If this was Tarvaris Jackson's coming-out party, he could have used a few more celebrants to help him out.
Minnesota's Jackson, getting his first NFL start, didn't make any huge mistakes, but a conservative offense, dropped balls and 10 penalties were too much for a rookie quarterback and a stagnant offense to overcome in Green Bay's 9-7 win over the Vikings.
Jackson finished the game completing 10 of 20 passes for only 50 yards and one interception. "One" was also the number of yards receiving Troy Williamson had, and the number of huge drops he made – taking a first-quarter bomb off his shoulder pads when it should have put the Vikings in field position. That was the last time Williamson would touch the ball, making Chester Taylor the team's leading receiver with three catches for 18 yards.
Taylor didn't fare much better in the running game, either, rushing 15 times for 49 yards.
Meanwhile the defense, which allowed 194 yards of first-half offense (but just six points), clamped down in the second half to limited Green Bay to 125 yards. But it also recovered a fumble and intercepted two Favre passes in the second half – with cornerback Fred Smoot returning his interception 47 yards for the Vikings' only touchdown of the game.
Much as the defense tried to overcome the offensive offense, it couldn't even get a time-consuming drive when the Vikings had a 7-6 lead. The offense converted only 2 of 14 third downs, and dropped passes, penalties and conservatism marred Jackson's first NFL start.
The Vikings began with that uninspired approach immediately, handing off twice to Chester Taylor and then hooking up on a 1-yard route with Williamson that came up 3 yards short of a first down.
The Packers, however, wouldn't be conservative with veteran quarterback Brett Favre making his 236th start. The gunslinger started slinging passes immediately – 6 yards to Donald Driver, 19 yards to Bubba Franks and 13 yards to Driver before the Packers' first rush of the game. Ahman Green picked up 13 yards on a stretch play to the left, giving Green Bay the ball at the 8-yard line. From there, Ben Leber caught Favre for a 12-yard sack on a bootleg, and Favre followed with two incompletions. Dave Rayner completed the drive with a 38-yard field goal to give the Packers a quick 3-0 lead.
The Vikings stayed with a conservative passing game, and after another three-and-out, Favre was back on the field gunning for more. He found the soft spots in a blitzing defense, hitting Driver for 19 yards and Ruvell Martin for 20 yards, but two passes defensed by Antoine Winfield and Dwight Smith brought the drive to a halt. This time, Rayner couldn't convert, as he slipped on a field goal attempt with Ray Edwards batting the low kick back and Darren Sharper recovering.
On his third drive, Jackson was given more freedom and he delivered even if his receivers rejected his gifts. On the first play of the drive, he unleashed a bomb that fell harmlessly off the shoulder pad of Williamson, who didn't make the adjustment in the air. Chester Taylor picked up the first down with an 11-yard run, but one play later Jim Kleinsasser had another pass go off his hands. The offense continued to self-destruct when a 12-yard catch by Travis Taylor was nullified by an illegal shift, putting the Vikings in a third-and-13 that they couldn't convert with a 9-yard pass to Chester Taylor.
The defense continued the trend of helping the Packers with penalties and missed opportunities. Green Bay picked up one first down on a Ben Leber hold, and when Bubba Franks fumbled three plays later, Napoleon Harris stepped out of bounds before picking up the loose ball. Another defensive holding call on Darrion Scott gave Green Bay its third first down of the drive, and Driver picked up the last one with a 22-yard pass from a scrambling Favre. But the Packers were in the giving mood, too, when Rayner's 34-yard attempt – his third of the game – bounced off the left upright.
Another three-and-out would have continued to give the Packers good field position, but a booming 53-yard punt and a holding penalty on Noah Herron combined to put the Packers on the 10-yard line, their first penalty of the game.
Maybe that inspired the defense as well. The Packers went three-and-out for the first time in the game, which was also the first time their offense didn't cross midfield. However, the Vikings offense had its fourth drive without picking up a first down and punted back to Green Bay, which took over with 5:06 to play.
Favre moved the Packers to midfield, but the Vikings stopped him there and forced a punt. However, clock management then became an issue. Minnesota took possession at its own 20-yard line with 1:46 left in the half, but the coaching staff called three straight passing plays – one that went right through the arms of linebacker A.J. Hawk, another that tight end Jermaine Wiggins dropped and a third one that allowed Aaron Kampman to sack Jackson.
With 1:28 left in the half and assured solid field position, Green Bay used a timeout, and when Favre came back on the field the Packers had the ball at Minnesota's 45-yard line with 1:14 to play. All it took was one first-down pass of 13 yards to Martin and the Packers were in position for a 44-yard last-second field goal from Rayner, who gave his team a 6-0 lead at halftime.
The pass defense played markedly better in the second half, shutting down the Packers offense after one first down on their initial drive of the second half, then forcing a three-and-out on Favre's next opportunity.
But, while the offense continued to struggle moving the ball, the defense took matters – and the ball – into its own hands. Cornerback Fred Smoot returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown and a Vikings' 7-6 lead with 5:10 to play in the third quarter.
Former Packer Darren Sharper intercepted Favre on his next pass as well, but the offense followed that with two more series of three-and-out football, and it looked like Green Bay was set to mount a touchdown drive.
Favre converted one first down with a 16-yard pass to Donald Lee, and Napoleon Harris gave the Packers another first down when, on a 4-yard completion to Driver on third-and-13, he dealt a helmet-to-helmet hit on Favre. Three plays later, Harris made amends, forcing a fumble by Franks as he neared the goal line. When Antoine Winfield recovered, the Vikings offense had a chance to make a statement drive with 8:36 left in the game.
Instead, they picked up one first down on a pass to Chester Taylor and punted away to Green Bay with 4:47 left. Favre has been making statement drives throughout his career, and he led the Pack on one more fourth-quarter, game-winning surge. From his own 33-yard line, it started innocently with Green's 4-yard run, but on second down Favre found Martin deep in single coverage for 36 yards. Penalties and negative rushing plays didn't allow the Packers to get closer than the 26-yard line, but that's all they needed for Rayner to stick a 44-yard field goal through the uprights for the 9-7 lead with 1:34 to play.
The way the Vikings were playing, that lead easily stuck when Kampman came through for his third sack of the game and the Minnesota passing game went quietly into the night.
The loss all but eliminated the Vikings from playoff contention and dropped them to 6-9 with only a New Year's Eve game against St. Louis standing between them and an off-season to retrofit an offense that never did find its groove.
Jackson Can't Crack Dreadful Offense
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