Dec. 24 vs. Vikings: Packers win NFC North

It was a day of repeats on Christmas Eve in Minneapolis. The Green Bay Packers repeated as NFC North champions. The Minnesota Vikings repeated their end-of-season collapse of a year ago. And the Packers repeated the outcome of the first game against Minnesota by recording a 34-31 victory on a Ryan Longwell field goal as time expired.

Quarterback Brett Favre pulled the perfect present out of his bag of gifts, guiding the Packers on a perfectly executed two-minute drill on the winning drive.

The big play came on second-and-15 from their 23-yard line when Favre connected with Tony Fisher on a flawless screen play for 21 yards and a first down with 38 seconds left.

On second-and-10, Favre hit Donald Driver on a crossing route for 18 yards — 17 of which were gained by Driver — for another first down to the Vikings' 38-yard line with 25 seconds left. The Packers then all but won the game when Favre weathered a safety blitz by Brian Russell and hit Javon Walker, whose catch and run advanced the ball 31 yards to the Vikings' 7.

Favre saw the blitz coming and knew what to do, but admitted surprise at the result. "When I actually looked up, I saw Javon running, and I said, 'It was a little better than I had hoped.'"

A few kneel downs and timeouts later, Longwell kicked the Packers to the division championship with a 29-yard field goal.

"Don't ever underestimate how important character is," Packers coach Mike Sherman said.

"After all we've been through ... I'm at a loss for words," Favre said, adding: "Never give up. That's been this team's M.O. all season, because we could've quit a long time ago."

As NFC North champs, the 9-6 Packers are assured a first-round home playoff game. As the third seed in the NFC, they will host the sixth seed on the weekend of Jan. 8-9.

The winning touchdown was made possible by a gutsy fourth-down call by Sherman and a woeful retaliatory drive by the Vikings.

Minnesota appeared to take control of the game when linebacker Chris Claiborne intercepted a Favre laser and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown to put the Vikings on top 31-24 with 8:18 left in regulation.

With the Metrodome rocking, however, Favre, Walker and Driver delivered time and again on a championship-caliber drive. A 21-yard pass to Driver converted a third-and-11 and a 16-yard hookup with Walker picked up another first down. After a false-start penalty pushed Green Bay back 5 yards, Favre hit Driver for another first down and a facemask penalty tacked on an additional 15 yards to push the ball to the Minnesota 17.

On third-and-1 from the 8, Ahman Green bulled his way for a vital first down. Two incompletions sandwiched a short Green run to set up the biggest play of the season. On fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line and about 3:45 remaining, Packers coach Mike Sherman could have played it safe and kicked a field goal to pull within 31-27. Instead, Sherman kept the offense on the field, and the Packers tied the score when Favre hit Driver at the goal line with a short flip over the middle. Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson was glued to Driver but wasn't looking as the ball approached.

"He handles adversity better than any person I know," Sherman said of Favre.

Still, Minnesota had 3:34 on the clock to score the winning points necessary to wrest the North away from Green Bay. The Vikings looked like they were on their way when Michael Bennett started the drive with an 11-yard run to near midfield. Instead, the Vikings went backward from there. A false start and a holding penalty — which wiped out a 15-yard Bennett run to the Packers' 40 — pushed Minnesota into a first-and-25 from their 34.

From there, the maligned Packers' defense took over. Aaron Kampman stopped Bennett for no gain with an ankle tackle on a first-down run. A second-down deep post to Randy Moss was broken up by textbook double coverage by linebacker Nick Barnett and safety Darren Sharper. On third-and-long, the Vikings picked up 21 yards but were forced to punt.

"When we watch film, we're going to kick ourselves," said Culpepper, who went 16-for-23 for 285 yards and three touchdowns, finishing with an almost perfect passer rating of 151.3.

The Packers trailed 21-17 at the end of a bizarre first half. The Packers tied the score at 7 with a 16-play drive capped by a fourth-and-goal scoring run by Green, only to see the Vikings regain the lead on the next play from scrimmage when Culpepper hit Nate Burleson for a 68-yard touchdown. Ahmad Carroll, Sharper and Mark Roman all missed tackles on Burleson's run.

Green Bay answered with nine-play scoring drive capped by a Favre-to-Bubba Franks 22-yard touchdown. Minnesota answered again just as quickly to take a 21-14 lead with 58 seconds left in the half. Kelly Campbell returned the kickoff all the way to the Green Bay 38-yard line and Culpepper dumped a screen to Bennett, who broke a Barnett tackle and took advantage of halfhearted tackle attempts by Michael Hawthorne, Carroll and Joey Thomas to sprint into the end zone.

The Packers were able to get a field goal before intermission thanks to the best return of Antonio Chatman's career. He spun out of a tackle near the 25-yard line and then broke contain and raced up the left sideline 59 yards to the Vikings' 34. A third-and-6 pass to Driver gained 5.9 yards and forced the officials to stop the clock for a measurement. Had Driver gained only 5 yards, the clock probably would have run out since the Packers were out of timeouts.


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