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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Game Review: Vikings @ Packers

by Mark Lawrence
PackerChatters Staff

It seems like just a few days ago I was sitting in Lambert Field, watching the Tennessee Titans perform an historic rectal-relocation on my beloved Packers. That was four consecutive losses in a row, three consecutive losses at Lambeau field. Really, the toothpick was coming out clean, they were done, it was time to cut them up and serve them.

However, Sunday the Vikings came to Green Bay with two consecutive losses under their belts, visiting a Packers team that had won three in a row. This game was for all the mid-season marbles: the winner was the undisputed leader of the NFC north. These were two teams that were ranked something like 1 and 2 in the NFL on offense, and something like 28 and 29 in the NFL on defense.

The Packers took the opening kickoff, and on their 8th play Brett Favre threw a 50 yard TD strike to emerging star WR Javon Walker. But then the Vikings took their kickoff 90 yards in 10 plays to score a TD of their own. The gauntlet had been thrown down and picked up. It was clear 9 minutes into the first quarter that this was a game where you wanted to have taken the "over."

Each team then did a very un-characteristic 3 and out. It seemed that the defenses had also showed up to play.

What followed was about 15 minutes of standard Packers / Vikings shootout behavior, both teams moving the ball quite decisively and seemingly scoring at will. The Packers had just a slight edge in this time, and as the first half came to a close the Packers defense had had the slightly better showing, holding the Vikings to a field goal and a punt, while the Packers offense scored on their next three possessions. Score at half time: Packers 24, Vikings 10. The Vikings fans where I was sitting were hardly what you would call subdued, and the Packers fans where I was sitting were feeling very cautiously optimistic, but hardly like the game was over.

The Packers running game was working well - Ahman Green had 83 yards on 10 carries, and our other backs had an additional 50 yards on 10 more carries. Without a doubt, Mike Sherman's most endearing contribution to the Favre era is a powerful running game, and this running game has proven key to beating the Vikings. The Packers OL was clearly dominating the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, the Vikings had 63 yards on 12 carries - a respectable showing, but not something you can live on when you're two TDs behind. Favre was 9 of 14 for 139 yards, 3tds, no interceptions. Culpepper was 7 of 16 for 103 yards, 1td, no interceptions. If these tendances held up in the second half, the game would be a complete blowout. No one thought that this scenario was even remotely likely.

It was pretty clear that all the Packers thought they had to do was keep on with their game plan - run the ball, use up the clock, have Favre do a bit of that Favre stuff, and have the Packers defense continue to stop the Vikings on about half their drives. Unfortunately, as we've all heard, the best laid plans of mice and men oft get pregnant.

Meanwhile, the Vikings clearly spent their half time deciding on a new game plan. Their running game was working fairly well, but not well enough. So, that went down like ballast from a sinking balloon. Culpepper had been throwing at Packers CB Al Harris, who had held up well. However, clearly the tape showed the Vikings staff that Packers backup SSLB Paris Lennon was simply not able to run with the Vikings TE Wiggins. Meanwhile the Packer's running game was simply killing the Vikings, so some adjustments were made to the defense. The Vikings had a new game plan.

The third quarter starter with the Packer's defense forcing a 5 and out, a very promising start. The Packers then drove down the field to the Viking's 15 yards line, and wound up facing a 4th and 1 at the 15. This situation seemed perhaps an opportunity to Sherman, a chance to effectively end the game - while a field goal was as close to a certainty as you can get in the NFL, and made this a three score game, apparently he thought a touchdown would rip their hearts out. On this play, an unusual direct hand-off to the lead blocker Luchey, the Vikings made their stop, perhaps with a little help from the refs. Surprisingly, the Packer's defense forced a Viking's 3 and out.

In the second half, Ahman Green had 12 carries for 64 yards - not the 8 yards per carry he had had in the first half, but still a respectable 5+ yard per carry average. However, all this effort was effectively negated in one play - a reverse to Donald Driver. On the first play of our last possession in the 3rd quarter, he took the ball 14 yards, but focusing on a Vikings CB coming in from his left for a hit, Donald unwisely shifted the ball to his right side. Almost immediately he was speared by a Vikings LB and stripped of the ball. Just that quickly the Packers were also stripped of their momentum and the Vikings had a new lease on life. Once again, Packer's turnovers were rearing up their ugly heads.

The new Viking's game plan, aided by this change in momentum, now came clearly into focus. Culpepper used his #2 WR and TE to prey on the Packer's rookie CBs and backup SSLB. The Packers had no answer whatsoever for this - five plays, 54 yards, TD. 17 to 24, and suddenly this was a game with the outcome very much in doubt.

Ferguson took the ensuing kickoff back to the Vikings 35 yard line - the kind of special teams play that can turn the momentum right back. Favre took 4 minutes and 9 plays to work the ball the remaining 35 yards and answer the Vikings score with one of his own. The shootout was in full force now.

A couple quick defensive stops, one by each team, and then Culpepper used his new game plan, Burleson and Wiggins v. the Packer's rookies and backups, to drive 86 yards in 16 plays for a touchdown.

With 2:50 left in the game, Sherman called two passes and a run for a net of four yards and 32 seconds. The Vikings made effective use of their defense and time-outs to give their very hot QB a chance to get them into overtime. Culpepper took the resulting punt 66 yards in 3 plays and 58 seconds, scoring the tieing TD on a pass play.

So, here it was: 1:20 left in the game, we're taking a kickoff, and we must score. Ferguson takes the kickoff and has another great runback, 37 yards, followed by a heart-stopping fumble. In a more than a little controversial call, the refs said that ex-Viking and new Packer #3 TE Ben Steele had recovered the fumble. A couple Favre-like passes and some judicious clock management led to a field goal as time expired.

What happened? The Packers had an excellent first half, and made a small mistake of thinking that this meant no adjustments were necessary. Meanwhile, the Vikings found a way to slow the Packer's ground game just enough to stop the bleeding. The Packers responded with some truly frightening ball security, giving up a fumble to let the Vikings back in the game, and nearly giving up another to seal their season.

I presume ball security will be a major issue for the Packers this week in practice. It's nice to win, and it's nice to be newly back from the dead. However, this win was far too tenuous due to sloppy mistakes.

The NFC now has a clear front runner, Philadelphia, at 8-1, followed by Atlanta at 7-2, then a whole group of teams stuck in the middle at 5-4. The Packers, surprisingly, are now in control of their own destiny: if they beat the Rams at home in two weeks and win their winnable games, it is quite likely that they will be the #3 seed in the NFC.

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