The Vikings have been the king of the hill of the NFC North with a pair of division titles the last two seasons. Last year, they needed a sweep of the Green Bay Packers to assure their second division title despite winning 12 games. This year, the most the Vikings can win is 10 games and, with a loss in hand to the Packers, a defeat Sunday at the Metrodome would all but eliminate any postseason chance the Vikings might have.
The Packers are coming into the game about as healthy as they have been all season, which is saying something considering that they have already had 11 players lost for the season, including five starters – tight end Jermichael Finley, OT Mark Tauscher, RB Ryan Grant, LB Nick Barnett and LB Brady Poppinga – who have all landed on injured reserve. Regardless, the Packers are in position to control their own playoff destiny. They sit at 6-3 looking to remain tied with the Bears atop the NFC North and, in doing so, could put a dagger in the Vikings similar to the one the Vikings put in Green Bay when they won at Lambeau Field last November.
The biggest difference between this year's Packers and last year's team is that Green Bay has been paced by its defense, not its offense. Coming off two impressive seasons, Aaron Rodgers has been forced to pass more because of an inconsistent running game that took a big hit when Grant went on injured reserve after the first game of the season. Rodgers has been impressive, throwing for 2,300 yards with 15 touchdowns and a passer rating of 90.6. But he has thrown nine interceptions – two more than he threw in all of 2009. He is dangerous with his feet as well. He has rushed for 173 yards and is tied for the team lead with three rushing TDs. One of the keys to victory for the Vikings will be to collapse the pocket around Rodgers. If given time, he will pick the Vikings defense apart.
The running game has been cobbled together since Grant went down just eight carries into his 2010 season. Brandon Jackson has emerged as the primary running threat, carrying 108 times for 460 yards and three touchdowns. He averages about a dozen carries a game for about 60 yards, which isn't the kind of production needed for a go-to back. Fullback John Kuhn has picked up some of the slack, rushing 62 times for 225 yards. He doesn't have any moves – he's more of a bulldozer – but he will be key to the game only with respect to the crowd reaction when he runs. Like Moose Johnston of the Cowboys, fans chant "Ku-u-u-uhn!" when he runs the ball. If that chant can be heard when the Packers have the ball, it could be a bad sign for having the deafening home-field advantage the Vikings typically enjoy at the Metrodome. This is a two-man rushing corps – fullback Korey Hall has neither a rushing attempt nor a reception – that doesn't have a lot of explosion. If the Vikings can bottle them up, it will force the Packers to become more one-dimensional on offense.
The receiver group took a big hit when Finley was lost for the season. He was a big-play maker that could tilt the field by virtue of creating mismatches. He is going to be a star in the NFL, but, for now, it's had to be put on hold. The Packers have depth at the receiver position, as the Vikings found out all too well in their first meeting this year. Greg Jennings is the playmaker. Donald Driver is the veteran leader. But, when Driver's 10-year streak of games with at least one reception was snapped against the Vikings, other players had to step up. James Jones did it against the Vikings, catching four passes for 107 yards, and Jordy Nelson caught four passes for 25 yards. Donald Lee is the starting tight end in place of Finley, but both he and backup Andrew Quarless, who caught a controversial, non-challenged touchdown against the Vikings, have combined to catch just 14 passes. They aren't going to be primary targets, but will have to be accounted for in the red zone.
A season-ending injury has affected the Packers offensive line as well, but, not as much as it would appear on the surface. Right tackle Mark Tauscher was placed on injured reserve, but he was already on the cusp of being replaced by rookie Bryan Bulaga. The Packers' first-round draft pick in April, Bulaga has solidified his place on the roster. Expected to eventually replace Chad Clifton at left tackle, Vikings players and fans may want to get used to hearing his name, because, more than likely, they will for the next decade. The interior of the line is solid, but not spectacular, with guards Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton and center Scott Wells. They get the job done and have cut down on Rodgers' sacks – allowing 17 through nine games is half what they were allowing a year ago – and have been able to open enough holes for the team to average 4.2 yards a carry. They aren't an elite O-line, but they know their roles and have depth with former starters Jason Spitz and T.J. Lang backing up along the line. It will be a priority for the Vikings defensive line to create pressure on Rodgers. They will have to dominate this group, which is a difficult talk, but not impossible.
Although the Packers are known for their offense, they find themselves at 6-3 more because of their defense. In the second year of running Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, the Packers have thrived this season, allowing the fewest points in the league. The Packers have invested in their defensive front, with B.J. Raji in the middle and Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins flanking him. Raji is improving as a run-clogger and Pickett and Jenkins appear to be good fits in the 3-4 scheme at end. Jenkins is second on the team with four sacks and Pickett, who is questionable with an ankle injury, has been stout against the run. Depth is thin, with untested rookies C.J. Wilson and Howard Green backing up at the end positions. If Pickett can't go, the Packers will have an issue.
The strength of the defense this season has come from the linebackers and, more specifically, Clay Matthews. In just his second season, Matthews leads the league with 10½ sacks. Frank Zombo is on the other outside position, replacing injured Brad Jones, who was lost for the season due to a shoulder injury. A special teamer at heart, Zombo is a high-motor player who doesn't have the athletic gifts of his fellow LBs, but is an overachiever who makes up for his physical limitations with desire. On the inside, A.J. Hawk has resurrected his career after being viewed as something of a bust prior to this year. Desmond Bishop has moved into the spot opened by a season-ending wrist injury to Barnett and a knee injury to Brady Poppinga. He scored what proved to be the game-winning points on an interception return for a touchdown off a Brett Favre pass, so he won't be overlooked. Thanks to injuries, Brandon Chillar is the only experienced backup. The starters will likely be asked to play almost every down, which, if the Vikings can run the ball effectively, will wear them down.
The secondary has a different look with the release of Al Harris, but he wasn't going to threaten Tramon Williams for a starting spot. Williams, in his fourth season, has developed into a solid complement to future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson. The 2009 NFC Defensive Player of the Year trails Williams in interceptions – Williams has three and Woodson has two, one returned for a touchdown – but he is routinely put on a team's best receiver and allowed to go one-on-one with him. With Sidney Rice expected back, don't be shocked if Woodson takes Percy Harvin and Williams goes on an island with Rice in his first game back. A month from now, it would likely be different, but given the situation with Rice expected to be playing his first game, Woodson will likely be kept in reserve. Safety is becoming more of a strength with the return of Atari Bigby. He currently remains behind starters Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah, but brings big-play ability to the table. Depth at corner is considerably thinner, with youngsters Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood providing depth.
The Packers are a team that many projected as being the class of the NFC North in 2010. Their battle, however, was supposed to be against the Vikings, not the Bears. With a win, the Packers will continue fulfilling their end of the bargain. With a loss, the Packers' season will be thrown into jeopardy with a loss already in hand to the Bears and a second meeting not coming until the final week of the season. Both teams need this game for different reasons – the Packers to stay tied for the division lead and the Vikings for season survival. This could be one of the most physical games of the season because it means so much to both teams. With a win, the Vikings can continue to keep the dream of a playoff berth alive. With a loss, it's all but over for the 2010 season. It doesn't get much bigger than that, adding to the hype of the 100th career meeting of the franchises.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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