In recent history, there have been few games that carry more significance than Sunday's clash between the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. It will be the last game before the Vikings bye week and the ramifications of Sunday's game are about as big as they can be. With a win, the Vikings will improve to 7-1, while the Packers would fall to 4-3, having been swept in the season series. With a loss, the Vikings go to 6-2 and the Packers move up to 5-2 – erasing the advantage the Vikings built by winning 30-23 Oct. 5 at the Metrodome and putting the division title back up for grabs.
The Packers have been very impressive since losing to the Vikings. They have played two games since their bye week and pounded both Detroit and Cleveland – outscoring them by a combined total of 57-3. Momentum is on their side heading into this crucial matchup and they will be a very difficult team to topple on their home turf.
If the Packers are to succeed, they are going to need a big game from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Although he threw for 384 yards in the first matchup between the teams, many of those yards came after the Packers were trailing by double digits and had to abandon the run. Still, Rodgers has moved up the passing charts significantly in the past month. His passer rating of 110.8 is second only to Peyton Manning and, as impressive as he was in his touchdown-to-interception ratio last year (28:10), it's even more impressive this year. He has thrown 184 passes, completing 121 of them for 1,702 yards. Of those passes, 11 of them (one out of every 17) have gone for a touchdown. Only two of them (one of every 92 passes) have been intercepted. He is about as efficient a quarterback as there is in the league. He rarely makes the critical mistake that kills his team. The formula to beating Rodgers and the Packers is to get a pass rush on him. In their two losses, he was sacked six times by the Cincinnati Bengals and eight times by the Vikings. If pressured, he will struggle, which will be something the Vikings try to replicate Sunday.
The Packers will try to establish the running game, something they were unable to do in the first meeting. Ryan Grant hasn't regained his 2007 form, but he is doing much better this year than he did in an injury-plagued 2008 season. He is pretty much the entire show at running back. He has 118 carries for 495 yards and three touchdowns. The next highest running back total is from backup Brandon Jackson, who has just 11 carries for 37 yards. The Packers added veteran Ahman Green last week and he is expected to see his first action this week, but don't expect to see anyone take too many carries away from Grant. If the Vikings can bottle him up like they did in the first meeting and force the Packers to throw, they will be able to bring the heat to Rodgers on every down. The onus falls on Grant to make sure that doesn't happen.
The receiver corps has seen something of a flip-flop this year. Greg Jennings is the go-to receiver and primary deep threat, but he has been consistently shut down this season. Through six games, he has just 22 catches for 356 yards and one touchdown. He has fallen behind in every category to Donald Driver, who has 27 catches for 479 yards and three touchdowns. But what is most dangerous about the tandem is a case of doing simple math. They have combined for 49 catches for 835 yards – an average of 17 yards every time they touch the ball. They can get behind secondary players and Rodgers can deliver. Without Antoine Winfield again this week, expect both Jennings and Driver to be given opportunities to make catches deep down the field. They aren't the only weapons, however. Jordy Nelson and James Jones have become a poor man's version of Jennings and Driver as the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers. They have combined to catch just 13 passes, but they have gained 222 yards and scored three touchdowns. They both have the speed to get deep against safeties or nickel corners, but Nelson is out for this game.
Anyone who saw the first game between the teams knows what young TE Jermichael Finley did to the team at the Metrodome. He stretched the field for big plays and had 129 receiving yards and a touchdown. He is injured and the Vikings wouldn't feel bad if he can't go – or isn't at 100 percent (he is doubtful). Veteran Donald Lee remains, however. He's third on the team with 19 receptions, but is a move-the-chains type of receiver. He has averaged just eight yards per reception and hasn't scored a touchdown. His strength is his blocking, but he will need to be accounted for in the red zone.
The biggest question mark is on the offensive line. In the first meeting, the Packers played musical chairs on the line. With left tackle Chad Clifton out, guard Daryn Colledge and center Jason Spitz slid down the line and the result was disastrous. Colledge was embarrassed by Jared Allen, who recorded 4.5 sacks and a safety in the first game. His play was so bad that he was moved back to left guard and, if Clifton can't play Sunday, fourth-round rookie T.J. Lang will get the start at left tackle. Lang, who was a guard prospect from Eastern Michigan, will have his hands full to say to the least and it's hard not to think that a mid-round rookie would struggle as bad as Colledge did in the first meeting. Clifton practiced Friday after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday with an ankle injury. His injury has been huge. The Packers have allowed 25 sacks in six games and three of those were against St. Louis, Detroit and Cleveland – teams with a combined record of 2-18. Whether Clifton plays or not, the line isn't expected to shake up again, so Colledge will remain at guard and Spitz will stay at center. The right side of the line has its own problems. Second-year man Josh Sitton has been inconsistent and third-year man Allen Barbre has been so hot and cold the Packers pulled longtime right tackle Mark Tauscher off the involuntarily retired list and back to active duty. This is a unit that has struggled badly against every team with a winning record it has played and has the potential to get overwhelmed if the Vikings come with aggressive blitz packages Sunday.
