Almost three weeks ago, the Packers came into the Metrodome boasting the NFL's best record. Then they lost 31-21 to the Vikings. In the process, the Packers not only failed to win the NFC North title faster than any team since the advent of the 16-game schedule. After a loss to Tampa Bay the following week, the Packers no longer hold the top seed in the NFC.
So, as the Vikings and Packers meet for the second time in 21 days, revenge is on the Packers' minds, and they want to make the Vikings pay at the semi-frozen tundra at Lambeau Field in a chilly prime-time Sunday night affair. For the Pack, it's a chance to forget what happened in the first meeting. For the Vikings, it's a chance to revisit what worked so well for them in Week 11.
The primary problem for the Packers, as it always seems to be, is Brett Favre struggles in domed stadiums. They continued in full force in Week 11, as Favre threw three interceptions — after throwing just four in his first nine games combined. The Vikings were able to get pressure on Favre and force bad throws. In his last three home games vs. the Vikings, he has thrown 104 passes without an interception. If the Vikings don't get pressure on Favre early, it could be a very long night.
The biggest difference the Vikings should expect Sunday is an emphasis on getting the ball to running back Ahman Green — if he plays. In Week 11, Green ran 18 times for 71 yards and caught eight passes for 38 yards. While 26 touches is about what the Vikings should expect, with the exception of a 34-yard sweep, on 25 of those touches Green gained just 75 yards — 3 yards each. Green is far too explosive for that to be expected again. In Week 11, he had all the carries for the Packers. There is little reason to expect anything different this time around, even if Green can't go and rookie Tony Fisher fills Green's shoes. He did it last week and received the NFL's rookie of the week for his efforts.
With the Packers trailing for all of the last game, the Vikings got a good chance to see Green Bay's receiver corps with the Packers being forced to throw 43 passes. Donald Driver has become a dangerous weapon — and a well-paid one since recently signing a contract extension. He caught only four passes in the first meeting, but one was for an 84-yard touchdown. He has killer speed, and the Packers will likely lock and load on him and Terry Glenn, who caught four passes for 61 yards. With youngsters Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson also fitting into the mix, the Packers have weapons everywhere. When they get in the red zone, tight end Bubba Franks tends to shine. In his last three games vs. the Vikings, he has scored two red zone touchdowns and will need to be watched closely.
A major difference will be up front. The Packers have lost left tackle Chad Clifton for the year after an aggressive hit from Warren Sapp put him on the shelf, and the Packers are scrambling to make up for the loss. Center Mike Flanagan moved to left tackle to finish the game and may be needed to stay there. If so, 16-year veteran Frank Winters will move in at center, flanked by guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera and right tackle Earl Dotson. The loss of Clifton is huge and may force the Packers to change things up offensively.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings dominated the Packers in the first meeting. As a team, the Vikings ran for 218 yards, thanks to an injury that sidelined defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt. With nose tackle Gilbert Brown also injured, the Packers will have to depend even more on defensive ends Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Vonnie Holliday, who also missed the Week 11 game. Of the front four that faced the Vikings in Week 11, perhaps only Gbaja-Biamila will be in the starting front four come Sunday.
The linebackers for the Packers didn't make the big plays they typically do when the teams had their meeting at the Metrodome, but they remain one of the most dominant linebacker units in the league. With Hardy Nickerson in the middle and Nate Wayne and Na'il Diggs on the outside, the Packers have three active, heavy-hitting defenders that can make a game-tilting play — be it by a big hit to cause fumbles or interceptions in coverage. The Vikings did a good job of neutralizing them in the first meeting and will have to do so again in order to come away with a win.
The secondary held its own in the first meeting, as Daunte Culpepper completed just 13 passes, but six of them went to Randy Moss, including a 41-yard touchdown. Cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Tyrone Williams are solid in press coverage, but, while big playmakers, they are also prone to mistakes that can create big plays. They will be asked to shut down Moss.
The safeties will have to provide deep pass coverage as well as sneak up to stop Bennett. Darren Sharper remains one of the best in the league at strong safety, but rookie Marques Anderson continues to learn on the fly. Teams have tended to go after him, and the Vikings should be no exception. When the Packers go into nickel and dime packages the talent doesn't drop off, with cornerback Tod McBride and safety Antuan Edwards both capable of making big plays.
The Packers are legendary for their success in cold weather, and you can bet it will be cold at Lambeau Sunday night. The Packers haven't lost to the Vikings at Lambeau in December since 1986, so the Vikings will have to bring their "A" game to snap their 16-game road losing streak — especially at one of the hardest venues to win at in December.
Frank Winters vs. Chris Hovan — In the first meeting between the teams, the key matchup was rookie left tackle Bryant McKinnie against sack specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. While that is still a key matchup, the confrontation that could most likely affect winning and losing will come in the middle, as center Frank Winters matches up with Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan.
Hovan was in on just three tackles in the first meeting, but the stat sheet didn't tell the story. He was in Brett Favre's face all day — so much so that he was fined by the league for his aggressive taunting and trash talking with Favre. But that was against Mike Flanagan. This time he will be up against Winters, a 16-year veteran who is nearing the end of his career.
The Packers were sent scrambling to shuffle their offensive line after a questionable hit by Warren Sapp on tackle Chad Clifton following an interception. With Clifton out for the season, Flanagan was forced to move to left tackle and Winters was dusted off and thrust into the lineup at center. This is a matchup Hovan has the potential to dominate, and it could be the weak link the Vikings need to score an upset at Lambeau Field.
Hovan has continued to show improvement in his third season and at times shows flashes of the dominance John Randle had in years past. He has the ability to stuff the inside running game, as well as collapse the pocket on passing downs. He has held his own against some of the top centers in the league, much less a center that will turn 39 in January.
When Winters began his rookie training camp in 1987, Hovan was just two months removed from his ninth birthday. His youth will be served Sunday, and his ability to dominate this matchup will likely get stronger as the game goes on. Winters made his first start in two years last weekend vs. Chicago, and he is far from being in late-season game shape. If Hovan can create the push he needs to knock Winters back and take charge of this individual matchup, it not only can create problems for Favre and Ahman Green up the middle, but open blitzing lanes for linebackers and safeties. Winters is a crafty veteran but will need all of his savvy because he will be part of the key matchup Sunday night.
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