First place again at stake in rivalry

They always say that the records can be thrown out the window when the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings meet. And that's exactly what both teams would like to do with their 1-4 starts to the season. Remarkably, the Packers and Vikings again are battling for a share of first place within the NFC North.

Despite their records, both teams have a chance to move into first place in the division with a victory in the Metrodome this Sunday in Minneapolis. The players and coaches are very aware of the situation.

"It's a huge game for us," said Packers running back Tony Fisher. "This could help us get over the hump. That's what we're trying to do. It will be a big game for both teams considering how both teams' backs are against the wall. We'll come out swinging."

Last December, the two rivals were battling for first place in the NFC North. Green Bay edged Minnesota, 34-31, in the Metrodome. The Vikings returned to Green Bay a few weeks later and eliminated the Packers from the playoffs with a 31-17 victory. If the Detroit Lions (2-3) lose at Cleveland and Chicago (2-3) falls at home to Baltimore, the winner of the Packers-Vikings game will surge into first place.

"It's a very significant game," said Packers coach Mike Sherman. "Obviously the rivalry speaks for itself. The position that both of us are in and desire greatly not to be any deeper than we are ... I think it will be a dogfight."

Sunday's game (noon, CT) marks the fourth time in their last five regular-season meetings the Packers and Vikings have met with first place at stake. Last year, each of the team's regular season meetings were for first place.

If the Packers or Vikings were in any other division, they would be looking up at a three-game deficit from first place. The utter mediocrity of the NFC North, though, has the division's reigning three-time champion believing it's as good as any of its rivals to seize another title.

"If anything, we've been lucky in that area. Not lucky in others, but lucky in that area," Sherman said of being only a game out of the lead. "We very easily could be four games back right now. (But) we're not. So, I feel fortunate."

The Packers entered their bye last week on the heels of a 52-3 victory over the New Orleans Saints. The Vikings were whipped 28-3 by the Chicago Bears last Sunday at Soldier Field. The Vikings haven't won since they beat New Orleans Sept. 25 at the Metrodome.

As Green Bay prepares to make the short trek over to Minneapolis for the teams' first meeting of the season Sunday, a newfound confidence has swept over a Packers team that not long ago was considered to be done for the season.

"That's the way this division is right now and we've got to take advantage of it," said safety Mark Roman. "We've got to take care of the things we can take care of and put ourselves in the best position to be in first place."

Sherman made sure his players didn't forget what it's like to play hard for 60 minutes and actually be rewarded. He put them through a lively two-hour practice Monday afternoon, the longest post-bye workout in his six years as coach.

"It's going to be a great game," Fisher said. "It's going to be a physical game. The team with the fewest penalties and turnovers should win."

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