Looking back on the Christmas Eve match-up between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings, you could really say it was a tale of two halves for the Green Bay defense. And if things go as planned for the Packer defenders Sunday, they will put together two halves in close resemblance to the final 30 minutes at the Metrodome.
After a lackluster performance in the first half that saw Daunte Culpepper throw three touchdown passes and open a 21-17 halftime lead with some help from poor tackling by the Packers, Bob Slowik's defense made the necessary adjustments during intermission to slow Minnesota down considerably.
Using primarily a cover-two scheme, Culpepper - who had completed passes of 38, 42, and 68 yards in the first half - was able to complete just one pass to his wide receivers after halftime (an 18-yarder to Randy Moss in the fourth quarter), and was forced to settle for underneath passes to his backs and tight ends.
The strategy worked well for the Packers, holding the high-powered Minnesota offense to just three points in the second half of the 34-31 victory. But don't expect the Packers to rely on just the cover-two to beat the Vikings for the third straight time Sunday.
GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman knows that it wasn't only the scheme that was effective in stopping Minnesota two weeks ago, but the improved play of the players carrying out that scheme.
"I just thought we kept things in front of us and the jam on the receivers helped us," Sherman said of the improved second half showing. "There's no secret to any coverage. It's the execution the players employ. If we missed tackles in the second half, then we wouldn't have been as successful. But we tackled better, we executed better.
"Cover-two is not the answer for Minnesota, trust me. They are a very potent offensive football team and they've beaten our cover-two before many times. It's being able to execute your assignments in the coverages that are called and the fronts that are called."
Cornerback Al Harris agreed with his coach, saying that the home team will definitely have to mix up their coverages to extend their season by another week.
"If that was the case, everybody would line up and play cover-two against them," answered Harris when asked if cover-two was the secret to beating the Vikings. "You can't pinpoint, you've just got to mix it up and do what you do well.
"It doesn't matter what we play. I've seen teams play cover-two against them and Moss killed them. So it doesn't really matter what you play, you've just got to be effective in whatever it is that you do."
Linebacker Nick Barnett feels that if he and his teammates concentrate, the tackling woes they experienced early on the last meeting between these two rivals shouldn't show up again.
"Everybody knows how to tackle," said Barnett. "All we have to do is focus on the fundamentals of tackling. I think early in the game we got away from that and we missed a couple tackles and put ourselves in bad positions to miss tackles. So we have to put ourselves in good positions and just work on fundamentals and I think we'll be OK."
Although much of the talk surrounding the defense this week has been about schemes and execution, veteran safety Darren Sharper thinks that when it comes to the playoffs, whichever team shows the most heart usually comes out on top.
"It's going to come down to who wants it more," said Sharper. "We have a little advantage I would hope, being that we're at home. And we're coming off a win, so hopefully those factors will be in our favor. But I really think it's going to come down to who wants it more, who wants to make more plays Sunday, who's going to make the bigger plays and is going to pull deeper within themselves to come out and play better."
Whatever the key to the game will be, Barnett is confident that the defense can get the job done.
"I think we can hold up our end of the deal," the linebacker said. "We had a little trouble earlier in the season and we've still got work to do, but we'll do fine. Hopefully we'll play a solid game, up to our potential and I think our potential is up there. If we play up to that, no one can beat us."