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Ground Game Could Determine Division


Heading into a contest that has taken on the role of the NFC North Division championship game, you could easily expect to see plenty of high-flying passing action.

After all, the last time the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings got together November 14 in a 34-31 shootout won by the home team at Lambeau Field, quarterbacks Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper combined to throw for 599 yards and all eight of the afternoon's touchdowns.

Throw in the fact that the game will be played in the climate-controlled comfort of the Metrodome, unlike the frigid, blustery conditions the Packers have faced in the last two weeks, and that neither team has particularly excelled in stopping their opponents from throwing the ball this season (Green Bay ranks 25th in the NFL in pass defense, Minnesota 27th), and it would perfectly reasonable to expect another aerial display.

However, taking a second look at the stat sheet from their previous meeting, it becomes clear why many in the Green Bay locker room this week have made it clear that if they are going to escape Minneapolis with the division crown, they will need to get the job done running the football.

In the teams' first get-together, Ahman Green had one of his best games of the season. The seventh-year back, who was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance Wednesday, ran for 145 yards on 21 carries, picking up nearly seven yards each time he ran against the Vikings.

Two of the Green and Gold's three additional Pro Bowl selections are a large factor in why the run game should play a large role in Friday's outcome. Fullback William Henderson, who has been the lead blocker for 1,000-yard rushers in each of the past six seasons, will be going to Honolulu at season's end, along with right guard Marco Rivera.

Favre believes that getting the running game going early will be essential for the Packers' success on the road Friday.

"When you can run the ball, I think you can limit their ability to just pin their ears back and come at you," Favre said. "If you fall behind and you have to throw every snap, you're playing right into not only Minnesota's hands, but anyone's.

"You have to be able to come out and control the pass rush and the number one way to do that is by running the football. If they're focused more on the run game, then it opens up some passing options for you, especially play-action and play-pass. I still think that's the key for us, not only in this game but on the road in general - to run the football."

GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman agreed, saying his team has had their best games in the hostile environs of the Metrodome when they've been effective on the ground.

"We've certainly tried to use that as a piece of the formula," Sherman said. "Sometimes it doesn't end up that way, but we are a team that does like to run the football. We've had our best success over there when we've been able to establish the run game, there's no question about that."

Green thinks the high-octane passing attack his team sports should help open things up for the running attack.

"We'll definitely be able to pass the ball a lot better being indoors, so that will be one factor that will help us out," Green said.

In a game contested by teams that see each other frequently and know each other so well, guard Mike Wahle believes it's going to come down to whichever team can do what they do best when it counts.

"We're going to go out there and run the plays that we run best, get back to running some of the stuff that maybe we haven't run in a couple weeks that is kind of our bread and butter," said the lineman. "Obviously they're going to practice against that stuff, but we're not going to pull any punches this week. We're going to give them our best shot and they're going to give us theirs and we'll see what happens."

This game will certainly be hotly contested, and if the Packers are able to emerge with their third straight NFC North title, don't be surprised if they avoid the shootout and get it done in grind-it-out fashion.

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