There are going to be a lot of storylines, among them being who can beat the Green Bay Packers. Perhaps the better question is who can beat them at Lambeau Field?
As disappointing as the Vikings' 2011 season was, about the only thing worse for Vikings fans was the haughtiness of Packers fans who were chowing down on the fatted calf every week. One of my dearest friends is only a half-a-click away from being a face-painter and has long lived by the simple motto "The Packers are my second-favorite team. Everybody else ties for first." If the Vikings were 2-14 but 2-0 against Green Bay and 0-14 against the rest of the Western Hemisphere, he'd be cool with that. In the lean times, Packers fans are insufferable. When they're resting up to invite unwelcome strangers to their small town, Packers fans are intolerable. But who is going to knock them off their perch? In January. At Lambeau. Nobody has been able to get the job done yet. What's to think somebody can do it now.
The Saints gave it their best shot in the season opener all the way back on Sept. 8. A year earlier, they met the Vikings at the Superdome and, in a portent of things to come, the players from both teams took three steps out on the field from their opposite sidelines and raised their helmets in solidarity that, as a players union, they were unified.
There was no such expression of respect and unity made Sept. 8 at Lambeau Field. I've watched that game three times – once live, once at midseason when I was trying to find a fundamental weakness when the Vikings met the Packers for the first time. The only team that had hung with Green Bay was New Orleans. I watched it again Thursday.
If anyone is going to prevent the Packers from defending their title, prior to the Super Bowl, they will have to do it at Lambeau Field. That hasn't been easy.
When the Packers beat down New Orleans 42-34 in the season opener, they sent a message to the rest of the league that they were here for business. They didn't let up, especially at home. The pre-Tebow Broncos came into Lambeau and got pummeled 49-23. They called the dog off St. Louis in a 24-3 win. Next came the Vikings and a humbling 45-7 caning. Tampa Bay was next and provided little in the way of a fight, losing 35-26 in a game that was never as close as the final score might indicate.
The final three home games all had significance – more to the opponent than the Packers, who had all but assured themselves of home-field advantage and were more interested in chasing down the first 19-0 season in NFL history.
The Oakland Raiders came into Lambeau effectively controlling their own playoff destiny Dec. 11, before getting pantsed by the Packers 46-16. The Bears came in Christmas night with playoff hopes still alive – only to have them quickly snuffed in a 35-21 Packers win that was never really in question. Even benching Aaron Rodgers, while the Lions were fighting for the No. 5 seed and the opportunity not to have to go into New Orleans and be a double-digit underdog, wasn't enough to keep the Packers from winning at Lambeau – posting a 45-41 win over Detroit when it seemed apparent the defenses took the day off as well.
The biggest threat to the Packers' march to Indiana – where boozers meet Hoosiers – would be the Saints. They have put away Detroit and San Francisco to make that happen. That's a tall order in its own right, much less heading into ‘Sconny in late January to get that accomplished. If the Saints fail in their first attempt, Green Bay automatically gets Round 3 with the Lions. Considering the season Rodgers has put together, if he faces the same Lions defense Matt Flynn faced last week, he will throw for 700 yards, eight touchdowns and the Packers will win 62-59. If the Saints win, then it gets interesting.
By virtue of playoff seeding, Green Bay, as the top-seeded team, gets the lowest-seeded team when they finally take the field in the divisional round. If New Orleans wins, the Saints head to San Francisco and the winner of the Falcons-Giants game comes to Lambeau Field. The Packers have been a dagger in the heart of the Falcons. Green Bay's Super Bowl run rolled down Peachtree Street last year and had a return engagement in Week 5 and beat Atlanta for a second time on their home turf. If the Falcons win, they won't have a dome over their heads. The other option is New York. The Giants won the NFC Least (formerly known as East) Division title, marking the first time since the NFL-AFL merger more than 40 years ago that the vaunted division champ didn't win 10 games – despite the Giants playing nine games in their home stadium. The G-Men have proved eminently beatable and one of their seven losses in 2011 came at home against the Packers. They may be able to provide the pass rush needed to keep the Packers offense on its heels, but the secondary is extremely vulnerable.
Weather hasn't adversely impacted many games this season (thank you, La Nina), but if there is typical late-January weather in Green Bay, it will most likely be ill-prepared teams from New Orleans or San Francisco heading in to the frozen bowl of Lambeau Field. Good luck with that.
Last year's Super Bowl run by the Packers was done almost entirely as an underdog. Cinderella was eventually going to have the clock strike midnight and her carriage would turn into a pumpkin. But that didn't happen. The slipper fit. And now anyone trying to re-size the slipper has to head into Siberia to do it.
If you hate the Packers, you have to become fans of the Giants and Saints. New York is likely the only team that could beat up Green Bay enough defensively to score more points in a defensive-oriented game. New Orleans is the only team that could come out on top in a "who has the ball last" shootout. San Francisco? Thank you for playing.
Whether Vikings fans want to admit it or not, there isn't a team in the NFC that should be able to venture into Green Bay and knock off the Packers.
As hard as it might be for Vikings fans/Packers haters to accept, the deck is stacked in their favor. The Border War will get more contentious barring an upset.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.