The Packer defense struggled early adjusting to the 3-4 defense installed by Dom Capers in the offseason, but with some tweaking, has become much more effective since the bye week. One of the keys has been shuffling the end position. Starters Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins are entrenched as the starters, but former DE and current linebacker Aaron Kampmen has been given more opportunities to put a hand in the dirt and be a down-line pass rusher. It has helped the Packers create more defensive pressure up front. In the middle, Ryan Pickett has been an effective run stopper that has helped the Packers hold opponents to just 3.5 yards per rush and score just two rushing touchdowns. His job will be to clog the middle and prevent Adrian Peterson from hitting a hole at full speed. They bottled A.D. in the first game and, if they want to win, getting that done again will be the primary defensive objective. Look for first-round rookie B.J. Raji to see more action as he works his way onto field at both the end and tackle positions.
There are two distinct schools of thought on the Packers linebacker corps. Some see a talented group of overachievers. Others see a group that makes far too many mistakes and is more hype than actual production. Nowhere is that debate more in question than on the inside. Nick Barnett has been known as a playmaker, but in his seventh season he has lost a step in pursuit too often this season – arriving an instant late to get a hit on a quarterback, defense a pass or make a tackle on a running back. He has great instincts and always has his motor running, but he isn't the same Barnett the Vikings played a couple of years ago. He's joined by former first-rounder A.J. Hawk. Taken as a lottery pick in the 2006 draft the same year the Vikings took Chad Greenway, Hawk has been a disappointment. He has shown signs of improvement, especially in the J.V. beatings of the Browns and Lions over the last two weeks, but he still appears to be learning the game, which should have happened two years ago. On the outside, rookie Clay Matthews has been solid, if not spectacular. He covers his ground and does everything by the book, but his fumble recovery against the Vikings was one of the few highlight-film plays he has made this year. Kampman plays on the left side and, after struggling to adapt to being a linebacker in the new defensive system, Capers has seen the error of his ways and has made him more of a hybrid DE/OLB. He is the team's best rusher and will give both Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt fits if, as expected, the Packers continue to bounce him from OLB to DE on either side for a play or two. The Packers are blessed with veteran depth, with Brandon Chillar working the inside and Brady Poppinga on the outside. This group has dominated lesser competition, but the Vikings will be a test for them.
When the Vikings played the Packers the first time this season, you got the distinct impression Brett Favre know how to burn Al Harris, which he did repeatedly during the game. The Packers are a true rarity in the NFL and it is one of the reasons their overall defense has been strong the last three years. They allowed veteran cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Harris to lock onto receivers in press man-to-man coverage all game long. It turns into physical battles with the receivers and they have been able to hold up so well that the Packers don't have to commit any of their other nine defenders specifically to double a dangerous receiver. Favre picked on Harris all night in the first meeting and essentially left Woodson alone. With four interceptions already, it makes sense not to go after Woodson deep down the field. Unless something has changed, expect much of the same this time around. Nick Collins and Atari Bigby are the safeties and both are experienced in the Packers secondary. Collins is a playmaker who has built a reputation for returning interceptions long distances. He is aggressive in run support and is always around the ball. Bigby has fought injuries and has been accused of playing soft at times. If Favre looks to attack someone, look for it to be Bigby down the deep seam on the hashes. Depth is thin and not particularly talented. In nickel and dime situations, fourth-year man Jarret Bush and third-year man Tramon Williams provide help. Williams started at corner and safety last year and is a valuable role player. At safety, the Packers found depth by signing a couple of AFC outcasts. Derrick Martin spent three years with Baltimore before being released and signed by the Packers and Matt Giordano spent his first four years as a special teams player with the Colts. If either of them are forced into action, it would be a serious downgrade for the Packers and either of them would be immediately targeted.
With this much at stake for the Packers, the Vikings should expect them to pull out all the stops. While the Vikings would remain in first place in the division even with a loss, if the Packers lose, they will be two-and-a-half games behind the Vikings with a season sweep against them, which would in reality make it a three-game deficit through eight games. Their division title hopes could be dead and buried, and with a pair of losses to the Vikings their wild card hopes would take a pretty significant hit as well. The Packers won't go down easy, but the difference between winning and losing Sunday could go a long way to determining if the Vikings will repeat as division champions or if the Packers' dream of returning to the top still has steam behind it.
Preview: Packers on a roll
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