If you're going to have your season on the line, perhaps the last player you want on the other side of the field is Brett Favre on the road at Lambeau Field. While the career series between the Packers and Vikings is tied at 45-45-1, the magic Favre can bring to the table makes winning in Green Bay on the Thursday night special even more pressing for a Vikings team teetering on the brink of playoff elimination.
Favre has been the subject of much speculation about his potential retirement for the last couple of seasons and, if he continues to follow his "wait and see" approach, this could potentially be his last game in front of the home fans. That isn't exactly what the doctor ordered for the Vikings and their fans. Favre has always had big days against the Vikings at Lambeau and has been equally solid in prime time. He was one of the first to exploit the Vikings defense through the air this season by abandoning the run. He has thrown more than 500 passes this year and, when the teams met in Week 10, he completed 24 of 42 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns. If the Vikings are to control the Packers offense, getting pressure on Favre is essential. One of the reasons he has remained healthy for so long is that he rarely stands in and takes hits. His willingness to trust his arm strength and throw off his back foot and from awkward positions make him liable to throw interceptions. If the Vikings are to beat the Packers, getting Favre to turn the ball over will be a must.
If the Packers attempt to run the ball, the main man will be Ahman Green. In their first meeting, the Packers tried to pound Green at the Vikings. He ran 20 times for just 55 yards in Week 10 and there is reason to believe the Packers will try to flaunt the conventional wisdom of abandoning the run. Green has been augmented in the backfield by Vernand Morency, acquired in an in-season trade for Samkon Gado earlier this year. A hard-nosed runner who slashes between the tackles, Morency scored his first two touchdowns as a Packer last week vs. the Lions and could be in line to see more carries if the team can establish the running game. Also in the mix is Noah Herron. He's been used as a receiving option and has similar reception numbers to Green. While all three will see action, look for Green to get most of the carries if the Packers try to run the ball at the Vikings.
When it comes to the receiver corps, Favre must feel like he is operating an NFL daycare center. His go-to guy is veteran Donald Driver, who has already surpassed 1,100 yards receiving, including a six-catch, 191-yard game vs. the Vikings in Week 10 that included a long touchdown dash. Driver has scored five touchdowns in his last four meetings with the Vikings and is the only non-rookie on the roster at the moment at wide receiver. Rookie Greg Jennings starts opposite Driver and has already established himself as a big-play receiver. Depth is provided by three more rookies – Ruvell Martin, Chris Francies and Carlyle Holiday. What they lack in experience they try to make up for with speed and desire. However, the Vikings might look to bump-and-run with the youngsters and get physical with them to jam them at the line and not be given leeway to run their routes. With such a dearth of inexperience at the wide receiver position, the tight ends have become more critical to the gameplan – and the Packers have plenty of talent. Bubba Franks remains the starter and a solid goal-line option, but both David Martin and Donald Lee also see plenty of time on the field. While the talent drop-off after Driver is pronounced, the Packers have plenty of weapons to attack the Vikings defense with.
As young as the receiver corps is for Green Bay, that same youth is evident on the offensive line. While the Packers have experience at the tackles in Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and a solid veteran center in Scott Wells, their top four guards on the roster are all rookies. Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz are the starters and are backed up by fellow rookies Tony Moll and Tony Palmer. If the Vikings are to attack the Packers defense, it will like come with pressure up the middle to take advantage of the inexperience at the guard spots.
Defensively, the Packers have struggled mightily at times. In a three-game losing streak in late November and early December, the Packers allowed the Patriots, Jets and Seahawks to combine to score 107 points. Much of the problem has been inconsistency up front. Aaron Kampman, whom the Vikings tried to sign as a restricted free agent prior to the 2005 season, is among the league leaders in sacks, but on the other side, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, once viewed as one of the game's top sack men, has seen his role diminished in favor of Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins has proved to be much steadier as a run defender at right end and has kept the job as a result. In the middle, the Packers have Ryan Pickett and Corey Williams. They are solid, but don't make enough game-changing plays to make them stand out on a regular basis. Opponents have averaged more than four yards a rush on the Packers and have been able to run up the middle with consistent success – something the Vikings will surely try to exploit Thursday.
At the linebacker spot, the Packers have talented difference-makers in rookie A.J. Hawk at weakside linebacker and Nick Barnett at middle linebacker. Both are explosive hitters who can make plays anywhere on the field. Barnett is known for taking risks and allowing the occasional big play, but is also known as a finisher when he gets a clear shot at a back or receiver. Hawk was taken early in the first round of this year's draft and, while he's still adjusting to the pro game, he has all the tools to be an All-Pro for years to come. On the strong side, Brady Poppinga does a lot of things very well, but isn't a dominant playmaker. He's steady, but when held up to the light next to Barnett and Hawk, he pales by comparison. Don't be surprised to see the Vikings target him in the short passing game.
The secondary for the Packers has been pretty iffy all season. Among the league's worst in passing touchdowns allowed with 24, the risk-reward nature of the play of cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris has been problematic at times. Woodson leads the Packers with five interceptions, but he isn't the dominating player he was early in his career with the Raiders. Harris is a good cover corner but often gets sucked in by fakes and double-move plays and is vulnerable over the top. At the safeties, depth is the primary concern behind starters Marquand Manuel and Nick Collins. The only other safeties on the roster are all rookies – Tyrone Culver, Atari Bigby and Charlie Peprah. If the Packers have any injuries at the safety spot, the Vikings will attack that weakness at every opportunity.
For a Packers team that has its own slim playoff hopes still alive, Thursday's game will eliminate the loser from the playoffs and keep hope alive at Christmas for the winner. If the game comes down to a battle of the quarterbacks, you would almost assuredly have to give Favre the nod over Tarvaris Jackson and, with so much at stake, that in itself could be enough to make the difference in a series that always seems to include games that aren't decided until the final seconds.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Donald Driver vs. Vikings cornerbacks— Donald Driver has a long history against the Minnesota Vikings. In a game three years ago, Driver almost saw his career ended in an instant when he landed on his head on a pass play and momentarily lost feeling in his arms and legs. While he obviously recovered, his history since that game has been something to behold – a man possessed to get his payback against the team that nearly ended his career. His matchup with Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin (or Fred Smoot if Griffin doesn't play) will be this week's Matchup to Watch.
In his last four games against the Vikings, Driver has caught 30 passes for 551 yards and five touchdowns – an average of 7.5 catches a game for 138 yards and a touchdown. He added to those lofty numbers in Week 10 of this season at the Metrodome when he caught six passes for 191 yards and a touchdown.
The Vikings defense needs to key on Driver and perhaps abandon some of their Cover-2 zone schemes to put double coverage on Driver. While the Packers have several other receivers, it takes time to handle the velocity with which Brett Favre fires passes. Because every other wide receiver on the roster is a rookie, Favre has learned to lean on Driver like few quarterbacks do with a No. 1 receiver. It wouldn't be a stretch at all to see Driver catch eight to 10 passes and approach 150 yards. It will be up to Winfield and and the other corners to make sure that they can take Driver away from the passing lanes, especially the deep pass game where he has thrived so often against the Vikings.
The Vikings have had their share of problem with big-time receivers in recent weeks, allowing 100-yard games to players like Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Laveranues Coles in the last month. With so much expected from Driver in the Packers offense, the same can be expected this week.
To the extent the Vikings defense and defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin commit to stopping Driver from being a difference-maker Thursday – whether by double teams or rolling a safety to his side of the field – could go a long way to determining who wins and keeps their playoff hopes alive and who loses and starts preparing for 2007, making this the Matchup to Watch under the Thursday night lights.
Preview: Driver The One to Watch
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