Preview: A Rivalry to Cherish

The Vikings-Packers rivalry is one of the best in the league, and is THE best if measured by recent competitiveness. This year, they have new coaches and philosophies and don't look much like they have in the past, save for a few grizzled veterans.

There is no hype needed for a Packers-Vikings game. Arguably the best true rivalry in football, the matchup of these two franchises couldn't be any closer. They have met 89 times in the regular seasons and have a record of 44-44-1 – with the Vikings being 23-21 at home and 21-23-1 on the road in that span. It's cliché to say, but in this rivalry, you can literally throw out the records. When the Vikings won the division in 2000, they were swept by Green Bay and missed out on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. When the Packers ruled the NFC North roost from 2002-04, the Vikings beat them all three years – twice in the regular season and, after being swept in 2004, in the playoffs at Lambeau Field.

What makes this matchup even more memorable is the last seven meetings being decided by seven points or less, with all the wins coming on the final drive of the game. If that is to happen this week, perhaps the last person the Vikings want to see with the ball in his hand and trailing by less than a touchdown in the final minutes is Brett Favre. A first-ballot Hall of Famer when he retires, Favre is quite likely making his last appearance in the Metrodome. His career under the bubble has been a mixed bag. After starting his career with an awful 2-9 record in the Metrodome, he has won two of the last three. While his skills have diminished somewhat with age, he's still willing to fire bombs and into tight coverage. If given time, he is still one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league. An old gun-slinger is always the most dangerous because he has little to lose at this point in his life. His time is coming up eventually, so look for Favre to take a lot of chances to hit on the home run play.

One of the more pleasant surprises for the Packers has been Ahman Green. After a slow start, Green has begun to look like the Ahman Green of old. Over his last four games, he has rushed 62 times for 346 yards (a 5.6-yard average) and scored three touchdowns. While he isn't the same every-down back he was earlier in his career, as the Packers have remained competitive, he has been a primary reason. He is spelled by Vernand Morency, who acquired in a trade for Samkon Gado with the Texans and has many of Gado's same qualities. He's a hard-nosed, move-the-pile runner that is more smashmouth than Green and tends to hit holes at an angle and slide through creases for his yardage. They make a solid combination that will be used in tandem unless Green breaks out big – unlikely against the No. 1-rated Vikings defense.

It has seemed like years since Favre has had a solid receiver corps and, once again, injuries have hit. The team has lost Robert Ferguson for the season, leaving the onus for propelling the receiving game to Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. Driver is no stranger to Vikings fans. He worked his way up through the ranks and, when Javon Walker went down last year, he stepped in and proved he was a bona fide No. 1 receiver. He is on pace for 100 receptions and 1,160 yards – pretty much the definition of a go-to receiver. Jennings has showed big-play potential as a rookie. He's averaging more than 17 yards per catch and is tied with Driver for the team lead in touchdowns with three, and, with a larger role, he is also on pace to be at or near 1,000 yards receiving. Depth is almost nonexistent behind them. The next line of offense is three rookies – Shaun Bodiford, Ruvell Martin and Chris Francies. You can bet the Packers will be in a ton of two-receiver sets because they have little other choice. Tight ends David Martin and Donald Lee factor into the offense as de facto wide receivers and Bubba Franks remains as a starter. Once a scoring machine, Franks has just 12 catches and no touchdowns this year. But, as Vikings fans of this rivalry can attest, about the only time you hear his name announced is when he's scoring a touchdown.

Making the offense run efficiently has been the job of an offensive line that looks like a hillbilly's bridgework – three strong teeth and two wobbly ones in the middle. At the tackles, the Packers have a strong tandem in Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. In their seventh and sixth seasons, respectively, both are at the top of their games and showing no signs of slowing with age. In the middle, third-year center Scott Wells is in his first full season as a starter and showing improvement. But the guards are another story. Since the Packers were forced by cap restrictions to release veterans Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, the team has yet to adequately replace them. The team addressed the position heavily in the draft, taking Daryn Colledge in the second round and Jason Spitz in the third. But instead of having the players learn for a year or two, both are in the starting lineup. They will make mistakes and, with the stout middle of the Vikings defense, if the Vikings can overpower these two players, the running game might be eliminated and Favre could be running for his life.

