Keys to victory: Vikings vs. Packers, demons

Super Bowl or bust. That was Brett Favre's preseason proclamation. This afternoon at Lambeau Field, the Packers' Super Bowl express starts rolling. Or it sputters and dies on the tracks.

On paper, the Packers emerge as the clear winner. The Packers won nine of their final 11 games. The Vikings lost seven of their final 10 games, the worst finishing kick of any playoff team in league history. The Packers beat the Vikings twice during the regular season. The Vikings are 2-20 in their last 22 games played outside. The Packers are 14-1 all-time in home playoff games. The Vikings are 4-12 all-time in road playoff games.

All signs point to the Packers winning — and winning big — but today's NFC wild-card game is more grudge match than anything. Given their horrid ending to their season and their trend of wilting under big-game pressure, the Vikings might not stand a chance against any other playoff team. But the Vikings hate the Packers. The Packers-Bears rivalry may have the history but Packers-Vikings has the venom.

Especially for the Vikings.

The Packers are the thoroughbreds while the Vikings are the mutts. The Packers have gone to a couple Super Bowls in the last decade. The Vikings have blown their chances. The Packers have Lambeau Field. The Vikings have the Metrodome.

"I'm not Knute Rockne; they know they're the underdogs," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "Probably half their wives don't think they can win."

Tice no doubt relishes the thought. The most dangerous team in all of sports is the underdog.

The Vikings have earned their reputation as chokers. Twice they got out of the gates quickly only to crumble. Tice is tired of hearing about but he knows the only way to shut up the critics is to win. With all of that talent, especially on offense, he might have the team to pull it off.

"All the criticism, if you're a man, bothers you," Tice said. "It's going to be there until we change it.

"If I said, ‘Oh, no, it doesn't bother me that I'm called Coach Collapse. It doesn't bother me that we're making mistakes on offense. That doesn't bother me at all,' Of course it bothers me. But what are we going to do about it? That's the key, and until we do something about it, it's going to be there."

That leads into the first of this week's five keys to the game.

1. Will the Vikings show up?

Three wins in the final 10 games isn't exactly the way to enter the playoffs. An 8-8 record suggests a team that isn't qualified to be in the postseason.

"Most people say we backed into the playoffs. Yeah, that's true," Tice said after the Vikings lost their regular-season finale 21-18 at Washington. "Fortunately, we start off the same with 0-0. Unfortunately, we certainly don't come into this thing with any tremendous rhythm."

No rhythm but plenty of turmoil. Moss walked out on his teammates in the final seconds at Washington. That divided the locker room, with some players saying it was no big deal while Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and Moss got into a heated conversation after the game.

Later in the week, in an interview on ESPN, Moss hardly gave Tice a ringing endorsement when asked if his coach should be back in 2005.

The only thing that can cure all the Vikings' problems is a win, Tice said.

"Coming into Lambeau and coming out with a victory, sure, it erases a lot of the BS," said Tice. "That said, you could have no tougher task."

2. Moping Moss

By now, you've seen the replay of Moss moping off the field, leaving his teammates to fend for themselves in the final seconds of their loss last week at Washington. Moss may have his quirks, but he's a competitor and you'd expect him to try to clear his name by tormenting the Packers' secondary today.

In the Christmas Eve matchup, the Vikings' final three offensive plays of the first half resulted in touchdowns. After giving up 21 first-half points, the Packers went to a zone defense. In the second half, the Vikings' offense scored just three points.

"They did an excellent job of making that adjustment," Tice said.

Based on their success in the second half of the Christmas Eve game, the Packers will give the Vikings a steady diet of Cover 2. That means Al Harris will try to beat up Moss at the line of scrimmage, with safety Darren Sharper giving help to take away the deep ball.

"Things that have worked against them, we have to use. And things that haven't worked, we have to throw them out the window," Harris said.

The Vikings have plenty of weapons — Nate Burleson in particular has been a terror in the two games, with 13 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns — but if the Packers can't slow Moss, they'll be hard pressed to advance to Atlanta.

"If he stays on the field for 60 minutes, we've got a chance," Tice said.

3. Arms race

Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper have been nearly unstoppable in their two matchups.

Culpepper been nothing short of brilliant, going 43-for-67 for 648 yards, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw touchdowns on three consecutive passes in the second quarter in the last game. The Vikings lost both times, as Culpepper is quick to point out.

"It doesn't matter individually how you do, it's about how the team does collectively," said Culpepper. "That's how football goes."

The reason the Vikings lost didn't escape Tice.

Favre is 50-for-72 for 601 yards, with seven touchdowns and one interception. In the Christmas Eve game, Favre led the Packers to 10 points over the final 3:45 to rally the team to victory.

"I look over and see Brett's stats and I realize why," said Tice. "Maybe we need to score a little later than we do."

After a combined 16 quarters of brilliance, can these two gunslingers keep it up? If today's game plays like the first two, even an above-average performance may not be good enough.

4. Encore for KGB

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila tallied four sacks last week against Chicago. With his confidence surging after running around Marc Colombo last week, Gbaja-Biamila could single-handedly win this game if he is a constant pest to Culpepper.

Gbaja-Biamila primarily will be matched up against the 335-pound left tackle Bryant McKinnie. McKinnie, an early first-round pick in 2002, has been a disappointment. He's hardly as slow as Colombo, but McKinnie has struggled against speed rushers. If the Packers can keep the Lambeau Field crowd in the game and prevent McKinnie from hearing the snap count, Gbaja-Biamila's speed will become a bigger factor.

Gbaja-Biamila will have to be careful, though. If he is too aggressive in going after Culpepper, he will open rushing lanes for the 265-pound quarterback to sprint through for big gains. And at 265 pounds, Gbaja-Biamila can be bullied in the running game.

5. Lay it on the line

The Packers ran the ball down the Vikings' throats in the Nov. 14 game, with Ahman Green rushing for 145 yards and the Packers picking up 206 as a team. The running game wasn't nearly as successful in the Dec. 24 rematch, with Minnesota's young and talented defensive line taking it to the Packers' juggernaut offensive line.

The running game should open up for today's game. In the Dec. 24 game, Javon Walker and Donald Driver laid waste to Minnesota's secondary for a combined 252 yards. That subpar group is now without strong safety Corey Chavous, weakening and already weak group. Minnesota, which kept close tabs on Green in that game, almost certainly will have to play back to prevent another torching courtesy of the Favre-led passing attack.

"Last time at Minnesota, the pass had to open up to us because they respected Ahman a lot," Driver said. "When they load the box like that, they leave us one-on-one coverage. If we've got single coverage, we're pretty much going to beat anybody."

Knowing the Vikings will have to change that philosophy, Favre says the fate of the game will fall on his offensive line to open holes for the running game.

"Minnesota really had our number two weeks ago," Favre said. "If you look at the film closely, you see their defensive line really got the better of our offensive line. We won the game, so it's easy to overlook that. But I think our guys have probably the biggest challenge they've faced this year coming up this week. They've risen up to every challenge. Let's hope they do it again this week."


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