Packers-Vikings keys to the game

Sunday's Packers-Vikings game is being billed as the game of the NFL week. And for good reason. From the Packers' perspective, at least. <p>

If Green Bay defeats the Vikings at Lambeau Field, the NFC North rivals will be tied atop the standings at 5-4. While the Vikings have a recent history of second-half meltdowns — recall last year's 6-0 start and 3-7 finish — they are hardly out of the division race with a loss. Especially considering the teams meet Dec. 24 in the Metrodome.

For the Packers, however, Sunday's game is huge. With a loss, Green Bay would tumble to 4-5, two games behind the Vikings. Minnesota also would hold the early tiebreaker edge with a 3-0 division record to Green Bay's 1-2.

Here are this week's five keys to the game.

1. Gathering no Moss

Just because Randy Moss will be wearing a baseball cap on the sideline doesn't mean the Packers' defense is going to have an easy day at the Lambeau Field office. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper has completed a resounding 71.8 percent of his passes, and the receiving corps even without Moss is pretty good. Nate Burleson's 32 catches leads a group that will feature four players with at least 27 receptions. The 6-foot-3 Marcus Robinson, in particular, will be a matchup problem, especially if he winds up against Packers rookie Ahmad Carroll.

The Packers' pass defense has been much improved during this three-game winning streak, but those victories came against receiver-impaired Detroit, Dallas and Washington. The Packers haven't faced a quarterback like Culpepper or a deep group of receivers like this since getting torched by Indianapolis.

2. Sack exchange

Protecting/harassing the opposing quarterback will be vital as both teams love to throw the ball. The Packers have allowed a league-low five sacks despite throwing the ball a second-in-the-league 37.9 times per game. Even without Pro Bowl center Mike Flanagan, the offensive line has been brilliant in protecting Brett Favre, who is hardly as mobile as he was 10 years ago. Chad Clifton may be the league's most underrated offensive lineman. As a group, they've played together so long that little catches them off guard. They will be challenged, however, by a Vikings defense that has piled up 20 sacks, good for seventh in the league.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has allowed 20 sacks despite having the fleet and powerful Culpepper at quarterback. Green Bay's defense, with Bob Slowik's blitzing scheme, was supposed to be murder to opposing quarterbacks. The Packers, however, have just 12 sacks. In an intriguing matchup, Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie has had his way with Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila but is struggling with his footwork this season. KGB, one of the game's most fearsome rushers the last few seasons, has just 2.5 takedowns on the year.

3. The new Purple People Eaters?

When you think of Minnesota's defensive line you think of Chris Hovan, who made a name for himself by calling out Favre before last season. The fading Hovan, however, is hardly the biggest challenge Green Bay's offensive line will face. Second-year defensive tackle Kevin Williams is becoming a dominant force. He squares off against Pro Bowl right guard Marco Rivera. The ends are underrated Kenny Mixon and rookie Kenechi Udeze. Williams has six sacks — most among NFL defensive linemen — and first-rounder Udeze has three.

"Kevin Williams is a man," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "He's a big, strong guy who is quick and fast. That's a pretty good combination."

"I think they've drastically improved their defense and have drafted real well," said Packers coach Mike Sherman. "I'm impressed with Udeze's ability to not only play the run but rush the passer as well. Kevin Williams is one of the best defensive linemen in football."

4. Daunte's inferno

Culpepper has developed into a stud. Always an accurate passer, Culpepper leads the NFL with a jaw-dropping 71.8 completion percentage. Once a fumbler — he's fumbled more times per game than any player in league history — Culpepper has become a more secure ball-handler. Once an interception machine — he threw 23 of them in 2002 — Culpepper rarely forces a ball into coverage. Once one of the most dangerous scramblers, Culpepper ... well, he's still that. In 66 career games, Culpepper has used his legs to get the first down 155 times.

Before Moss's injury sidelined him for most of the last three-and-a-half games, Culpepper was on target to break Dan Marino's hallowed league records for passing yards and touchdowns. On third down, his passer rating is a ridiculous 137.0 on 75.4 percent accuracy with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

"He's like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or any quarterback — they play in the same system for years, and they get comfortable with it," Tice said. "They're able to develop a rhythm in it and a rapport with the coordinator. All those things have helped him."

5. The other No. 84

Moss won't play, but there will be one star No. 84 on the field today. Green Bay's Javon Walker has lived up to his preseason billing. Through eight games, he's surpassed his career highs with 46 catches and 783 yards. His seven touchdowns trail last year's season total by just two. More importantly, he's developed into a dynamite playmaker. With the exception of the season opener at Carolina, Walker has either a touchdown or a long reception in every game. In fact, he's scored in five of the last six games. Walker excels at catching the jump ball, which will challenge the Vikings' ace off-season acquisition, 5-foot-9 cornerback Antoine Winfield. From the Vikings' perspective, they have just four interceptions on the year after leading the NFC with 28 pickoffs a year ago. The Vikings' ball hawks must make some plays.

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