The Packers, Vikings, and a bitter border rivalry since 1961
This story appears in the November 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
“See, Packers fans have a level of respect for Chicago,” a guy in a green pullover was explaining to his friend. We are waiting in line for beer in the parking lot of Kroll’s West, across the street from Lambeau Field. It is the calm before a literal rainstorm and a few hours before the start of a points barrage in what is the latest installment of the football version of state bragging rights, better known as a Packers-Vikings game.
What turned into the 42-10 could’ve-been-worse beatdown in the 106th regular season meeting between the two states that share a side of the Mississippi River on Thursday night, Oct. 2, pushed the all-time series record to 57-49-2 in Green Bay’s favor.
That Thursday meeting was opened with waiting for the rain to come and an answer to the mystery over who’d start at quarterback for Minnesota. Once it kicked off the contest quickly delved into a fast-striking feast for the eyes of Packers fans. The Vikings were the cure for almost every ailment: Eddie Lacy had his best game of the year, the defense forced more turnovers and scored points in the form of a Julius Peppers pick-six. Aaron Rodgers rested the fourth quarter, Jordy Nelson caught another signature long play-action bomb, Davante Adams caught his first career touchdown. Everyone in Green Bay got to enjoy a relaxing, if rainy and imperfect, Thursday night, beating up on a team they need no excuse to pound on.
The next day the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that only four arrests were made and 39 ejected at Lambeau Field, numbers both down compared to the 2014 home opener against the Jets. For a Vikings game this feels strange. In November 2009, when Brett Favre made his first trip to Lambeau in purple, 13 were arrested, 43 ejected. In October of 2010, Favre’s last visit to Green Bay as a Viking, 13 were arrested to go along with 60 people ejected – at the time the highest single game ejection count at Lambeau Field in five years.
Possibly, the loss of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater before the game, and the brutal instant flashes of efficiency with which Green Bay dismantled the visitors, put Packers fans in more of a mood to celebrate while Vikings supporters, on that night, didn’t seem to have much worth fighting about.
The guy in line for beer at Kroll’s brought his initial thought to its conclusion: “But it’s pure hatred for Minnesota. I’m not sure why.”
There are reasons that explain why, even as many still see Bears-Packers as the premier rivalry in the game, this particular series can bring out so much raw, sometimes-uncontrollable disdain. Sure, there are bragging rights on the line in the Minnesota-Green Bay rivalry, but it feels more like desperately not wanting to have to hear from the other side. There’s a lot of sports hate fueling the desire to be the side with something to say.
From the stands fans, through sheer force of energy, can make their passion felt on the field below them. A great crowd can make any game feel more important, hanging by every moment. A great crowd can’t, however, force players to care about these rivalries like we do. Vikings games will always be important to the team because they’re division games, and the Packers aim to win the NFC North each season. It’s goal No. 1. But all the rest, the animosity on the ground and in the air around the stadium on a Green Bay day sprinkled with purple jerseys and yellow pigtails, that’s all from us. That’s all manufactured by fans, but no less real. History, though not as long in the tooth as the timelines the Packers share with the Bears and Lions, stands in sturdy support of our strong feelings. Memories good and bad. Outcomes that keep the rivalry going between now and the next one.
The Green Bay Packers played the Minnesota Vikings for the first time in 1961. It was a road game and, at that time, the Vikings played in a minor league baseball park-turned-major league baseball park turned sure, why not a football field too. The Vikings called Metropolitan Stadium home from 1961, their first year in the National Football League, to 1981. From 1982 until last season, give or take a few games missed because of your run-of-the-mill roof collapse, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was Minnesota’s home away from Minnesota. We say that because the state’s conditions better aligned with “the Old Met,” as it was called, a field of ice and horror for visitors when winter took up its long-term residence in the state. Minnesota was 7-3 in postseason games there. Bud Grant, their Hall of Fame coach who guided the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances and 11 division titles in 18 years, forced players to practice outside year-round, didn’t allow heaters on the sidelines during winter games, and generally ignored the brutal elements like they were light summer breezes on the lake.
Minnesota was a scary place. It meant howling, brutal chills stabbing to your core, and Grant’s Vikings were the only ones who didn’t, or were at least led by someone who didn’t appear to, care. Frightening, feral animals in a land no one else could think of surviving in. Outdoors or in, the Vikings have always brought with them uneasy feelings; something cold and rough, unhinged and free in and of their surroundings, too close already and coming this way.
