Keys to the game

Two roller-coaster seasons. Two great offenses. Two great quarterbacks. Two great wide receivers. Two bad defenses. <p> One marquee showdown. <p>

The Green Bay Packers visit the Metrodome for a Christmas Eve clash against the arch-rival Minnesota Vikings. For all the teams' warts, the winner will emerge with the NFC North championship and a first-round playoff home game.

"Everything that we have to work for and everything we have worked for is right in front of us," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "We control our destiny. Friday is as big of a game as we've had around here in a long time. We're playing for the division title. We started out the season with two goals, and one of those goals can come to fruition on Friday, and that is to win the division title."

The Packers are in the playoffs regardless of what happens today or next week at Chicago. Being in the playoffs simply isn't good enough, however.

"We never even talked about the fact that we're in the playoffs," Packers coach Mike Sherman said. "That wasn't one of our goals. That's expected around here. Our goal is to win the division. It still is within our grasp. Obviously, we have to go through Minneapolis to do that."

Going into Minnesota and winning is easier said than done, though the Giants and Seahawks have done it this season. Persevering in the noisy Metrodome is the first of this week's five keys to victory. Packers quarterback Brett Favre is only 3-9 in the dome, but he's 2-2 in his last four trips. The Packers earned a rather dominating victory there last season to trigger their run to the division championship and rolled 35-13 in 2000.

With the NFC North championship on the line and their hated rivals in town, the dome will be rocking. Unless, of course, the Packers do something to shut them up. The best recipe to quiet a crowd is to withstand an early barrage, grab the lead and then keep the chains moving with a persistent and productive running game.

"Being able to run the football is big there," said Packers guard Wahle. "We've got to be able to do that, be successful on our first couple series and put some points on the board. You do that and the playbook opens up a lot wider."

2. THE RUNNING GAME

Minnesota's run defense ranks 23rd in the league in yardage and 31st in yards per rush. In their home loss to the Giants, New York rushed for 168 yards. In their home loss to the Seahawks, Seattle rushed for 138. When the Packers won earlier this season at Lambeau Field, they rushed for 206 yards. When the Packers won in the dome last season, they rushed for a resounding 261 yards.

The Packers got away from their running game in the loss to Jacksonville, but given the Vikings' porous run defense and the return of center Grey Ruegamer after missing a couple games with a sprained ankle, expect Sherman to do everything in his power to establish the running game.

A key matchup up front will be Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams against should-have-been Pro Bowler Wahle.

"He is playing excellent," said Wahle. "He's a big guy, very athletic, has a lot of moves and he plays hard every snap. He never takes plays off. Their front four is very good."

3. GATHERING MOSS

The Packers had to withstand a last-minute aerial assault by Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper to hold on to victory in the teams' earlier matchup. Superstar wide receiver Randy Moss didn't play in that game due to a hamstring injury, yet Culpepper threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns. If the Packers couldn't cover Nate Burleson and Co. in that game, how is the league's 25th-ranked pass defense going to match up against a Vikings receiving corps with its full complement of weapons?

Moss dominates the Packers like he dominates no other team in the league, averaging 100 yards and a touchdown every time he steps on the field against Green Bay. Somehow, the Packers must slow down Moss while not allowing the likes of Burleson and Marcus Robinson to beat them for big plays by being overly occupied with the guy wearing No. 84.

"He's so explosive," said tight end Jermaine Wiggins, who caught six passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in the first game. "He can turn routine plays into touchdowns in a blink of an eye. With all the weapons we have, I don't know if teams are going to double team him like in the past. And if Randy gets single coverage, I'll put my money on him any time."

4. THE PASS RUSHERS

Both defenses are brutal, especially against the pass. Green Bay's pass defense ranks 25th in the league while the Vikings' ranks 27th. Both teams were among the league leaders in interceptions last season but are near the bottom this season.

With both teams loaded at receiver and weak in the secondary, perhaps the only chance to slow an aerial assault is to get pressure on the passer. Williams and Lance Johnstone have 10 sacks apiece for the Vikings while Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has 9 1/2 for the Packers, including two in the teams' first meeting.

The big difference is the blockers. Packers left tackle Chad Clifton is having a superlative season and should be handle Johnstone. Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie, a former first-round pick, struggles mightily against speed rushers. KGB is a speed rusher extraordinaire, and he should be even better on the Vikings' artificial turf.

5. AVOID THE BIG MISTAKE

The Packers turned the ball over five times last week in the loss to Jacksonville. The Packers have played poorly in their last three games, with Favre getting picked off five times. That slice of the season is indicative of the Packers' season as a whole. With a minus-14 turnover ratio, the Packers should consider themselves lucky to even be in the playoff picture. Turnovers today will be double trouble considering this could turn into a shootout. Giving the Vikings points — and giving away chances to score points of their own — will spell doom.

For the Vikings, this is a team that collapsed down the stretch last season and blew a hot start to this season. A bad karma surrounds the Vikings, and a costly gaffe could let some doubts creep into their heads.


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