Revenge, it's been said, is a dish best served cold. The Vikings will get both Sunday — a chance at revenge in the cold and, dare we say, frozen tundra of Lambeau Field when they meet the Green Bay Packers.
A year ago at almost the same point in the season, the Packers were out of contention and the Vikings were playing for home field throughout the playoffs. Green Bay dashed those hopes with the road win over the Vikings that forced them to go to New York for the NFC title game. With Green Bay forced to chase the Chicago Bears, the Vikings would like nothing better than to return the favor and force the Packers to hit the road in search of a trip to the Super Bowl.
This Green Bay team isn't all that different from last year's, but the primary change is that Brett Favre has been healthy. For two years he played through a thumb injury that affected his passing. It has healed enough that he is once again a frontrunner for league MVP. However, the knock on Favre, as Vikings fans saw in the first meeting of the teams this year, is that, when pressured, he will throw stupid passes that result in turnovers. If the Vikings want to spoil the Packers' 2001 season, getting the heat on Favre will be a must.
The Packers don't have to rely on the pass, however, because they have a running game that is among the best in the NFL. Ahman Green was effectively given to the Packers from Seattle by former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, and all he did was become the first player in the storied history of the Pack to lead the team in rushing and receiving in the same year — and he's on pace to do it again this season. He is an elusive back who can break a play at any time and, as a rusher and receiver, will receive a lot of notice from the Vikings defense. He's backed up by former starter Dorsey Levens, who still remains a part of the passing game as a third-down back. Fullback William Henderson is a punishing blocker who will be a key to triggering the run game.
Favre has multiple passing weapons at his disposal that can cause the maligned Vikings secondary a lot of problems. Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder are the starters, and both have enjoyed a lot of success against Minnesota. But they are far from the only receivers Favre can exploit. Corey Bradford, Donald Driver and rookie Robert Ferguson all can be at Favre's disposal, and the Pack will likely show several three- and four-receiver packages.
When it gets in close, however, tight end Bubba Franks is a force to be reckoned with. He is among the league leaders in tight end touchdowns and is a red zone favorite of Favre. When the Packers get close to paydirt, look for Franks — Favre will be.
One of the reasons the offense has been successful is that, unlike the Vikings, the Pack have had the same offensive line for the entire season — tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera and center Mike Flanagan. They have been effective protecting Favre as well as opening holes for the running game and the matchup with the Vikings defense will be key to determining if the Packers can get their offense clicking early and often.
While the offense has shown consistency this season, the reason some think the Packers can go all the way is a dramatic improvement of the defense. In their first 13 games, the Packers allowed their opponents to score 23 or fewer points in 10 of them. It begins up front, and Green Bay has an impressive front four. Ends Vonnie Holliday and John Thierry have been extremely productive, and tackles Santana Dotson and Gilbert Brown have made running lanes in the middle almost nonexistent. Throw in pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who is among the league leaders in sacks, and the Packers have a defensive front that can stymie an opposing offense and make them one-dimensional.
The linebackers are unheralded but steady, despite injuries that have taken away Nate Wayne for the last month and Chris Gizzi, who replaced Wayne while he was out. Wayne is expected back, joining second-year man Na'il Diggs and middle linebacker Bernardo Harris to form a developing trio that some think could become a dominant force on the Packers defense. As has been shown recently, depth is thin — and more teams have been able to put up points in recent weeks as a result. This will be a unit the Vikings will have to attack.
While many facets of the game are better for the Pack, the secondary has taken its share of hits. LeRoy Butler is gone for the year and the corner position has thinned to the extent that Keith Thibodeaux, who couldn't make it with the Vikes, was signed by Green Bay. At the corners, Mike McKenzie and Tyrone Williams will be asked to shut down Randy Moss and Cris Carter, while safeties Darren Sharper and rookie Bhawoh Jue will be asked to double up on both of them in passing downs.
The Packers are a team that many NFL insiders believe is the next best team to St. Louis, and many predict a Packers-Rams NFC title game. But, with the Bears enjoying a cushy closing schedule, a loss to the Vikings could force the Packers into the wild card, and revenge would be sweet for the Vikings, who had a similar fate applied to them last year.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Randy Moss and Cris Carter vs. Bhawoh Jue — You didn't have to like LeRoy Butler, but you had to respect him. He loved knocking teeth loose and had veteran savvy that made quarterbacks avoid going his way. Jue is a gambler who has been scorched as a rookie and he will be a guy the Vikings key on to sucker into mistakes and leave Carter or Moss in single coverage as a result.
Vikings linebackers vs. Ahman Green — Say what you want about Favre, but the Packers wouldn't be where they're at without Green. He is dangerous as a runner and a receiver and, if the linebackers of the Vikings don't shut him down early, he could end up with 100 yards rushing and six to eight receptions. He is the game-breaker in the lineup and likely will be the primary game-plan lynchpin for the Packers and the Vikings are beat up at LB, so Kailee Wong and whoever is beside him will be asked to keep one eye open for number 30 at all times.
A Chance For Revenge
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