While there are always fears related to playing Favre, the Packers defense hasn't brought terror to a lot of offensive coordinators. The team has allowed 23 or more points in seven of eight games and they are dead last in pass defense. Much of the blame has to start up front, despite having talent at the position. Fans who wondered why the Vikings made such a push for defensive end Aaron Kampman – signing him to a restricted free agent contract that the Packers matched – don't have to wonder anymore. At the midway point of the season, he leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks. He's one of the main reasons the Packers are third in the NFL with 27 sacks. The Packers have also got five sacks from defensive tackle Corey Williams and three from sack specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. All of them can create problems, as can run-stuffing DT Ryan Pickett, but the Packers will need a lot of pressure, because the defense gets worse the farther from the line you get.

The linebackers are a work in progress. Nick Barnett has become a playmaker at middle linebacker, but is often a victim of his own aggression – taking himself out of plays and getting caught on fakes. On the weakside, rookie A.J. Hawk is learning on the fly and adapting to the new system he's running in Green Bay. Taken with the fifth overall pick, Hawk has the potential to be an All-Pro for years to come and is showing improvement each week. He's a player to keep an eye on during this game so Vikings fans can get a glimpse of what to expect for the next several years. On the weak side, Brady Poppinga is only in his second year and his first as a starter. This is a group that a year or from now could be one of the best of the league. But for now, they're as much a liability for making young (and dumb) mistakes that result in big plays.

The secondary has been a mess for some time. Both Charles Woodson and Al Harris are cornerbacks in their ninth seasons that aren't the dominant players they once were. Woodson was a star with the Raiders, and the Packers expected that same player. While he gets a lot of man coverage, he has been burned a lot when he gets caught looking in the backfield and doesn't have the make-up speed he had before a serious knee injury. He again is in trouble with knee problems, which doesn't bode well for a Packers team that has already surrendered 13 touchdowns and 245 yards a game. But, he still has skills – he has a 23-yard interception return for a TD to prove that. At safety Marquand Manuel and Nick Collins are a little better than pedestrian, but often get caught out of position and showing up late on long passes. The biggest problem, however, is depth. Four of the five backups in the secondary are rookies and, when teams spread Green Bay out, they have little in the way to stop them. If Woodson can't go Sunday, the Vikings may play more out of the three-receiver set than they have all year.

Another sidebar to the rivalry will be in the kicking game, as Ryan Longwell faces his old mates for the first time. Twice in 2004, Longwell beat the Vikings on game-ending field goals. The Vikings would love to see that happen this time around, as Longwell could well have a chance to make a clutch field goal at the end of the game to break the Packers' hearts and let them regret not stepping up with a salary offer.

The hype is almost over. The game is getting closer. When the Vikings play the Packers, especially recently, it won't be decided until there are three zeroes on the game clock in the fourth quarter.


Marcus Johnson vs. Aaron Kampman—
Last year, Marcus Johnson was pushed into action as a rookie due to injuries and a makeshift offensive front for the Vikings. At times, he struggled mightily. But along the way, he learned about what it takes to be an NFL offensive lineman. But he may be facing his biggest challenge of the season this Sunday, as he and Aaron Kampman are the Matchup to Watch.

If the Vikings had their way, Kampman and Johnson would be teammates. In the off-season prior to the 2005 season, the Vikings tried to sign Kampman to a free agent contract. But, as a restricted free agent, the Packers had the right to match offer – which they did. It kept Kampman in Green Bay and the Packers don't regret that decision one bit. It appeared the Vikings knew what they were doing when they scouted Kampman, because, at the midway point of the season, he could well be the defensive MVP of the league.

Kampman currently leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks and has had several more close calls where quarterbacks have unloaded passes to avoid sacks. He has perfected his technique and has turned into one of the premier pass rushers in the league, with durability to be on the field for all three downs.

Johnson has had some struggles against some of the league's top bull rushers and Brad Johnson is very vulnerable when an offensive lineman blows an assignment and he takes big hits – they typically cause the ball to come loose or go flying out like a wounded duck. If Kampman can get by Marcus Johnson and get to Brad Johnson – or have him hearing footsteps – it could completely disrupt the timing of the passing game.

With a game as tight as most Green Bay-Minnesota games have been the last few years, one or two big plays will make the difference. While the Vikings likely will keep a tight end or a running back in as protection against him, keeping Kampman from making that big play is Johnson's job, and makes this the Matchup to Watch on Sunday.

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