Commentary: Showdown reveals teams' fate

Sunday's Lambeau Field showdown didn't decide the NFC North championship, but it certainly foreshadowed the path the division co-leading Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings are likely to take as this season unfolds.

For the Vikings, the 34-31 defeat showed why they are destined to be on the outside looking in once the playoffs begin. Even if Randy Moss can hurry back in the lineup and the offense returns to its explosive early-season self, the Vikings just don't have what it takes to make the playoffs.

Most importantly, the Vikings don't have a defensive unit. Yes, they have players, but not a unit.

There's a reason why I've picked the Vikings to win the division championship the past few years. On paper, the Vikings are eminently more talented than the Packers on the defensive side of the ball. Their defensive line on paper is the best in the division, with underrated Kenny Mixon joined by three first-round picks. With E.J. Henderson assuming the middle-linebacker duties for the tortoise-slow Greg Biekert, the Vikings may have the best linebackers in the division. And the addition of standout cornerback Antoine Winfield should have improved a shoddy but ball-hawking secondary by leaps and bounds.

There's a reason why the games are played on grass or carpet, however, and not on paper. The Vikings finished 23rd in the league in defense last season but are 30th in 2004 despite upgrades with personnel and the addition of respected coordinator Ted Cottrell.

Green Bay exploited Minnesota's defense again and again on Sunday. Ahman Green led a rushing attack that topped 200 yards, and Brett Favre had a huge game while generally getting a day and a half in the pocket.

What the Packers did to Minnesota's defense is nothing new. Minnesota's rush defense ranks dead last in the league by allowing 4.9 yards per attempt. You don't need to be a math major to figure out how easy it is to move the chains when you're getting nearly 5 yards per crack. The saving grace for Minnesota's defense last season was its ability to force turnovers, particularly its second-in-the-league 28 interceptions. Only three teams have fewer interceptions than Minnesota's four this year, however. That's a problem when your pass defense ranks 29th in the NFL.

Given Minnesota's flame-throwing offense, even a modest improvement by the defense could turn the Vikings into Super Bowl contenders. But history says that's not likely. Minnesota ranks 30th this season, 23rd in 2003, 26th in 2002 and 27th in 2001. Talk about consistency.

From the Packers' perspective, the 34-31 victory over Minnesota showed why they are destined to keep their division championship. But even in a dreadful NFC, the Packers have only a puncher's chance of fulfilling Brett Favre's Super Bowl-or-bust proclamation.

Green Bay's defense ranks 22nd in the league, a lousy figure to be sure but leaps-and-bounds better than where it stood during its 1-4 start. A Green Bay run defense that couldn't stop anyone to start the season has shot up the rankings to 12th, thanks in large part to the return of nose tackle Grady Jackson.

The Packers' pass defense, however, was exploited by the Vikings. While it can hold its own against the pop-gun attacks of the Lions, Cowboys and Redskins, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning showed the Packers lack the pass rush and defensive backfield depth to stop big-time passing attacks.

That's troubling with Sunday night's game against the David Carr-led Houston passing attack followed by games against pass-happy St. Louis and Philadelphia, along with the Christmas Eve rematch against the Vikings.

Worse, if the Packers reach the playoffs, they're bound to run into a St. Louis, a Seattle a Philadelphia or even a Minnesota. Unless a pathetic pass rush gets on track, unless Ahmad Carroll starts playing like a veteran instead of a rookie and unless Joey Thomas stops getting lost, the Packers will be in big trouble.

Giving up yards by the bushel full isn't a huge problem if you can force turnovers. A trademark under the Ed Donatell-coordinated defenses, these Packers couldn't force a turnover if their life depended on. The Packers have eight takeaways in nine games (Minnesota has 10 takeaways).

Certainly, with Favre on top of his game, his receivers playing up to his lofty expectations and Green rounding into form, the Packers can pile up the points against anyone. But unless the defense can stop the league's best offenses at least occasionally — or Green Bay can turn around its pathetic minus-11 turnover ratio — Super Bowl or bust is going to go bust.

Huber writes for packerreport.com. Contact him via e-mail at packwriter@hotmail.com


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