What they lost in the Old Met they found in a different way in the Metrodome, always a dreaded game on the schedule from the 1980s and ‘90s until its last. Overall Green Bay finished 15-16 all-time in Minnesota’s cavernous noise bubble. Even when heavily favored the playing field was always a little more even in games there. The Vikings saved some of their best for the Packers, especially in the dome, whether it should have made sense based on roster talent, records, odds, or not.
In all of their finest and lowest points the Vikings against the Packers are reckless, flawed yet possibly insane with self-belief, a confidence that somehow only grows when they think of their neighbors in Wisconsin. It is frozen in them, as is the very Vikings-ness of the team, the aura of perpetually coming up short, tripping over their own feet in some embarrassing fashion, that the franchise cannot seem to shake despite the outcomes. These two identities usually come to a head in Packers games.
That is why it was and is usually maddening to see them win. And that is how you make a rivalry. A rivalry needs ample doses of crazy. It needs its own biosphere. One that teams and their fan bases enter twice a year but pretty much always split rent on to keep going, one that doesn’t need oxygen or water, one that survives solely on passion and chaos and disdain and said embarrassments and eternal triumphs. An ecosystem that couldn’t keep a single flower alive, but one nurtured to life with roaring hate-flames and neighborliness, a cozy and bubbling splinter cell of good old fashioned Midwestern loathing. Twice a season the biosphere opens up and a bit of that pressure escapes, only making room for more.
It’s a rivalry that some might say has already seen its apex. I’d argue, though, that the saga that was 2008-10 only established a new summit closer to sport post-apocalypse. We can’t go back from that. This is just the new normal.
It’s a series without many long-term holds of control. The longest one team went without beating the other was nine games, when the Packers lost eight and tied once between 1975 and ‘79. There are smaller runs extending over a couple seasons or more, like the Packers winning five straight from 1983-85, 2006-08, and again from 2010-12. Otherwise their head-to-head showings are unorganized, abstract patterns. Timelines blotted with W’s and L’s and the occasional T.
As patterns they seem tiny now. Of course, for each five-game win streak, a fan base has close to three years of anguish or joy, three seasons being an eternally long slog of slings and arrows for the side that can do nothing else but bear it while waiting for that one day when it turns. Packers-Vikings games have always turned. Swerved, more like it, or maybe careened, and in a typically haphazard fashion at that.
Part of this series has been its weirdness. How sometimes, even when they feel to us like they mean so much, the product on the field doesn’t match those amplified emotions. Oct. 2, for example, was supposed to be Bridgewater’s first try in the rivalry. Instead it went back to Christian Ponder being overmatched by Aaron Rodgers on the other side. If it wasn’t a Packers-Vikings game it’d be altogether forgettable.
When Green Bay met Minnesota for the first time on October 22, 1961, it wasn’t quite the dead of winter yet. Temperatures were in the high 40s. Paul Hornung kicked four field goals, Boyd Dowler and Jim Taylor scored touchdowns, and Dan Currie ran one of Fran Tarkenton’s three interceptions back for a score. The game ended in a 33-7 Packers blowout.
Grant’s Vikings teams beat the Packers in 22 of 37 games with one tie. Before Grant assumed control of the rivalry, Lombardi’s Packers teams of the early-to mid-60s won 9 of 10 to start the rivalry. Lombardi and Minnesota’s first head coach, Norm Van Brocklin, the only coach to defeat Lombardi in a postseason game with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship game, instantly added venom to the rivalry. Neither had forgotten about that first outcome. Fittingly, Minnesota beat Green Bay two of four times in the Packers Super Bowl seasons of 1966 and ‘67.
The ‘70s likely fostered a lot of the bitterness towards Minnesota, as it was aside from Lombardi’s reign before, the most lopsided period of the series. The Packers went 4-15-1 against Minnesota in the decade. Three of Minnesota’s four Super Bowl appearances came in the ‘70s too, the ultimate silver lining (and probable reason for some of their eternal Packers-angst) being they never brought the Lombardi Trophy across the border.
