Packers-Vikings keys to the game

The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings renew their rivalry tonight, and the teams are but shadows of their former selves. For Green Bay, off-season player defections and injuries have doomed its season. For Minnesota, the trade of Randy Moss, player turmoil and a lack of cohesion have doomed a season that looked so promising back in August.

While the Packers (2-7) are all but eliminated from the playoff race, the Vikings (4-5) still have life. A win tonight puts them at .500, and with games the next two weeks at home against Cleveland and at Detroit, they have a shot to be 7-5 and riding a four-game winning streak entering the final quarter of the season.

The Vikings ended the Packers' season last year in a playoff upset. The Packers could gain a small measure of revenge tonight by all but extinguishing the Vikings' playoff chances. To do so, they'll have to control this week's five keys to the game.

1. Bad Brad

Many casual observers and the sports-radio yakkers contend the Vikings are better with Brad Johnson at quarterback. On the surface, they're correct: The Vikings are 2-0 with Johnson as the starter compared to 2-5 with the injured Daunte Culpepper.

Culpepper, despite some horrendous statistics this year, is one of the league's better quarterbacks. The veteran Johnson is at the stage of his career where he can't win games by himself. The Vikings are simply asking him not to lose the games, and it's worked so far.

In his first start, a 27-14 home win over Detroit, Johnson finished 15-of-22 for 136 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Last week, in a 24-21 victory over the host New York Giants, Johnson finished 17-of-30 for 144 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. While Johnson led the Vikings to the winning field goal, the other 21 points came on an interception return for a touchdown by Darren Sharper and special-teams scores by Koren Robinson and Mewelde Moore.

For the Packers, they must take Johnson out of his comfort level. Force him to make plays and to step outside of his role.

2. Stuff the run

Tying into the first key, the Packers must emphasize stopping the Minnesota rushing attack. The Packers did a good job of this in their first matchup. Take away Culpepper's scrambles — Johnson isn't a running threat — and the Vikings' running backs rushed 19 times for 67 yards (a 3.5-yard average).

The Vikings' offense was clicking against Detroit, thanks to 164 yards rushing (a 4.7-yard average). Against the Giants, however, the Vikings rushed 12 times for just 21 yards (a 0.6-yard average).

By forcing the Vikings into second- and third-and-longs, they'll put the onus on winning the game onto Johnson's shoulders.

3. Special teams

This is the one area where the Vikings have a big advantage, so the Packers must at least hold their own. The Packers' special-teams problems have been well chronicled. The holder-kicker combination of B.J. Sander and Ryan Longwell have mixed like oil and water. The punt-return unit has been mediocre, and the kickoff-return unit is one of the league's worst. The punt coverage team, however, ranks third in the league.

The Vikings got two touchdowns last week from their special teams, and they are one of only two teams in the league that have scores from both units this season. Kicker Paul Edinger kicked an infamous, game-winning field goal to stun the Packers earlier this season, though he has made just 7 of his last 13 attempts.

4. Men in the middle

When the teams met earlier this season, the Packers dominated the first half but lost. One reason: The Packers couldn't move the ball on the ground. They finished with 45 rushing yards on 23 attempts. That's less than 2 yards per rush, and that won't be nearly good enough tonight.

The Packers' rushing game made big strides by beating Atlanta last week. Scott Wells started in place of Adrian Klemm at left guard, and the change appeared to pay big dividends. The Falcons' defensive tackles, however, are lightweights. The Vikings' defensive tackles are not. Pat Williams dominated against the Packers, and his cohort, Kevin Williams, is one of the league's up-and-comers.

If Wells, center Mike Flanagan and right guard Will Whitticker can't move the Williams duo, then the game plan will revert to pass, pass and pass again.

5. Sharper Sharper

Former Packer Darren Sharper wasn't a factor in the first matchup, and you know he's looking for bigger things tonight as he returns to Lambeau Field. He's coming off a career game, with three interceptions and a touchdown last week against the Giants. He has five interceptions on the season.

"I think that first game, he and I were trying to really just play our own game and not really worry about one another," Sharper said of Packers quarterback Brett Favre. "I know I didn't try to do anything as far as gambling. I just wanted to play my position and not try to get caught up in the moment of playing against my former team. It will be interesting to see if I do that on Monday night."

Interesting, indeed.

"If Brett had his druthers, I think he would try to throw at me. But then he also knows that if I do get a chance to pick it, he's not going to hear the end of it."

Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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