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Saturday, January 08, 2005
This game scares me.
If the Vikings were playing any other team, I think they'd lay down and die for the season. But since it's the Packers, I'm worried their hatred for the Packers might put some life back into them.
I hope the Packers can get an early lead to help put some more self-doubt in the Vikings so they might give up early in the contest. But if the Packers get off to a slow start, the Vikings could get some early success and some confidence back. I thought the article I pasted below by Bob McGinn was very good on how the Vikings are fueled by their hatred for the Packers.
Green Bay - Match the Minnesota Vikings up against any other halfway-decent team in the National Football League and you wouldn't want to give a plug nickel for their chances.
Send them off to Lambeau Field clutching the motivational spike of an off-based 6 1/2-point spread and look out, Green Bay Packers.
The Vikings should be dead meat. They own the worst record (3-7) over the final 10 games of a regular season of any playoff team in the NFL's 72-year post-season history. The only thing that saved them and the St. Louis Rams was quite possibly the poorest level of play since the NFC was formed in 1970.
No one, from coach Mike Tice on down, even tried to hide the shame and humiliation associated with the Vikings' second straight second-half collapse.
But when the Green Bay-Minnesota pairing was determined, a call to arms was stirred within every Vikings player.
Most oddsmakers wouldn't know it. Many blind Packers fans don't get it. And some Packers players don't understand it, either.
But the truth of this upper Midwest rivalry is quite simple. The Vikings detest the Packers.
The Vikings have loathed their neighbors since the Packers got good in 1992, or the same year that chippy Dennis Green took the Vikings coaching job and made every game against Green Bay something personal.
Minnesotans can't stand the Packers watering holes in the Twin Cities. They don't like having thousands of Cheeseheads infiltrating the Metrodome year after year when the series moves inside. And some want to regurgitate reading the stories on the Packers written all season long by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer billeted in Green Bay six months of the year.
That type of "foreign" coverage is unprecedented in NFL cities, but then again the Minnesota-Green Bay rivalry is one of a kind, too.
Here are the Vikings, hailing from one of the most livable and scenic cities in America, and there are the Packers, located in a paper-mill river town that would be hard to distinguish from another Peoria or Youngstown were it not for its NFL franchise.
But, and this grates on the Vikings, it's the Packers who have just about every advantage in terms of what it takes to run a successful franchise.
Better stadium. Better revenue. Better ownership. Better practice facilities. Better medical facilities. Better weight room. Better video department. Better salaries for coaches and staff. Better office space.
Basically, better everything.
And Packers fans being the tunnel-visioned lot that they are, those who support the Purple four months of the year get to listen to them brag about Brett Favre, "historic" Lambeau Field and anything else Packers 365 days a year.
Professional football players of today might live in their own sealed environments and easily can immunize themselves from fandom, talk radio and the like. But it's tougher to do if you're a Vikings player and there's green and gold clothing, chatter and coverage just about every place you turn.
Quite frankly, the Vikings are fed up to here every time "Green Bay" or "at Green Bay" appears on their schedule.
For the Vikings, there is no rival other than the Packers. Before the Vikings' birth in 1961, Minnesota watched the Packers on television every Sunday. Those allegiances pass from generation to generation and still intensify the rivalry.
For the Packers, the Bears are and probably always will be No. 1 because they've played 40 years longer. The Vikings are No. 2, which is an enormous problem for coach Mike Sherman.
"When I first arrived in Green Bay I was surprised the intensity here didn't quite match the intensity over there," said Mike Eayrs, the Packers director of research and development since March 2001 who held the same job with the Vikings for 16 years before that. "Obviously, I saw it the first time we played the Bears.
"Maybe half a dozen times in my 20 years in the NFL did I know we'd win before we took the field. One was that December day in 2001 before we played the Bears, who were (13-3) that year. I was in our locker room and I saw how confident and focused guys like Bernardo (Harris) and Nate Wayne were. It occurred to me that this game means more to them than probably any other."
Green wanted nothing more than to beat his former colleague in San Francisco, Mike Holmgren. And the combustible Tice, his long-time offensive line coach, didn't need any personal animosity to get jacked for Green Bay.
