field, clapping his hands above his head while Minnesota Vikings fans chanted “Skol! Skol!”

The Vikings’ defense felt right at home Saturday night in Titletown.

A 16-0 victory over the injury-depleted Green Bay Packers gave Minnesota its first shutout in nearly a quarter-century and kept the NFC North champions in the hunt for a first-round playoff bye.

Stefon Diggs caught a 4-yard pass from Case Keenum just inside the back line of the end zone in the first quarter for the only touchdown. The Vikings (12-3) have already clinched the NFC North and can secure a bye if Carolina loses or ties on Sunday against Tampa Bay.

“Defense played absolutely incredible today, and we did enough. It doesn’t matter how, it matters how many,” Keenum said.

The Vikings forced an incompletion into the end zone on fourth-and-4 from the 14 early in the fourth quarter to turn away the Packers’ last best effort to cross the goal line. Safety Harrison Smith ended another Green Bay drive with an interception at the Minnesota 5 late in the second quarter.

Minnesota left frigid Lambeau Field with its first shutout since a 13-0 win over Detroit on Dec. 5, 1993. It was the first shutout over the Packers (7-8) since Nov. 14, 1971.

The defense has “played pretty good all year long … Proof will be in the pudding here in a couple weeks,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, referring to the playoffs.

The Packers managed to hold a 239-236 edge in total yards. They were still shut out twice in a season for the first time since 2006.

“I never felt more defeated, more embarrassed by a performance. Yeah, we had opportunities, and we didn’t connect when we did,” receiver Randall Cobb said.

In its defense, the team fielded a lineup that often looked like one that coach Mike McCarthy would send out for a game late in the preseason. The Packers have already been eliminated from playoff contention.

Starting outside linebackers Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Nick Perry (ankle/shoulder) missed the game, along with cornerback Damarious Randall (hamstring).

Brett Hundley was 17 of 40 for 130 yards with two interceptions in taking over at quarterback again for Aaron Rodgers, who returned to injured reserve this week after missing seven games earlier in the year with a collarbone injury.

The Packers didn’t have leading receiver Davante Adams, who is in the concussion protocol, then lost wideout Jordy Nelson and tight end Richard Rodgers to shoulder injuries in the first half.

“Injuries are unfortunate. We had a lot of opportunities tonight. We didn’t make the plays,” coach Mike McCarthy said.

The hard turf at chilly Lambeau didn’t help either, with some players having trouble with footing early in the game. Unable to connect on medium-to-long range passes, the Packers’ best plays came when Hundley broke free for big gains on the run .

Not enough against the Vikings’ stingy defense.

FROZEN TUNDRA

Fans bundled up in parkas, huddled under blankets and sipped on free hot chocolate to stay warm. Purple-clad Minnesota backers celebrated in the stands on a night in which temperatures hovered in the single digits.

Diggs finished with five catches for 60 yards. Keenum was 14 of 25 for 139 yards.

“I’m not sure we played our best game tonight … We left some things out there offensively,” Zimmer said.

THE LAST TIME

The Packers were also shut out this season 23-0 by the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 19.

HOME DOESN’T HELP

Hundley finished the season having thrown no touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games at Lambeau, with the Packers going 2-4 in that span.

INJURY REPORT

Vikings: The team said that LG Nick Easton will have surgery after breaking his right ankle in the first quarter. … LS Kevin McDermott (shoulder) left late in the second quarter, with backup TE David Morgan taking over snapping duties.

Packers: RT Jason Spriggs was carted off the field with what appeared to be a left injury on the first play from scrimmage. Justin McCray, who was starting at right guard for Jahri Evans (knee), slid over to tackle with Lucas Patrick taking over at guard. … Besides Rodgers and Nelson, RB Aaron Jones (knee) also didn’t return after getting hurt in the first half.

“We battled … I hope everybody walks out of here with their heads held high,” Hundley said.

UP NEXT

Vikings: Finish regular season at home against the Chicago Bears on New Year’s Eve.

Packers: Wrap up year with a visit to the Detroit Lions, also on New Year’s Eve.

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Newton throws 4 TDs, Panthers spoil Rodgers’ return 31-24

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Cam Newton threw for 242 yards and four touchdowns, and the Carolina Panthers spoiled Aaron Rodgers‘ return from a broken collarbone with a 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

Damiere Byrd had two touchdown catches, and Christian McCaffrey had 136 yards from scrimmage, including a 7-yard touchdown reception and the Panthers (10-4) won their fourth straight home game.

Greg Olsen had his most productive game since returning from a broken foot, catching nine passes for 116 yards and a TD and the Panthers kept pace with the first-place New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

Rodgers, making his first appearance since Oct. 15, threw for 290 yards with three touchdowns but was intercepted three times as the Packers’ playoff hopes took a potentially critical blow.

Green Bay (7-7) had a chance to send the game into overtime for a third straight week, but Panthers cornerback James Bradberry stripped wide receiver Geronimo Allison of the ball after a completion at the Carolina 28-yard line with 1:48 remaining. Safety Mike Adams recovered the fumble.

The Panthers trailed 14-10 at halftime, but Newton threw TD passes to Olsen and Byrd in the third quarter to give them a 24-14 lead.

Byrd’s first touchdown, a 9-yard grab in the back of the end zone, came with some controversy. The play was initially ruled an incompletion, but coach Ron Rivera challenged the play and officials overturned the call ruling that Byrd’s backside landed inbounds and overturned the play.

After Green Bay’s field goal cut the Carolina lead to 24-17, Newton found Byrd again on a slant route to make it a two-possession game with 12:29 left in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers started bringing the pressure after that, sack Rodgers three times in the fourth quarter including a takedown by former Packer Julius Peppers on a fourth-and-14 deep in Carolina territory.