Green Bay’s overall dominant run to the Super Bowl in 1996 hit its first roadblock, to the surprise of few, in the Metrodome in Week 4. In 1998, Mike Holmgren’s last in Green Bay, they were swept by the Vikings. Minnesota finished 15-1 that year and lost in the NFC title game, a shocker at home against the Atlanta Falcons.
The 2000s brought back-and-forth affairs almost always, Favre then later Aaron Rodgers dueling with the likes of Daunte Culpepper, Brad Johnson, Tarvaris Jackson, Brett Favre, Gus Frerotte, and Ponder in games that probably included at one point or another almost anything football can offer.
Though you can find nail-biters and last-second wins throughout the aughts, the years from 2003-‘06 were particularly wild. Nine games, including one playoff contest, were decided by an average of 4.7 points, the Packers going 5-4 head-to-head in that span which featured, in 2004, a pair of memorable see-sawing 34-31 Green Bay wins in the regular season. The first at Lambeau in November saw the Packers blow a 24-10 halftime advantage and 31-17 lead in the fourth, only to crush the Minnesota comeback with a 33-yard Ryan Longwell field goal as time expired. On Christmas Eve that year, the Packers rallied from three separate seven point deficits, tied the score for the fourth time in the game with under four minutes remaining, and won on a 29-yarder from Longwell again with no time left on the clock. The year flipped completely, though, when it ended on a sour note after the 8-8 Vikings won in Green Bay, 31-17, in the Wild Card round of the postseason.
The 2000s could be their own story with all the milestones. How about Sept. 30, 2007, when Favre broke the NFL’s career touchdown passes mark in a 23-17 win in the Metrodome? Or Sept. 8, 2008, when Aaron Rodgers won his first career start, in Lambeau, over the Vikings? Or that night in October of 2010 when the Packers finally vanquished Favre in Green Bay? (Still to date the best game I’ve ever seen live.) Or last season, Oct. 27, when Rodgers threw only five incompletions in a classicly clinical rout in Minnesota?
From Lombardi and Van Brocklin at the start to now, the franchises have always enjoyed causing the other problems. From the Packers side it sometimes feels as though it’s the Vikings’ sole purpose of being. That’s why it’s a rivalry that stirs up such emotion, and yup, the occasionally-long arrest sheet.
It’s a rivalry because they’ve each had their times being both lawn mower and dandelion. Each side has shamed the other in some unforgettable way with imagery that haunts the series and minds of those on the losing end. Randy Moss on Monday Night Football in ‘98. Antonio Freeman and the miracle catch on Monday Night Football in 2000. Adrian Peterson, always and all the time terrifying. Longwell and Darren Sharper and Greg Jennings, either cast-offs or runaways down a river of players seemingly only flowing in one direction (Letroy Guion the rare Viking-turned-Packer), those looking for an outlet and finding outstretched arms in Minnesota doubling as needles into sides. Reminders that they’re over there, throwing rocks and ducking, hoping all along you’ll notice, please notice.
This is a rivalry because on this side of the big river we feel the preening eyes of an organization always playing catch-up yet in denial of that chase. The Packers have gone to Super Bowls and almost always won them. The Vikings have done the first, never the second. It’s a rivalry because despite that world championship discrepancy these teams have always been able to reach out and bite the other at any moment, like their geographical proximity somehow opens the door for more closely contested fights. Each team can and has won when they shouldn’t have. Each team has saved some of its best or dumbest or in any case memory-searing moments for these two games every year. It’s a rivalry because the colors just perfectly clash on the field, under primetime lights, the green and gold and the purple. It’s a rivalry because you didn’t even need to mention Brett Favre, but now that you did good luck putting the worms back in that can. It’s a rivalry because as long as Minnesota and Wisconsin are neighbors, the Packers and Vikings will be too close for each other’s comfort.
For the most part the atmosphere before and after Thursday Night Football’s visit to Green Bay in October felt about on par with the subsequent lower arrest count. It was an interesting-enough early season meeting, I guess, but the prevailing feeling on the grounds wasn’t really worry, or the foreboding feeling that something massive was about to happen, like Vikings games of the recent past have brought with them. By the fourth quarter it devolved into something like a preseason game; a weird day and an outcome that hardly had to be worried about at all.
But of course we did, because it’s Packers-Vikings. Almost everything has happened before, and probably will again. Like the guy in the green pullover we feel the hatred. Unlike him, we’re pretty sure we know of a few reasons why.