Previewing the Packers

Brett Favre has been more frustrated than happy this season with the Packers, who, for the second straight year, are off to a 1-4 start. But, their rise from the ashes won't be as easy as it was last year, and a loss to the Vikings Sunday could be a death blow to the Packers and could signal the beginning of the end of the Favre era in Green Bay.

Few rivalries in sports have the lasting history and competitiveness of the long-standing border war between the Vikings and the Packers. Coming into last season, the teams had met 85 times – with each team with 42 games and one ending in a tie.

The teams met three times last season with the Packers taking both regular-season games by scores of 34-31, which provided the difference in who won the NFC North. But the Vikings won the game that counted the most – a 31-17 victory in the playoffs that sent the Packers home and began what has turned into a long-term slide. Both teams come into Sunday's game with 1-4 records and, for the loser, it would drop them to 0-2 in the division and all but kill their chances of winning the division title.

While the Packers have a much different look from teams of recent vintage, one thing that remains the same is Brett Favre. The NFL's ironman is on pace to throw almost 40 touchdowns and 4,000 yards – despite being without his top wide receiver Javon Walker. Favre is a player who has some of his worst passing days of his career at the Metrodome, but has won the last times he's played here. Getting a pass rush on Favre is critical because he will force passes into coverage and get intercepted when he's pressured and takes a lot of hits. Keeping him from being comfortable in the pocket will be the top priority of the Vikings defense.

The job of keeping the Vikings off of Favre will come down to a makeshift offensive line that lost both starting guards in the offseason due to salary cap issues. The tackle spots are rock solid with Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton manning the bookend positions, but the interior line hasn't come together as the Packer coaches had hoped. Center Mike Flanagan, a 10-year veteran who missed almost all of 2004, is hobbled with injuries, but is still expected to play. At the tackles, the Packers have tried to replace Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle with six-year backup Adrian Klemm and rookie Will Whitticker. Both will be much improved by the end of the season, but for now they make the mistakes of inexperienced players and are capable of being overpowered on both run and pass blitzes.

The Packer running game for years has been the hallmark of the team, with Ahman Green actually being a bigger focus of the offense than Favre. But Green has shown signs of breaking down the last couple of seasons and, through five games, has just 61 carries for 206 yards – an anemic 3.4-yard average. He's injured, but is expected to play. Neutralizing Green will be a priority for the Vikings run defense. Depth is an issue as well, since top backup Najeh Davenport is lost for the season. Backing up Green are fullback William Henderson, who has never been a consistent running threat, halfback Tony Fisher, who has just nine carries for 18 yards this season, and former Viking castoff Reshard Lee. If Green isn't 100 percent, it could severely limit what the Packers will be able to do offensively.

If the Packers are forced to pass, the Vikings will have an easier time than they have in previous meetings. With Walker gone for the season, Donald Driver has ascended to the No. 1 spot for the Packers and is on pace to catch more than 75 passes and gain almost 1,100 yards. Beyond him is where it gets a little dicey. Robert Ferguson has been a career-long tease – looking great in some games and invisible in others. The Vikings corners should have a huge advantage against Ferguson, who gets frustrated if he's not involved in the game plan. Antonio Chatman has been pushed up the depth chart, along with rookies Terrence Murphy and Jamal Jones, but none of them have stepped up. What might frighten Vikings defenders is that the touchdown production from the Packer passing game has been dominated by the tight ends – a bugaboo for a Vikings defense that has allowed at least one tight end TD in every game this season. Bubba Franks is the most likely Red Zone suspect, but backups David Martin and Donald Lee each have a pair of touchdown catches, so when the Packers get in close, keep an eye on the tight ends, because the Packers must know this a liability for the Vikings defense and will look to exploit it.

Defensively, the Packers have been much stronger against the run than the pass. Through their first five games, the Packers are allowing just 3.3 yards a carry, despite teams rushing more than 30 times a game against them. Much of the credit belongs to the front line of ends Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Aaron Kampman and tackles Grady Jackson and Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins replaced the released Cletidus Hunt and has moved into the lineup effectively. KGB and Kampman have combined for 4.5 sacks thus far this season, much lower than expected, but have to be licking their chops at a shot at Daunte Culpepper – who has been sacked 24 times in the first five games.

In the middle, the Packers have a newly formed trio of linebackers. Third-year man Nick Barnett is having a very good season in the middle, but he is flanked by former Ram Robert Thomas and rookie Roy Manning. Both of them are capable of being exploited, and the Vikings may design plays to take advantage of their inexperience and aggression to get them out of position. This is a matchup that could favor the Vikings running backs and tight ends in the passing game.

The secondary is always in flux for the Packers, but they are very solid at the corners. Al Harris has been a lockdown corner for much of the season and Ahmad Carroll continues to improve in his second season. Second-year man Joey Thomas has also made progress as the nickel corner and will likely find himself on Marcus Robinson or Troy Williamson in passing situations. The Packers lost two of their top three safeties in the off-season, including current Viking Darren Sharper, and now trot out sixth-year man Mark Roman and rookie Nick Collins. Look for the Vikings to attack these two and make them come up big in the passing game, which the Packers have done – they have just four interceptions this year, but have returned two of them for touchdowns.

Any time the Vikings and Packers meet, it has the intensity of a playoff game. This time, it has more of the makings of an NFC North elimination game. With the Packers rested coming off their bye and the Vikings looking to reverse an awful first month-and-a-half of the season, look for both teams to pull out all the stops with the potential for yet another 34-31 finish looming on the horizon.

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