But Rodgers struck with a TD pass to Richard Rodgers and the Packers recovered the ensuing onside kick with 2:40 left.

ADAMS CONCUSSION: It didn’t help that Rodgers lost his most productive receiver in the third quarter with a concussion.

Davante Adams took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis on an interception return by Colin Jones. As Adams was running to make the tackle on Jones, Davis appeared to launch himself at Adams with a peel-back block, immediately sending the wide receiver to the ground.

Davis was flagged for a 15-yard penalty.

Davis immediately appeared to know what he had done, cupping his head in hands as he sat on the Panthers bench. Adams had five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers before leaving the game.

COMING IN BUNCHES: After going 12 games without an interception, Panthers starting cornerbacks Bradberry and Daryl Worley both have interceptions in back-to-back games. Worley got Rodgers in the first half on a deep route along the left sideline, while Bradberry got one on an underthrown deep ball.

INJURIES:

Packers: Linebacker Nick Perry left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter and did not return.

Panthers: Wide receiver Russell Shepard left the game in the second half with a shoulder injury and did not return.

UP NEXT

Packers: Host the Vikings on Saturday night.

Panthers: Host the Buccaneers on Sunday.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Saving the Packers

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It seemed reasonable to expect the Green Bay Packers to have one of the best offenses in the NFL this year. Jordy Nelson‘s August ACL tear hurt their prospects, but they still had Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy, and one of the league’s better offensive lines. Instead, they have been shockingly mediocre. What do the numbers suggest, and is there any reason to expect the Packers to be better in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings and in their playoff game the following week?

The Trend Is Discouraging

There is no doubt their Week 16 offensive performance against the Arizona Cardinals was miserable. By DVOA, Football Outsiders’ play-by-play metric that adjusts for game situation and opponent quality, it was the second-worst of Rodgers’ tenure as the Packers’ starter. Only his three-interception performance in Tampa back in 2008, in his first season as a starter, is worse, and just barely (minus-56.2 percent versus minus-55.2 percent).

If that was just a one-off, we could write it off. It was not. The Packers have posted a below-average DVOA on offense in four of their past five games. Coach Mike McCarthy taking the play-calling reins back from offensive coordinator Tom Clements worked against Dallas, but not against Oakland and certainly not last week.

Some week-to-week variation is to be expected, but Green Bay’s three best offensive performances of the season by DVOA came in Weeks 1, 2, and 3. Since then, they are 21st in DVOA, just ahead of the Browns (minus-6.3 percent compared to minus-7.2 percent). This is not the company the Packers expected to be keeping.

Offensive Line Issues Are Part of the Problem

In 2014, the Packers had an excellent, consistent offensive line. From left to right, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey LinsleyT.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga started 79 of 80 games. All five returned, but not for every game. Sitton is the only one with 15 starts, and he has been worse than his near-flawless performance last year (0.0 blown pass blocks per Football Outsiders’ charting). The others have all missed time, and Green Bay’s offensive line depth has not been up to the challenge.

The line issues have shown up in both the run and pass games. It seemed like Rodgers turned a corner in 2014, going from a quarterback sacked more than most to one adept at avoiding sacks. His adjusted sack rate, which accounts for down and distance and opponent was just 5.3 percent last year and is 7.3 percent this year. By offensive line yards, which attempt to account for the distribution of yards between the back and the line, they went from a top-eight unit the past two seasons to 22nd. That includes fifth-worst in stuffs, those runs for no gain or a loss.

Receiving Depth Was Tested and Flunked

The loss of Nelson was potentially devastating because Rodgers was extraordinarily reliant on just two receivers last year, both by volume and for big plays. Both Nelson and Cobb caught over 90 passes and did so with great efficiency. Cobb ranked first in DVOA last year, while Nelson was eighth. No other Packers receiver or tight end came out better than average.

The story is similar this year. James Jones, reunited with Rodgers after the Giants cut him, is the only Packers wide receiver or tight end with a DVOA better than 0.0 percent on 25 or more targets. Green Bay’s young players have not developed the same rapport with Rodgers as Cobb and Nelson.

Davante Adams, praised to the skies by Rodgers in the offseason, ranks next-to-last in DVOA among qualifying receivers. The other young player who saw a big uptick in his role, tight end Richard Rodgers, is merely below average.

The more puzzling case is Cobb, who is below average by DVOA after he topped the league last year. His yards per catch have fallen from 14.1 to 10.8. Some decline in his YAC was expected; he had a number of long touchdowns last year, more than was sustainable. But Rodgers has found him more than 20 yards downfield on just six targets this year, even on one of his customary extended plays.

Cobb has seen his usage change. In 2014, he was largely a short-area receiver, with 38 percent of his targets between one and five yards downfield and was rarely targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage. This year, his distribution is much more even, with between 23 and 32 targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, from 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15 yards downfield. That looks a lot more like how Nelson was targeted last year. But as good as Cobb is, he is not Nelson, and trying to force him to be him has not worked and might have taken Cobb away from what he does best.

What Can Be Done?

McCarthy took back play-calling duties because he wanted the offense to work differently. The Packers have tried to run the ball more since, but they haven’t had much success outside of the Dallas game. Yes, Lacy and James Starks have been part of the problem, or at least not the answer. Both have been efficient receivers this year, though, and a pass game oriented more towards the backs and short passes could be more successful than the receiver-driven offense McCarthy has preferred. It is too late to make major changes, though, so only incremental modifications are likely. Green Bay’s best chance to realize the promise of their 6-0 start is to rely on Rodgers’ improvisational ability and a defense that outside of the Broncos game has played at least reasonably well.