Contender vs. Rebuilder

Rookie Bryant McKinnie may face the toughest test of his shortened season Sunday against Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who is just one of many talents the Packers are showcasing this season.

If there is a more intense rivalry than the Vikings and the Packers, it isn't apparent to Vikings fans. When the Packers were bad, they found a way to beat the Vikings. When the Vikes were bad, they found a way to beat Green Bay.

So it is that the Packers (8-1) come to the Metrodome to meet the Vikings (2-7) — Green Bay looking to wrap up the division title by Thanksgiving weekend and the Vikings playing spoiler. It isn't a role with which either team is unaccustomed. In 2000, the Pack beat the Vikings twice and cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs. In 2001, the Vikings beat the Packers in the Metrodome and forced them to be a wild-card team.

This edition of the Packers is looking to force every contender to the NFC throne to come to Lambeau in January, so the Vikings will face a team fully prepared to lay out all the stops. That is how it should be with this rivalry.

Any discussion of the Packers starts and ends with two words — Brett Favre. He has astonished NFL observers by playing in a record 166 straight games — more than 10 years. We don't need to tell you his skills — they're self-evident. However, some of the worst games he's ever played have been in the Metrodome. As dangerous as he is, if thrown off his game, he will force passes where they shouldn't be thrown. If the Vikings can't get to Favre early, he'll kill them.

While Favre is already seen as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the most dangerous player on the team is running back Ahman Green. As a rusher and receiver, Green is capable of taking a short play the distance at any time and is the one player the Vikings absolutely have to stop to have a chance of winning. Fullback William Henderson can make a play here or there, but Green is the straw that stirs the drink in Green Bay and will make the Vikings think twice every time he touches the ball.

The receiving corps is another weapon the Vikings will have to deal with. After getting rid of Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder, the Packers were viewed as being in a rebuilding mode. Instead, Donald Driver has become one of the NFC's top go-to receivers after being a backup for three years, and veteran Terry Glenn is another viable option. With youngster Robert Ferguson and rookie Javon Walker in the mix, the Packers have multiple receivers that can do damage in the passing game. Throw in TE Bubba Franks and you have every reason to expect — knee injury and all — that Favre will throw 40 or more passes and take advantage of the suspect Vikings secondary.

The depth of the Packers offensive line has been tested but not broken. Injuries have depleted a solid front-line group, but the Pack can still strut out Chad Clifton and Earl Dotson at tackle, Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle at guard and veteran Mike Flanagan at center. Injuries have pushed the Packers to depend on the iron five to do the work, but as long as they're on the field the Packers offense is as strong as any in the NFC.

While the offense is what fuels the media's love of the Packers, it is the defense that has analysts looking for Green Bay to go back to the Super Bowl. Up front the Packers are changing but solid. The loss of Vonnie Holliday and free agent signee Joe Johnson definitely leaves a mark, but rookie Aaron Kampman at left defensive end is offset by the veteran leadership of defensive tackles Cletidus Hunt and Gilbert Brown and pass-rush specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila at right end. Beyond the front-liners, the Packers need some help, but they have the horses to make problems for the Vikings offense.

The linebackers are as good as they get with Hardy Nickerson in the middle and Na'il Diggs and Nate Wayne on the outside. All three are ball hawks, and those who have followed the Packers all year say that Nickerson could be the difference between a good team and a Super Bowl team. If the Vikings offense is forced to make plays through those guys, it will be a long day.

The secondary remains one of the question marks with the Packers. Mike McKenzie, long dogged by a lot of NFL experts, continues to make plays when healthy, but he's been sidelined much of the season. He's expected to be in the lineup, joining fellow starting CB Tyrone Williams, but don't be surprised if the Vikings test out McKenzie's ailing left leg early and often. At safety, the Vikings are glad to see that LeRoy Butler will no longer haunt them, but they still have to deal with Darren Sharper and new safety Marques Anderson — an emerging talent who has received three defensive rookie of the week awards this season for his play-making abilities.

On paper, this looks like a mismatch for the Packers, but in the recent and long-term history of this matchup what should happen doesn't always come to pass. If the Vikings can rattle Favre, as they've done in the past, this game could be up for grabs. However, if the Vikings don't play up to their best, they will find the going rough when the border war starts its two-game fix in the next four weeks.

Bryant McKinnie vs. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila — The pedigree on lightly tested Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie is that, until last week, he had never given up a sack. Not in college. Not in junior college. That is why the Vikings took him with the seventh overall pick — and were stunned he was still available.

He'll get his biggest test, maybe of the season, this Sunday. After getting a part-time showcase last Sunday vs. the Giants, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will fully test McKinnie. Gbaja-Biamila had 13-1/2 sacks last year as a situational player and is on pace for 15 or more sacks this year now that he has been pushed into the limelight. He is a tenacious pass rusher, and the reason the Vikings drafted McKinnie in the first place was to protect Daunte Culpepper's blind side.

You can bet that every NFL defensive end has heard of the college legend of McKinnie. Everyone wants to prove that what he did in college won't translate to the NFL.

While Mike Tice would prefer to have let McKinnie ease his way into the starting lineup, that isn't going to happen. He will get that first shot at being an every-down player Sunday, and Gbaja-Biamila will be an excellent test to how far he has progressed — or how far he needs to progress.

In a Packers-Vikings game you could point to a half-dozen critical matchups that could turn a game toward one team or the other. But, because of the situation with the Vikings offensive line, the recent arrival of McKinnie and the deserved respect given to Gbaja-Biamila, this is clearly the matchup to watch on Sunday.

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