Another Must-Win With Pack

Green Bay is coming off an impressive win over the world champion Baltimore Ravens, and it will be the job of Vikings defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas to find a way to stop Brett Favre and company.

It may seem trite to say that Sunday's game with the Packers is a must-win game. Ever since the opening losses to Carolina and Chicago, we've been beaten to death with that phrase, but with Green Bay coming to town the term actually applies all the more.

The Vikings faced potential playoff elimination in Week 3 when they mustered up a win over Tampa Bay to give them a momentary tie-breaker edge over the Bucs. They can do the same against the Packers with a win and, seeing as Green Bay is coming off consecutive games vs. the Buccaneers and Ravens defense, we may be seeing an offense that is beat up and ripe for the picking.

The Packers beat the Vikings twice last year and denied Minnesota home field advantage in the playoffs, due in large part to the passing by Brett Favre. Finally healthy after two years of battling thumb and shoulder injuries, he looks like the Favre of old, which is bad news for the Vikings. The good news is that he has never played well at the Metrodome and most of his worst career games have come in front of the Minnesota home crowd. But this year he arguably has as many weapons at his disposal as he's ever had.

The running game used to be the domain of Dorsey Levens, but nagging injuries have reduced his effectiveness. For a few years, the Packers didn't have someone to adequately replace the running/receiving power he brought to the game, but now they do. Ahman Green became the first player in the long history of the Packers to lead the team in both rushing and receiving and he's getting better all the time. He is becoming to Green Bay's offense what Marshall Faulk is to the Rams and will be the one player other than Favre that the Vikings will have to key on stopping to win. While the Packers still have Levens and fullback William Henderson, it's going to be a steady diet of Green coming at the Minnesota defense.

When Favre drops to pass, he has several options to go to other than his fine stable of running backs. Antonio Freeman is no longer the dominant player he used to be but is still a favorite of Favre and makes the tough catch. Bill Schroeder is the other starter, even though it seems the Packers have always tried to supplant him from the starting lineup. He has speed and is willing to go over the middle to make the catch, but the two starters are just the tip of the iceberg. Corey Bradford, Donald Driver and rookie Robert Ferguson all will likely see playing time and each can stretch the field deep for long passes.

Another emerging weapon is tight end Bubba Franks. A first-round pick two years ago, Franks looks to be approaching his draft value and could make some big plays if locked in coverage with a linebacker.

The key to any offense is its line, and the Packers have assembled a good group to keep the heat off of Favre and they've done it on the fly — replacing older players with young talent. The graybeards of the group are six-year veteran center Mike Flanigan and guard Marco Rivera. They're joined by fourth-year guard Mike Wahle and second-year tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Look for the Vikings to attack the young tackles, but realize that sending blitzers leaves fewer defenders to cover the receivers, and Favre will make the unorthodox pass to get the ball to the open receiver. If the Packers' O-line contains the line of scrimmage, Favre could have a field day.

While everyone knows about Favre's prowess, the Packers defense has been a huge surprise. In their first four games, the unit allowed a combined 27 points — the most being 14 by Tampa Bay — and you don't lose games that way.

It has begun up front, where the Packers have needed depth to get the job done. The only defensive lineman that was supposed to start this year and has is left end Vonnie Holliday. Tackles Gilbert Brown and Jim Flanigan and end John Thierry were supposed to be backups, but all have made the starting lineup. But they're not the story. It's been pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who leads the NFL in sacks. A fifth-round draft pick last year, he's been a gem and a guy the Vikings may not know personally, but, after looking at film, they will have to take notice of No. 94. He could be the key for the Packers defense if he can get to Daunte Culpepper.

While aging veterans have sucked it up on the defensive line, the linebacker corps has been turned over to a group of heavy-hitting youngsters who have come together as a group. Seven-year veteran Bernardo Harris mans the middle and is flanked by fourth-year man Nate Wayne on the weakside and second-year vet Na'il Diggs on the strongside. They've combined to create an aggressive unit that will attack the ground game and try to neutralize Byron Chamberlain. The Vikings will likely try to design some misdirection plays to attack their aggression and use their own strength against them.

The key matchup once again will likely be the secondary against Randy Moss and Cris Carter. The Packers have been one of the few teams willing to go several plays in man-on-man coverage, and Moss has burned them for that in the past. The assignment to contain Moss and CC goes to Mike McKenzie and Tyrone Williams — a pair of good, but not great, corners. Veteran LeRoy Butler and big hitting Darren Sharper are the safeties and both are going to be asked to roll over in cover-two on Moss and Carter. If the Vikings can free up their receivers in single coverage, they will be able to burn Green Bay deep, since Sharper can be fooled with play-action fakes and Butler has lost a step or two.

There's no questioning the importance of this game. In 1998, nobody believed in the Vikings until they took out the Packers at Lambeau Field. Many around Green Bay believe this could be the year the Pack returns to greatness, but most won't buy into it until they can win a big game on the road like the one they face Sunday. VU

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