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Friday, December 24, 2004
Game Review: Packers @ Vikings
by Mark Lawrence
Today the Packers travelled to Minnesota to play a Christmas Eve game for all the marbles. The winner of this game was also to be the winner of the division. This was a Friday game, on the road, on a short week, in a dome. Really, one would have to consider the Vikings to have a substantial advantage in this game.
Traditionally, Favre has played poorly in domes, especially the Vikings dome (aka the horrordome). Mike Sherman has been able to engineer a couple wins there by putting the game on the legs of the O-line and the shoulders of Ahman Green. This time, however, pro-bowl center Mike Flannigan is on IR, and backup tackle and key to the Packers "heavy" package Kevin Berry was out with a thigh injury. The Packers barely managed 100 yards on the ground, going for 106 yards in 31 carries. The Vikings obviously keyed on the Packer's running game, daring Favre to beat them with his arm.
Additionally, the Vikings emerging DB talent Brian Williams did a pretty decent job of taking our deep-field threat Javon Walker out of the game. Javon had 5 receptions for 90 yards, a good day for most NFL receivers but a bit disappointing for him. However, Donald Driver stepped up the to task at hand, catching 11 for 164 yards and 2 TDs, one of which the refs even allowed to score. Can you say "Highway robbery" boys and girls?
Although the Packers o-line officially allowed no sacks in this game, pass protection was a bit iffy at best. Favre was frequently hurried and often hit. The Vikings re-tooled D-Line is frankly showing signs of coming around. Boy, I wish we had us one of them there D-lines. Inexplicably, in spite of the Vikings very decent pass rush, the Vikings called a few ill-timed blitzes. Early in Favre's career he was quite susceptible to the blitz - arguably Denver's blitz package cost Favre a superbowl. However, Favre is all grown up now, and when you blitz him, you take your chances.
On defense, the Packers did surprisingly well except for a couple regrettable breakdowns, each of which breakdowns lead to a long TD. Remove the two breakdowns, and the defense held the Vikings to 10 points. This is not a completely fair statement, as absent the breakdowns the Vikings were likely to score on at least on of the two drives; none the less the Packer's defense was able to stop the Vikings when it mattered most. Those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves, well, I think this defense has just given us cause to set ourselves up for another heart-break.
The Vikings passing attack struggled all day long - this is difficult to understand, as Culpepper is having a career year and is playing some excellent football. In this game he went 16 of 23 for 285 yards and 3 TDs, and rushed three times for another 21 yards. Add in the Viking's 21 other rushes for 110 yards, and it looks like very decent offensive production. However, we're used to seeing fireworks from the Culpepper - Moss - Bennett show, and by comparison to what we have come to expect, today they seemed a bit subdued. The Packer's seemingly abandoned their ill-considered attempts to put their rookie DBs in zone coverage, and played this game to their strength, their speed. It seemed to work.
In the first half, the Packer's linebackers were sucked into the center on several plays, leaving two thirds of the field uncovered. It was a truly frightening display of poor field awareness, and it cost the Packers a couple of touchdowns. However, it seemed someone talked to them at half time, and in the second half it looked like they were a bit better at staying home and minding their assignments. The result: no big plays in the second half.
From the Packer's point of view, the regular season is now effectively over. The Packer's have clinched their division, a playoff spot, and a home game. Atlanta and Philadelphia have clinched the two bye weeks, so those are unavailable to the Packers. The most likely result is that the Packers will host the Panthers for the first playoff game. After that game, if they win, the Packer's next opponent will be chosen for them by the result of the likely Minnesota at Seattle game, a game which seems very difficult to forecast at this point. At this instant, due to the season-ending injury to Terrell Owens, it seems to me that the NFC is wide open to any team that chooses to get hot in the next two weeks. One would not call the Packers favorites to go to the superbowl, but neither would one say that this previously 1-5 team was out of the hunt or not a true contender. If the youngsters on this Packer's defense choose to recognize their opportunity and step up their games, this is a team that could go far into the playoffs.
To anyone calling for Mike Sherman's head: it appears at this point that the '04 Packers will go 10-6, win their division, and sweep the Vikings. I cannot see such a season as anything other than a success, perhaps a tiny bit qualified but a success never the less.
Next week the Packers travel to Chicago to take on the very wounded Bears, a game which should not be too difficult for the Packers, certainly not nearly as difficult as this week. There's a certain sense of payback here, too.