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Friday, January 07, 2005
The Minnesota Vikings (8-8) at the Green Bay Packers (10-6)
by Thomas Pyc
Playoff Game Preview
For the first time in the long history between the Packers and the Vikings they are going to play a playoff game. That’s eighty-seven matches (44-42-1 in favor of the Pack) and not one of them in the postseason. If the rivalry between the two divisional foes was not bitter enough now the loser of the matchup gets to head home, for the rest of the season.
Fans, players and coaches have been heard all week how hard it is to beat a team three times in one season but the fact is that in such situations the three game sweep has occurred 66% of the time. Still, that does not mean any player in a Packer uniform is going to take the Vikings lightly. Brett Favre knows as well as anyone what the pain of a Viking defeat can feel like. Before this season Favre was 11-12 against the Vikings in his career. Only three other teams have a winning record against Brett and none of them are division rivals. Darren Sharper perceives the Vikings to still be dangerous despite ‘backing into’ the playoffs and I am sure that is the popular feeling across the entire Packer organization.
The mood in the other franchise appears to be very mixed. Both Quarterback Daunte Culpepper and Center Matt Birk have expressed their discontent with Moss leaving the field, the game, and his teammates behind in a huff last Sunday. But Randy’s frustration and the resulting behavior was inevitable, wasn’t it? Back in 2000 after the heavily favored Vikings lost 41-0 in the NFC Championship game Moss said, “It’s going to be tough for us to win a Super Bowl in Minnesota.” As of Thursday evening rumors of Moss’s comments in an interview with ESPN began to show up on the Internet and the fuel for a bigger fire appears to be coming.
But this football game is going to be played on the field and not through the media or on chatboards. Team cohesion is built on the practice field, team-meeting rooms and on gameday. There’s going to be one thing on these teams’ minds come Sunday and that’s winning a football game with whichever players decided to show up. So whatever does come out of the mouth of Moss this week is not going to change the desire that the Vikings have on Sunday, just like whatever Brett Favre’s feeds the media directly from his hand is not going to make him any more phenomenal. They are both football players and great ones at their respective positions.
Two weeks between games does not make for too many drastic changes to each teams’ rosters but they are changes nonetheless. For the Vikings, Antoine Winfield is going to be at full strength at his starting cornerback position while safety Corey Chavous will be out with an elbow injury. Two other Vikings are on the injury report, wide receiver Kelly Campbell and cornerback Terrence Shaw, Campbell practiced at full speed on Thursday but his availability for kickoffs is yet to be determined due to his separated shoulder. The other roster adjustment is the assurance that self-proclaimed archenemy to Brett Favre, Chris Hovan, will be deactivated for journeyman, and one-time Packer, Steve Martin. The Vikings should also have the luxury of all of their running backs for the game Sunday.
The Packers are going to still be without wide receiver Robert Ferguson. Ferguson made his return to the practice field and had some understandable apprehension and nervousness this week. Grady Jackson did not practice on Wednesday but should be ready to go come game time. Jackson has been engaged in a pregame verbal war with Vikings’ center Matt Birk and guard David Dixon all week. Linebacker Na’il Diggs appears to be at full strength after suffering from a bruised kidney as does safety Darren Sharper. All and all the Packers and Vikings are in relatively good health but in an interview with Mike Sherman this week he expressed the importance of notifying gameday starters on gameday in order to get the most out of them during practice. That being said, it is uncertain whether defensive tackle, Cletidus Hunt, will be the starter on Sunday.
The Minnesota Vikings have an almost impossible task of shutting down a record setting Packer offense. The quarterback is a Hall of Famer. The receiving corps set franchise records for receptions and yards this year. The offensive line is arguably the best in the league and the running backs have speed, power and depth. The Vikings successfully limited the Packer ground game two weeks ago and contain a Pro-Bowler at defensive tackle (Kevin Williams) but it is extremely unlikely this outmatched defense is going to be able to devise a plan to slow down the Packers’ offense. So for Minnesota the best defense is probably going to be a good offense. Long sustained drives with a great deal of power running will help keep the ball out of Brett Favre’s enormous hands.
The purple offensive attack has run into some serious problems over its last six quarters of football. Packer fans are familiar with this type of trouble; they used to see it twice a year in the form of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. This trouble is also known as a Cover 2 or a double zone. Packer defensive coordinator went strictly to a Cover 2 scheme in the second half of the game two weeks ago and that held the Minnesota offense, which scored 21 second quarter points, to only 3 second half points. Against the Redskins, Minnesota’s offense looked confused and frustrated (see Randy Moss reaction) against the Cover 2 scheme. They scored 18 points, some of which can be attributed more to excellent athletic effort and not the attacking strategy.
Against this scheme Daunte Culpepper does not have a deep option and he’s forced to throw short in order to get down the field. With the emergence of Nate Burleson and Jermaine Wiggins the Vikings offense has become more than just Randy Moss, it has achieved balance. Obviously there are ways to beat this scheme and those are dependent upon offensive patience and persistence as well as it’s running attack. If the Vikings can run against the Packer front seven consistently and Culpepper picks his spots carefully then there’s no reason they cannot stay in this game. But at the same time some would argue that Favre still has not mastered playing against a good Cover 2 scheme (see Jacksonville game) and despite Culpepper’s great season, he’s still not at Brett’s level.
The Bottom Line
This game is going to be analyzed from all angles. The media is going to publish all game-related statements, even the irrelevant ones. Coaches are going to smoke screen. Analysts are going to look at all the details, all the way down to the size of each quarterback’s hands (Favre – 10.375 inches, Culpepper – 9.5 inches). But on Sunday we should see one team that is ready to make a solid playoff run and one that cannot stand the cold and would rather be sitting in the warmth of the lockerroom. And there’s always a chance that some players will head there before anyone else. Packers 35, Vikings 21.