Big Rivalry, Similar Teams

A regular-season matchup doesn't get any bigger than this. Vikings vs. Packers. For the division title. In front of a national television audience. And the only NFL game going on Christmas Eve. For all the hype this one deservedly receives, these are two very similar teams with porous defenses and good offenses. We break down the Packers once again.

There is perhaps no greater rivalry in sports than the Vikings and Packers. Each of the last three years, the teams have split their two games. Coming into this year, they had met 85 times — each winning 42 with one game ending in a tie. With the Packers having won already at Lambeau Field this year, this game is for the NFC North title — period.

When you think Vikings-Packers, Brett Favre is probably the first name mentioned. He has had some horrible games in the Metrodome over the years but has also broken the Vikings' hearts. If not for a home loss to Favre in 2000, the Vikings would have had home-field advantage in the playoffs. They didn't … and had to go to New York for the NFC title game. Last year, a home win over Favre would have given the Vikings a division title. Obviously they didn't get it. Favre is aggressive and will take chances. With high risk comes high reward, but, as always, if harassed and pressured, Favre will make the critical turnovers that lose games. If given time, he makes the plays that win games.

With all of Favre's career achievements, the Packers remain a team that prefers to beat opponents with the run. From the classic Packer sweep — that defenses know is coming before the snap but can't stop — to pounding the ball up the gut on short-yardage and goal-line situations, it is their offensive staple. Ahman Green is one of the most dangerous runner-receiver combinations in the league and, when the situation dictates, he can carry the ball 30 times a game, even with sore ribs. In an effort to keep him fresh for the red zone, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher will see spot duty. With power fullbacks William Henderson and Nick Luchey leading the way, if the Packers are going to beat the Vikings, they will need the running game to shoulder much of the burden.

This isn't to say Favre can't beat teams on his own. With his rifle delivery, he routinely makes big plays to wide receivers Javon Walker and Donald Driver. The duo is on pace to combine for almost 2,500 receiving yards. They are both sure-handed deep threats and the best combo in Green Bay since Sterling Sharpe and Robert Brooks. The third WR option, Robert Ferguson, a former first-round pick, is out for this game after taking a vicious blow to the head. When they get into the red zone, defenses always have to worry about Bubba Franks — Favre's favorite goal-line passing option.

If anyone questions why the Packers have sustained their success level for so many years, they need look no further than the offensive line. Tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle and center Grey Ruegamer are all veterans of five years or more and, with the exception of Ruegamer, have all started together for the better part of four years. They work as a unit and, while free agency might make this their last ride together, they are as good as any offensive line unit in the league. Favre has been sacked less than once a game (including the Philly debacle) and these guys are the reason.

While few question the ability of the Packers offense, the defense — like the Vikings — is a much different story. While the Pack has had a top-10 rushing defense much of the season, teams have chosen not to even try running because passing is too easy. One of the big dropoffs in the Packers' run defense happened when nose tackle Grady Jackson went down to injury. He missed time early and the Packers defense was awful. When he returned, he sparked the turnaround that led to a six-game winning streak. Jackson is surrounded by tackle Cletidus Hunt and defensive ends Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Hunt is a big-play threat in the middle as a pass rusher and KGB is again on pace for double-digit sacks. The Vikings O-line will have a tall order in keeping this group at bay.

The defense has gotten worse farther from the line, which is why quarterbacks like Daunte Culpepper, Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb have carved the Packers up this year. There is little depth beyond starters Nick Barnett, Na'il Diggs and Hannibal Navies — former Viking Nick Rogers was the primary backup before being released this week. All three are aggressive players but too often caught out of position and liable to surrender big plays both in the running and passing games. While they can all make big plays and, when they're on, look very good, when they're out of sync they can be exploited and abused.

The secondary remains the biggest problem for the Packers. It has allowed more passing yards than any other in team history, and only Houston has allowed more passing TDs than Green Bay's 30. Rookie Ahmad Carroll has been learning on the job and Al Harris has been beaten deep too often. Third-round rookie Joey Thomas backs up both. At safety, injuries to Bhawoh Jue have reduced depth to almost nothing behind Darren Sharper and Mark Roman. This is a group that has been exploited much of the year, and the Vikings will try to do their part to continue that trend.

With the division title at stake, this game should have all the atmosphere of a playoff game. With what's at stake it will be a playoff game — and one that could echo years from now like so many other Vikings-Packers matchups have during this rivalry.


Back in a time when Chris Hovan was viewed by Vikings fans and coaches as one of the top young defensive tackles in the league, he was obsessed with Brett Favre. The aura of Favre was taught to him by former Vikings great John Randle, who in turn had been influenced by Chris Doleman's big-game performance vs. Favre. The circle of life continues this week as the torch of Favremania is passed to defensive tackle Kevin Williams — making this the Christmas Eve matchup to watch.

For his great career, many of Favre's worst games have been played in the Metrodome. Even at a time when the Packers were the power of the NFL in the 1990s, Favre would implode in the Metrodome. Early in his career, he was hounded by Doleman. For many years, he was haunted by Randle. For a couple, he was annoyed by Hovan. There has always been a Vikings defensive lineman who has come up big and knocked Favre for a loop. It's time for that mantle to officially be passed.

Williams is clearly the Vikings' best defensive lineman. While Hovan used to get double-teamed to stop him, Williams has been double-teamed just to reduce his big plays. His nine sacks through 12 games were the most for a defensive tackle, only two off the league lead, and as many or more than Julius Peppers, Jevon Kearse, Simeon Rice and KGB. He has come up big when the game has called for it, and this will be his chance to make the jump from very good player to dominating presence — with the entire NFL world watching on Christmas Eve.

The Packers undoubtedly know what Williams is capable of and will design a blocking scheme to keep mauling him all game. But they planned that way for Doleman, for Randle, and for Hovan. Each of them made big plays despite it and added to the Favre Metrodome legacy. Williams now has his chance.

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