For so many reasons, Sunday's game at the Metrodome really represents a low point in the storied history of a rivalry which has grown so much over the past decade. It was nearly 10 years ago to the day, in fact, that the Packers beat the Vikings, 38-21, at Lambeau Field as Brett Favre threw four touchdowns in one of the highlight games of his first MVP season. Two weeks later, the Vikings returned the favor, beating the Packers, 27-24, at the Metrodome in a game Favre could not finished because of a severely sprained ankle. It was the best of times for the rivalry.
For the next ten years, the Packers and Vikings routinely dominated the NFC Central/North Division, making their two matchups each season of critical importance with palpable hype nationwide for each game. It is not so much that way this season.
Instead, the intrigue with both teams is why each is so bad. How bad one might ask? Well, never in the 45-year history of the series have both teams combined for such a poor record. At 2-8, they combine for just a .200 winning percentage. The only time they have ever come close to that mark was in 1991. Through Week 11 that year, they were 7-14 together, a .333 winning percentage.
Adding to the futility this week is the off-the-field problems for the Vikings, still in the midst of a bye week "sex cruise" scandal that surfaced a little over a week ago. Reportedly several players on the team were involved in morally questionable acts on a boat, drawing the attention of the league, the team owner, and the national media. That has been a source of major distraction and has dominated headlines. Repercussions from that event are still being sorted out, but the Vikings sure did not seem all that motivated or focused on football last week in a 28-3 loss to the Bears to drop to 1-4.
The Vikings are in shambles on both sides of the football, something no one expected when the regular season began. They have been outscored 135-67 in five games and are ranked 24th in the NFL in total offense and 23rd in total defense. Daunte Culpepper, considered one of best quarterbacks in the league at the beginning of the season, is rated second-worst in the league, presumably feeling the effects of losing wide receiver Randy Moss and having no running game to rely on. The Vikings' defense, with four new high-priced free agents, has also been a major disappointment.
Though the Packers are not dealing with the same issues off-the-field as the Vikings, they have struggled on the field as well. They gained a measure of respect with a sound 52-3 drubbing of the Saints two weeks ago, but they are still a team in transition. Young players, various mistakes, and injuries have been the stories of their season. They expected to have a much better record at this point, and even if they improve the rest of the way, it is likely that a brutal schedule will hand them their first losing season since 1991.
Only twice have the Packers and Vikings had losing seasons in the same year. This year is a lock to be the third. With at least one team being in contention or at the top of the division seemingly every year, the head-to-head matchups always gave the underdog team something extra to play for knowing they could upset the other's season. If both teams were good, then the games often decided who would win the division.
Head coaches Mike Sherman and Mike Tice will play up this week's game as another "big one" in the rivalry, but the winner really will have nothing to brag about. There is no underdog rallying cry, and for all intents and purposes, the losing team's season is over. It is that simple.
While the rivalry lacks a team at the top of the division this year, it also does not have that central compelling character that often makes the game talked about at the water cooler the next day. Remember last season when Moss gave the Lambeau Field faithful a send-off into the off-season with a "fake moon" after his final touchdown in the NFC Wild-Card game? That gesture should have carried some bitterness for the Packers into this season, but instead the Vikings traded Moss, their best player, to help their team in other areas. That move took not only a chapter out of the series, but also an element of challenge the Packers had faced for at least two games the past seven years.
The Moss "fake moon" will likely not even be mentioned this week because he is gone. Instead, the big-play receiver will be sorely missed by the rivalry because he was the one player Packers' fans loved to hate, for reasons ranging from his attitude to his back-breaking plays on the field.
Moss was the rivalry as much as the proximity of the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. He was as central a character as Vince Lombardi, Bud Grant, Mike Holmgren and Dennis Green. He was as big to the game as the moments that have defined it in recent years – like Antonio Freeman's remarkable overtime touchdown catch or Chris Hovan's end of the game tirade on a Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
So what central figure does the first meeting of 2005 bring? It brings Darren Sharper in his first game against the Packers since he departed Green Bay via free agency this off-season. Nothing could be more uninteresting than that.
Maybe, just maybe at a low point in this rivalry a new character will emerge or an unbelievable finish will give one team hope, but the pre-game analysis does not suggest it. It suggests a script more prepared to reveal which team is the best of the worst, something both the Packers and Vikings are not accustomed to reading.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.