Packers vs. Vikings: Keys to the game

Brett Favre is struggling. Rookie Tarvaris Jackson is making his starting debut. The defenses will want to put the ball in the hands of the quarterbacks tonight at rainy Lambeau Field.

The playoff talk seems kind of silly with a pair of 6-8 teams playing in prime time tonight at Lambeau Field, but that's the truth in the sad NFC. The winner of tonight's game remains mathematically alive. The loser can focus on Christmas, New Year's parties and a long offseason.

Here are the keys to tonight's game.

Run the ball, somehow

Every week, running the ball is a goal for the Packers' offense. Some weeks are harder than others, though.

The Vikings boast the best run defense in the modern era of the NFL (after the NFL-AFL merger in 1970). Their 55.1 rushing yards allowed per game is better than the 60.6 yards allowed by Baltimore during its Super Bowl season of 2000.

The Packers ran it 26 times against Minnesota during their victory at the Metrodome on Nov. 12. Twenty-six times, they ran into a brick wall, picking up 47 yards and averaging 1.8 yards per attempt.

The key matchups are in the middle, with guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz and center Scott Wells having to contain big and athletic Pro Bowler Kevin Williams and simply enormous Pat Williams. Pat Williams destroyed the Packers in the last meeting, recording eight tackles and blowing up every running play sent his direction.

"I think he's an outstanding player," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Pat Williams, who's listed at 317 pounds, but that weigh-in must have come with only one leg on the scale and before he started gobbling up Christmas cookies. "We need to do a much better job of blocking him in both the run blocking and pass protection."

Favre on the money

Running the ball always is key, because the more successful the Packers are, the less pressure to make plays will be thrust upon Brett Favre.

The Packers' quarterback is the 24th-ranked passer in the NFL, in large part because he leads the league with 521 attempts but is only 13th in touchdowns with 17 and is completing a career-low 56.8 percent of his passes.

Favre had a big day against the Vikings last month, with a passer rating of 100.0 on 24-of-42 passing for 347 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Since then, though, he's had passer ratings of 50.1, 58.3, 53.0, 111.5 and last week's dismal 32.9, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Either Favre is in the midst of a late-season fade pattern or defenses have done a better job of taking away Donald Driver while Driver's cohorts have failed to step up. Either way, the Packers' passing game is struggling, and they'll be challenged by a Vikings pass defense that gives up a ton of yards (29th, 235.5 yards per game) but has 19 interceptions compared to 14 touchdowns allowed.

The other QB

While Favre's career winds down, another quarterback's career is only beginning. Vikings rookie Tarvaris Jackson, a second-round pick in April's draft, makes his first career start tonight in place of ineffective veteran Brad Johnson.

Talk about a tough debut. A short week of practice. Hostile crowd. Cold and wet weather. Facing a pair of cornerbacks, Al Harris and Charles Woodson, who will have bigger chips on their shoulders after being passed over for the Pro Bowl.

Vikings coach Brad Childress knows there might be a setback or two.

"You draft a guy in the second round because you believe he has an aptitude and that he can play," Childress said. "I'm not foolish enough to think that after coaching quarterbacks for 30 years that there won't be bumps in the road."

He's as raw as a grazing cow, but Jackson offers some attributes that should worry the Packers. Namely, he's athletic and has a big-time arm.

"Tarvaris can make all the throws, he has escapeability, which gives receivers a little longer time to get open," former Packers safety Darren Sharper said. "He has good awareness. A lot of times you see young quarterbacks, they just see one side of the field. He has the ability to scan the entire field. If his first or second read isn't there, he has the ability to come back to the third or fourth."

Expect the Packers to put those abilities to the test by mounting a strong pass rush. The matchups favor ends Aaron Kampman (against a new starter, second-round pick Ryan Cook) and, on passing downs, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (against talented underachiever Bryant McKinnie).

Chop down Chester

Just as the Vikings want to take away the Packers' running game and put the ball in Favre's hands, the Packers want to take away the Vikings' running game and put the ball in Jackson's hands.

He didn't make the Pro Bowl, but Vikings running back Chester Taylor is having a big season. In his first season as a full-time starter, Taylor has rushed for 1,136 yards and added 38 receptions. He's led by two Pro Bowlers, center Matt Birk and left guard Steve Hutchinson, and powerful fullback Tony Richardson.

"I think you definitely have to stop the run," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "They're a very physical team, and they like to run the ball. If a team can be two-dimensional and run and throw the ball on you, it makes it a lot tougher. So, just like every other week, we know we have to stop the run first and try to make them one-dimensional, because when a team can have a balanced passing and rushing attack, it makes everyone's job a lot harder.

Coaching

McCarthy and Childress are both first-year coaches, and their ability to devise a winning game plan on such a short week will be critical.

"It's a challenge, but it's like anything else, as long as the playing field is level," McCarthy said. "You prefer to be at home, and we have that advantage this week. They're tougher later in the season, I think that's obvious, based on where the players' bodies are, as opposed to earlier in the season."

For the Vikings, an emphasis will be on taking away Driver, who piled up 191 receiving yards and a touchdown in their earlier meeting. Driver, in fact, has torched the Vikings in the last six meetings, with 39 catches for 668 yards and seven touchdowns. He's caught at least one touchdown pass in all five of the regular-season games in that span.

For the Packers, one key will be coming up with a way to keep manageable down-and-distances should the running game struggle again. On defense, the key will be devising a plan against Jackson, who has had only limited playing time for the Packers to watch.

"We have about 70 plays of video on him in his opportunities to play this season and preseason, so we'll study that for his particular tendencies," McCarthy said.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.


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