The rivalry between the Vikings and Packers has always been one that has conjured up memories for fans of both teams. From the earliest days of the Vikings franchise when the Packers were the kings of the NFL, the Vikings found ways to squeeze out a few wins. When the Vikings became one of the pre-eminent teams in the 1970s, it was Green Bay that would find ways to steal wins more often than Vikings players and coaches would like to admit. The recent incarnation of the rivalry has seen both teams spending time atop the division over the last decade, but it is the Packers that have re-established themselves as the king of the hill in the NFC North. No team has been as impressive as the Packers in the NFC. Over their last 12 games, the Packers have posted a record of 11-1 and are no longer viewed as a sleeper team.
While the team itself may be viewed as something of an upstart, there's no denying the ability of Brett Favre. The ageless wonder and future Hall of Famer has had a renaissance this season. Through eight games, he has averaged more than 300 yards a game passing and has a passer rating of 93.3. After years of contemplating retirement, Favre has looked rejuvenated this season and is playing with an intensity that hasn't been seen in some time. While still liable to throw the ill-advised pass when pressured, he can still deliver the ball with velocity and hasn't lost his touch on the deep ball. It is expected that he will throw will 40 times or more – and why not? He's averaging 39 passes a game. He is the centerpiece of this team as well as its face. If the Vikings are going to win, they will have to shut down Favre. Few teams have been able to do that this season.
One of the reasons Favre's numbers have been so gaudy is that the Packers running game has been extremely ineffective. Their leading rushing is rookie DeShawn Wynn, who is lost for the season due to injury and he had just 203 rushing yards – less than the rushing total for Adrian Peterson in two individual games. Next is undrafted free agent Ryan Grant, who has gained 186 yards. He is coming off a concussion, but has been given the starting job. He will be spelled by rookie Brandon Jackson, a second-round pick in this year's draft, and Vernand Morency – a third-year player with limited playing experience with the Packers. Since Ahman Green left the team last offseason, the void has yet to be filled. If the Vikings can control the ground game, which looks far less difficult than against most of their recent opponents, they can once again make the Packers one-dimensional. One of the reasons more NFL observers aren't on board with the Packers being a Super Bowl contender is that they believe (rightly so) that a championship team needs to be able to control the ball on the ground to succeed. The Packers have shown no signs of doing that.
Forcing Green Bay to pass is like forcing Frank Sinatra to sing – it comes so naturally. Why? Because, despite having a very young receiver corps, the Packers have cultivated talent that has made a huge impact on their pass offense. Donald Driver, a nine-year veteran and former seventh-round draftee himself, is the leader of the group. Known more for picking up first downs than touchdowns lately, Driver leads the Packers with 44 receptions and 539 yards. But Favre has also found plenty of options from two of his young receivers – James Jones and Greg Jennings. Jones, a third-round draft pick this season, has caught 29 passes for 432 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Jennings, who was miffed with the team in the preseason after losing his starting job, has become one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league. He has just 23 catches in eight games, but is averaging 20 yards a reception and has six of Favre's 13 touchdowns. He is clearly a threat to be reckoned with. With Bubba Franks out, the Packers have leaned heavily on tight end Donald Lee, who is tied for second on the team with 29 receptions. The team so likes Lee that he recently signed a four-year, $12 million contract extension to prevent him from joining the free agent market. While most of these players aren't household names, coaches around the NFL have become fully aware of how deep and dangerous this group is – so much so that Koren Robinson, who was supposed to be the No. 1 threat with the Vikings, will find it hard to stay as the No. 4 wide receiver option in Green Bay.