The Vikings went 2-3 in Wisconsin from 1992-'96 under Green, but the only time they truly were destroyed was in '96, although that 38-10 game was 10-10 at halftime.
Since then, the Vikings have made eight appearances at Lambeau Field and, amazingly enough, played an above-average to exceptional game every time. When Tice said Monday, "It probably couldn't work out better because the one thing we do when we play Green Bay is we play loose," he was being only too honest.
There is too much history here. The Vikings lay eggs everywhere else around the NFL but not in Green Bay, where their pent-up fury against a bitter enemy frequently carries them to new heights. Meanwhile, the Packers haven't played a great game at home against the Vikings since '96.
In the last eight meetings at Lambeau, the Packers have been favored seven times and own a 6-2 record, but attesting to the Vikings' level of play is their 6-2 mark against the spread. The only times the Packers beat the line was 1999, when Favre's 23-yard touchdown pass to Corey Bradford with 12 seconds provided a 23-20 victory, and 2000, when Antonio Freeman's 43-yard miracle catch in overtime provided a 26-20 victory.
The last game that Green coached for the Vikings occurred Dec. 30, 2001, on a 19-degree afternoon. The injury-ravaged Vikings, a 13 1 /2-point underdog and out of the playoffs for the first time since '95, dominated play and led well in the fourth quarter before Mike McKenzie returned an interception by Spergon Wynn for a touchdown.
The next December, the Vikings were a 9 1/2-point underdog on an 11-degree Sunday night and going nowhere with a 3-9 record. Still, they led, 19-6, in the third quarter before the Packers overcame a rash of their own injuries and prevailed, 26-22.
Last season, the rededication game at renovated Lambeau quickly turned into a boo-fest when the Vikings assumed a 27-3 lead in the third quarter before settling for a 30-25 victory.
And eight weeks ago, the 4-point underdog Vikings overcame a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie the score before losing on Ryan Longwell's last-second field goal that closely followed Ben Steele's disputed fumble recovery.
The Vikings have fielded lousy defenses for about a decade but you wouldn't know it by how they've swarmed to the football at Lambeau. That's always a litmus test for how ready a team is, so if Ahman Green goes nowhere in his first few carries you'll know what's happening.
"We've beaten them twice but only by three points," Sherman said early in the week. "We're equal in talent. I think at this point in the season your passion and will to win takes over."
Unless Tice really has lost this team, the Vikings have demonstrated a fire for the rivalry that surpasses what the Packers have shown and can be expected to demonstrate it again.
The other intriguing thing Sherman said Monday was that he felt as good about this year's team entering the playoffs as he did about last year's. He didn't say the '04 team was as good as the '03 team, but if he had the evidence wouldn't have added up.
At this time a year ago the Packers had Mike McKenzie at left cornerback, a healthier Grady Jackson at nose tackle, Mike Flanagan at center, Robert Ferguson at wide receiver, a healthy 1-2 punch of Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport to pound the ball and Josh Bidwell to handle the punting.
Where are the Packers better this season?
Javon Walker and Donald Driver are improved, but they weren't exactly chopped liver at the end of '03, either. Other than that, there have been no significant upgrades.
Aside from all the babble about destiny, angels and fate, those '03 Packers were a formidable club that could count three teams with winning records among its 10 victims. The '04 Packers didn't beat anybody better than 8-8.
Three days after the divisional defeat in Philadelphia, when Sherman blew it by punting on fourth on 1 and his defense short-circuited on fourth and 26, the coach promised that another golden playoff opportunity would be presented to the Packers sooner than later.
Now that opportunity is here. Forget about what the Eagles have done the last two weeks; Andy Reid knows full well what he's doing. But without Terrell Owens, Reid also knows he can be beaten at home.
The Packers should win this game because of the matchup between their stellar offense against a lame Vikings' defense that will sorely miss safety Corey Chavous. They are healthy for this of year, 32-4 at home in December and January since 1992 (counting playoffs) and playing a team that is riding a 2-20 streak outdoors.
But, said Mike Eayrs, "My greatest fear is not enough people in this organization realize they (the Vikings) will crank it up three notches."
If that storm warning isn't heeded, it's likely Sherman will be saddled with a devastating defeat for the fourth consecutive post-season.