Packers vs. Vikings: Keys to the game

Can Green Bay's young offensive line be successful against the Vikings' powerful front four? Can Minnesota's offensive line protect Brad Johnson? Those are just two of the storylines.

Two first-year coaches collide on Sunday in Minneapolis, and there's plenty at stake, including the all-time lead in the series between these bitter border rivals. The teams are tied 44-44-1. Who will earn a crucial win? Here are five keys to the game.

Strength vs. strength

Much has been made of the matchup between Green Bay's rushing offense and Minnesota's rushing defense. For good reason. The outcome of the game likely rides on which unit is supreme.

Even though they've passed more than any team in the league, the Packers boast the league's 11th-ranked running game, and it's been especially effective the past four games. Ahman Green has topped 100 yards the last three games, but the Packers' promising young blockers haven't faced a challenge like this since Week 1 against Chicago.

Led by their stalwart defensive tackles, the Vikings boast the league's top-ranked defense against the run. DTs Kevin and Pat Williams are big and explosive, and are a big reason why the Packers rushed for less than 2 yards per carry in two losses to the Vikings last season.

"It really starts with those guys, and you can see the way they structure their defense," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's how they fit their linebackers and what they try to do with some of their linebacker pressure schemes to try to get you to single-block those guys. As you watch them on film, you can't single-block them. They're clearly the best tandem of defensive tackles that we've played."

The battle within this battle with be the Vikings facing the Packers' cut blocks, which are a staple in the zone scheme. It seems those blocks already are in the Vikings' heads.

"I tell people, the guys who do all that cut blocking … are a bunch of cowards, because they know they can't block us one on one or double team us staying up," Pat Williams said.

Why bang your head against a wall?

One way for the Packers to avoid Minnesota's stout run defense is to throw the ball. The New England Patriots thought that was the path of least resistance a couple weeks ago, and Tom Brady and his pedestrian group of receivers had a monster game.

Minnesota's pass defense isn't nearly as bad as the Patriots made them look. The Vikings rank 19th against the pass, but there are more telling numbers. The Vikings have allowed eight touchdown passes but intercepted nine passes, and are tied for ninth with 21 sacks.

Don't expect McCarthy to repeat the Patriots' strategy. That first-and-goal pass call probably has McCarthy in a run-first state of mind, and the Packers will want to run the ball successfully to quiet the raucous Metrodome crowd. More importantly, though, with Donald Driver the only legit target since Greg Jennings is slowed with a bum ankle, the Packers just don't have the weapons to throw it 45 times and win.

"It's important from a systematic standpoint to have flexibility for personnel matchups, scheme design run or pass, as you go through the course of the season," McCarthy said. "But to sit here and say, wow, we're going to go and be the New England Patriots, I don't think that's probably in our best interests."

The other trenches

If the Packers can't handle the left side of the Vikings' offensive line, tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Steve Hutchinson, then Minnesota's potent running attack will dictate the game. With his long arms, McKinnie generally has dominated defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Hutchinson, meanwhile, is the league's best guard, and he'll be a severe test for Green Bay's most talented defensive tackle, Ryan Pickett. Not surprisingly, the Vikings love to run to their left. Gbaja-Biamila must be stronger against the run than he was last week, when Buffalo targeted him.

Meantime, if Vikings right tackle Marcus Johnson can't control the NFL's sack leader, Aaron Kampman, the Packers will be in position to frustrate Minnesota's woeful passing game.

The Vikings know all about Kampman. They tried to sign Kampman, then a restricted free agent, during the offseason following the 2004 season, but the Packers matched the offer.

"Marcus will have his hands full, but a lot of people have had their hands full with that guy," Vikings coach Brad Childress said.

Longwell vs. Rayner

The last four games in the series have been decided by last-second field goals. Ryan Longwell gave Green Bay victories in both 2004 games, and Paul Edinger gave Minnesota victories in both 2005 games. Given how closely these teams are matched, it wouldn't be surprising if a kicker decided this game, too.

Last week, Adam Vinatieri returned to New England, and missed two of his four field-goal attempts. In his first opportunity against his former team, will Longwell (14 of 17 on field goals this season) be off-target, too? Will his replacement, Dave Rayner (12 of 15 on field goals), be off the mark, as well, as he tries to prove he's up to the task of replacing the Packers' all-time scoring leader?

Considering points will be at a premium, neither team can afford to have its kicker taking points off the scoreboard, whether it's the first quarter or final seconds of regulation.

"It will be a special game, but we're both kind of in the same situation. We both need a win, so it's bigger than playing your ex-teammates," Longwell said.

"It's always hard to step into a position where a guy's been so good for so many years," Rayner said. "I'm not trying to replace Ryan Longwell. I'm just trying to start my career."


Johnson vs. Favre

Brad Johnson is the NFL's oldest quarterback. Brett Favre is No. 2 on the list. Neither is having his best season.

Johnson has a passer rating of 73, but it's been in the mid-60s since the calendar turned to October. He has thrown three touchdown passes and seven interceptions in those last five games. He hasn't thrown a TD pass in the last two games, and the Vikings haven't scored an offensive touchdown in nine quarters. The Packers would love stop the run, then attack the statue-like Johnson. The Vikings have allowed 18 sacks, and the Packers rank third in the league with 27 sacks (No. 1 San Diego and No. 2 Seattle had the good fortune to face Oakland).

Favre's passer rating is 78.8, an improvement over last year's interception-plagued 70.9 mark, thanks to an 11-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His completion percentage of 57.7 is the worst of his career, though. Favre has a 4-10 career record at the Metrodome, and the Vikings no doubt will want to swallow the Packers' running game, get the crowd revved up, and let Favre and his diminished group of weapons try to beat them.

In other words, both teams will be content to let the quarterbacks decide the game.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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