Up front, the Packers are strong at the tackles and center, but very susceptible at the guard spots. The team has plenty of experience on the edges, where 12-year veteran Chad Clifton plays left tackle and eight-year pro Mark Tauscher mans the right side. Center is also in good hands with fourth-year man Scott Wells. A seventh-round find, Wells has developed into an extremely effective center who can pull on sweeps and go heads-up with nose tackles and hold his ground. Guard is a different story. In 2005, the Packers released both of their veteran starting guards for salary cap reasons and have never fully recovered. The positions are being manned by a pair of second-year players in Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz. Both are decent pass blockers, but can get overwhelmed in run blocking. As a team, the Packers have been averaging just 3.3 yards a carry, so the Vikings have a chance to dominate this matchup in the run game and make the Packers do what they've done all year – be forced to beat you through the air to win a game.
While Favre garners most of the headlines, the Packers defense has been consistently making opposing teams look bad all season. Of their eight games, they have held five opponents to 16 points or less. Much of the credit deserves to go to the men in the trenches, who have converted the Packers from one of the easiest defenses to gain yardage on to one of the toughest. The Packers pass rush has been extremely solid, with Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila leading the way. The Vikings signed Kampman to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent in 2005 and the Packers matched – a move they are glad they made. In 2006, he recorded a whopping 15½ sacks. Not to be outdone in 2007, he has nine sacks already this year. The bigger surprise has been KGB. After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, he has registered 6½ sacks this year it looks like the same KGB that earned a huge contract a couple of years ago. He is known more as a pass rush specialist, so when the Vikings plan to run – which should be often – Cullen Jenkins will man the right end spot. In the middle, the Packers have one of the better nose tackles in game in Ryan Pickett. A free agent signing in 2006, Pickett has delivered for the Packers defensive line much the same as Pat Williams has done for the Vikings. He demands double coverage and clogs the middle to stuff running plays up the gut. The weakness of the line is at defensive tackle, where neither fourth-year man Corey Williams nor rookie Justin Harrell have established himself. If the Vikings will attack a weakness at the line, it will come at right tackle.
What makes the Packers defense tick are their explosive linebackers. With Nick Barnett in the middle and A.J. Hawk on the outside, the Packers have a pair of Pro Bowl quality players in the middle of their defense that make plays. Barnett is an emotional ball of fire who can take himself out of plays with his own aggression, but he is also a playmaker who usually finishes plays. Hawk, the Packers' first-round pick a year ago, has already established himself as a playmaker who always seems to be around the ball, whether a play is coming his way or not. The weak link of this unit is Brady Poppinga. A converted defensive end, Poppinga is a favorite of the coaching staff for his high energy and passion for the game. However, he is still adjusting to the linebacker position and will make mistakes that can prove costly. If the Vikings are to spring big plays, it is more likely than not they will come at Poppinga's side of the field.
One of the skills the Packers have had this year that many didn't believe they would possess has been in shutting down an opponent's "go-to" receiver. In almost all of their games, the Packers have shut down the starting wide receiver tandems with regularity. Cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson are veterans who know all the tricks of receivers and have both the athletic ability and veteran savvy to break up passes and make big plays. The biggest question mark of the entire defense has been at safety, where the Packers have been forced to shuffle their lineup all season. The current starting safety is Atari Bigby, an undrafted free agent in 2006 who has been pushed into action because the competition hasn't been overly fierce. The best of the Packers safeties is Nick Collins, but he was injured in the third quarter of last week's game with Kansas City and won't play Sunday. He'll likely be replaced by rookie Aaron Rouse. If the Vikings can get the inexperienced safeties of the Packers to bite on play action, big plays over the top are very possible.
The Packers closed out the 2006 season on a roll and had many thinking they could be a team to watch in 2007. Midway through the season, they're in line for a first-round bye in the playoffs, which would force at least one NFC team to come up to Lambeau in January. While their playoff positioning isn't certain, it looks like a near certainty that this team will be going to the postseason. The Vikings are playing for their playoff lives, knowing that dropping another game to the Packers would all but eliminate them from legitimate playoff contention. With this rivalry, however, history has taught us that records are really pretty irrelevant. They always seem to be close games decided in the fourth quarter. If the Vikings can make the two or three plays they missed in their first meeting, Minnesota could end up being a huge thorn in the side of the division's current top dog.
Preview: Attacking the Pack
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