Undercard Over; Showdown Next

With some unanswered questions, Green Bay heads to Minnesota for an early-season showdown next week. Can the Packers run the ball? Can they stop the run? Can they protect Aaron Rodgers? Where the Packers have questions, the Vikings are strong.

First, the good news: The Packers are 2-1 after Sunday's 36-17 victory at St. Louis.

Any win's a good win in the NFL, and doubly so when it comes on the road. But these are the Rams, who are the proud owners of an NFL-long 13-game losing streak and have won five games total over two-plus seasons. These are the Rams, a team that you probably couldn't name five players — and that's after watching the game.

So, how good — or bad — are these Packers? A Monday night showdown at Minnesota should provide some answers.

Can the Packers stop the run against the world's most dangerous running back? Well, you don't get a much better tuneup than facing the Rams' Steven Jackson. Jackson rushed for 117 yards on 27 rushes on Sunday — good for a 4.3-yard average — against a Packers defense that had Brandon Chillar playing as a fifth linebacker in what essentially was the their base unit.

The Packers might be able to get away with that against a team like the Rams, who are OK at quarterback with Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller but well below average at wide receiver. That's not going to fly against the Vikings. Brett Favre showed he's more than a dink-and-dunk quarterback, as he was in the first two games, by rallying Minnesota in a last-gasp drive on Sunday against San Francisco. Favre at this stage of his career and without the benefit of a full training camp might not be a whole lot better than Boller, but he's got Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe at his disposal in the passing game. The Packers will have to at least respect Favre and the passing game, which means more opportunities for Adrian Peterson on a fast track at the Metrodome.

Can the Packers run the ball against what is annually one of the NFL's best run defenses? Through the first two-and-a-half games, the Packers had averaged 3.3 yards per carry on rushes that didn't include scrambles and kneeldowns by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. During the second half against the Rams, however, the Packers rushed for 113 yards on 21 carries — a gaudy 5.4-yard average. That includes 16 rushes for 74 yards (4.6 average) by running back Ryan Grant. That's perhaps the most positive development of Sunday's game.

Can the Packers protect Rodgers well enough to take advantage of a mediocre Vikings secondary? This, of course, is the biggest question of all. The Packers did a better job against the Rams, with Rodgers getting sacked twice and hit on three other occasions — an enormous improvement after 10 sacks and 19 additional hits the previous two weeks. But Leonard Little is a hundred years old, Chris Long is still trying to figure things out and they don't have any legit linebackers. The Vikings' front seven is the best in the NFC, and the prospect of Jared Allen going against Daryn Colledge means some late nights for the offensive coaches.

As Packers coach Mike McCarthy likes to say, it all fits together. The Packers won't need Grant to rush for 150 yards against the Vikings. What they need is for him to consistently gain 3 or 4 or 5 yards a carry. When Grant got going a bit against Chicago, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for the winning touchdown off of play action. When Grant produced back-to-back 7-yard runs against St. Louis, Rodgers hit Jennings for 53 yards against St. Louis off of play action.

The Packers rebounded against the Rams but remain a flawed team — though maybe not as much as we think, with Cincinnati upsetting Pittsburgh. The running game and pass protection were better against the Rams, but that's like being happy that the ignition turned over and black smoke billowed from a stalled car.

But the Vikings aren't some unbeatable superpower. For more than 58 minutes, Favre was only 18-of-36 passing. Take away a 35-yard run, Peterson averaged only 2.8 yards on his other 18 carries. Favre has been sacked nine times. The Vikings couldn't handle 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (seven receptions, 95 yards, two touchdowns), and tight ends are a huge strength for the Packers' offense. Green Bay is plus-8 in turnovers and has given away the ball only once.

So, the three-game undercard to the season is over. The Packers are 2-1 against teams that went 14-33-1 last year and are 4-5 this year. The Vikings are 3-0 against teams that went 11-45 last year and are 3-6 this year. The Packers' season starts on Sunday. Let the battle begin.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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