There is little in the way of hype that needs to be applied to any Packers-Vikings game. But when the stakes are as high as they are for the Vikings heading into their bye week, it might be tough for this game to not live up to its billing. The fact that the last 10 meetings between the teams have all been decided by less than a touchdown is important to note, because this game – as seemingly almost all of them have been in recent years – will likely come down to the last quarter or even the last possession.
If that is to happen, it will likely be on the shoulders of quarterback Brett Favre to get the job done. I'm sure by now you've all been inundated with the hoopla surrounding the expected record-breaking 421st touchdown pass of Favre's career Sunday, which would break the record he currently shares with Dan Marino. While the Metrodome was a house of horrors for Favre for most of his career, he has posted some very strong games recently – winning three of the last four meetings. He is known for making big interceptions, but he has been extremely efficient this season after showing clear signs of decline the past couple of years. The rejuvenation this year – completing 80 of 125 passes for 861 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that would put him on pace for almost 4,600 yards and 32 touchdowns. There's no doubting how dangerous he can be, but when pressured, he is prone to making mistakes. The extent to which he can be comfortable in the pocket will go a long way to determining who wins and loses.
Much of the onus may be on Favre since the Packers running game has been nothing short of hideous this year. Without Ahman Green, the trio of Brandon Jackson, DeShawn Wynn and Vernand Morency have combined for just 171 yards on 59 carries – an average of just 2.9 yards a rush. With a Vikings defense geared to stopping the run, this group will have to step up. Complicating matters is that both Morency and Jackson have been banged up early in the year. As a result, the Packers may use the run sparingly because of the convergence of a strong run defense by the Vikings and a dismal run offense from the Packers.
With two of the top three running backs and the starting fullback being rookies, there is plenty of reason to believe the Packers will need to throw to win. In that regard, Favre has a collection of young weapons at the receiver spots. Donald Driver is clearly his go-to receiver, working at a pace to catch more than 100 passes this year. But rookie James Jones, a third-round draft pick out of San Jose State, has been the talk around Packer Country since the start of training camp. He has exceeded expectations and has been averaging five receptions a game. 2006 rookie phenom Greg Jennings has been battling injuries of his own, but if he can play Sunday, all three give Favre speedy targets that can make the kill-shot big plays. Aside from Driver, none of the other four receivers on the roster (including Ruvel Martin and Chris Francies) have more than one year of experience in the league. The Vikings will have to muscle up these youngsters or Favre will pick the Vikings apart.
The tight end had a diminishing role with the Packers over the last couple of seasons, but that too has seemed to come back. Donald Lee has caught 12 passes and scored a touchdown as the receiving tight end and Bubba Franks is up to his old tricks. He's caught just seven passes for 42 yards, but has two touchdowns. The Packers have used their tight ends in the red zone a lot in recent years and received a ton of production so watch for Lee and/or Franks if the Packers get close and need to throw for a touchdown.
One of the big concerns last year for the Packers was the need to start young offensive linemen. A year later, they appear to have much more cohesion and are working well as a group. The Packers have two veteran bookend tackles in Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher – both playing in their eighth season. But move inside and they get younger – much younger. Former sixth-round draft pick Scott Wells is in his fourth year and his first full season as the starting center. He is flanked by guards in second-year Daryn Colledge, who started all but one game as a rookie, and Junius Coston, a third-year man getting his first starting time. If the Vikings are to control Favre, they will need to break down the young trio in the middle and, with Kevin and Pat Williams anchoring the middle of the line, this is a battle the Vikings can win.
While Favre has received most of the notoriety for the Packers' turnaround late last year and early this year, it has been their defense that has set the tone and set the table for team success. It has started with a very strong defensive line, headed by defensive end Aaron Kampman. Signed to an offer sheet by the Vikings two years ago, the Packers matched the offer and are thankful every day they did. Kampman has become one of the games top sack artists and is a dangerous pass rushing from the right side of the offensive line. At the other end, fourth-year pro Cullen Jenkins has won the starting spot, but gets taken out on passing downs and replaced by sack specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who is tied for the team lead with two sacks. On the inside, seven-year vet Ryan Pickett came over as a free agent in 2006 and has settled into a starting job that has made him one of the better run-stoppers in the NFC. Fourth-year pro Corey Williams is a poor man's Kevin Williams. He's strong against the run and can collapse the pocket – he's tied with KGB for the team lead with two sacks.
The linebacker position was a liability not too long ago, but the Packers are confident they have found the trio that can bring them back to defensive dominance. The player to watch is this group is A.J. Hawk. Taken in the first round of the 2006 draft, Hawk is a playmaker who can chase down plays from sideline to sideline and blitz when called on. He delivers the big hit and always needs to be accounted for by the quarterback. In the middle, Nick Barnett is an emotional player who can take himself out of some plays with over-pursuit, but he never stops charging and when he gets his hands on the player with the ball, they rarely get away. The weak link of the chain is clearly at the strongside position. Brady Poppinga is in his third season, and, while he was a full-time starter last year, his liabilities in coverage have been exploited by teams. He's the biggest LB of the group at 6-3, 245, but tends to wear down late in games and teams tend to pick on him in the fourth quarter if he's gassed. Look for the Vikings and their short passing game to go after Poppinga, because Hawk and Barnett aren't the guys you want to expose your backs and tight ends to.
The secondary of the Packers is overrated in the view of many. The Raiders all but gave up on Charles Woodson, who has a history of injuries and clearly isn't the same player that wowed scouts a decade ago. But the Packers gave him a monster contract to come to Green Bay. He lives more on reputation than current skill level. Teams tend to go after him because the only true stud of the secondary is Al Harris, who is also in his 10th season. Old corners tend to break down as the season progresses and both Woodson and Harris have been nursing minor injuries. The Packers need them to stay healthy, because depth is a little thin. The primary backups are Will Blackmon, a second-year corner who is viewed as a project, a Jarrett Bush, a waiver claim from the Panthers last year who didn't start any games last season. At safety, the Packers have inexperience that can be exploited. Nick Collins, a former second-round draft choice, showed steady improvement last year, but is still learning the game, and Atari Bigby is an undrafted free agent from 2006 who won the job in training camp. Both of these guys can be exploited over the top and with play fakes. If Kelly Holcomb can get the time to take advantage of that, the Vikings could put some points up on the big play deep – something that has been missing for the last year.
The stakes couldn't be higher for the Vikings. A loss drops them to 1-3 heading into the bye week with a loss in hand to both the Lions and Packers. A win would move them to 2-2 and send them into the bye with momentum and a chance to expose the 3-0 Packers as a potential fluke. The same applies for the Packers, who want to solidify their grasp on the top spot in the division and give themselves a cushion to work from as the season progresses.
Vikings-Packers games always bring out the excitement in fans and the players, so this game doesn't need to get overly hyped. There's a lot at stake and, if Sunday's game holds to form, the winner won't be determined until late in the fourth quarter – something that continues to make this rivalry one of the greatest in the NFL.
Preview: Still A Great Rivalry
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