Of all the divisions in the National Football League, the NFC North, or the old 'black and blue' division as the long-standing fans affectionately call it, cares more about its division rivalries and the history of those games than any division in football. All I have to do is mention the Vikings or the Bears look like preseason favorites and Packers fans come out of the woodwork. Well, the Vikings and Packers are not having the greatest of seasons, but you will never be able to tell that if you are at Lambeau Field tonight. These two teams will play like the Super Bowl was on the line.
The Packer backers will forget about a 2-7 record for three hours and focus totally on sending the Vikings back across Wisconsin with their heads down. Brett Favre scrambling around in the pocket and firing a bullet to a receiver for a touchdown against the Vikings means more to these fans than just about anything. For former Packers defensive back and current Viking Darren Sharper, picking off a Favre pass and returning it for a score would be absolutely intolerable to these 'Cheese heads.'
For a taste of the past and a great look at a football town gone wild, this game will deliver a performance no other two teams with losing records could ever hope for around the country.
IF YOU LIKE THE PACKERS, HERE ARE SOME NUGGETS TO KEEP IN MIND
-In their last 28 outdoor games, the Vikings are 4-24.
-Minnesota has lost its last five Monday Night Football games on the road.
-The Packers are 36-5 at home against division opponents.
-Brett Favre has thrown 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the last four games against the Vikings.
-Green Bay is third in the NFL in third-down conversions with 45.3 percent.
-Minnesota only has three rushing touchdowns all year.
-Green Bay beat the Falcons on the road last week and scored 33 points.
-The Packers are fifth in passing yards and the Vikes are 22nd in passing yards allowed.
-The Packers are second in preventing sacks and the Vikings are 26th in getting to the quarterback.
-Green Bay is 10th in total defense; Minnesota is 25th in total offense.
-Finally, Favre has 28 TD passes in his last 11 MNF games.
IF YOU LIKE THE VIKINGS, HERE ARE SOME NUGGETS TO KEEP IN MIND
-The Vikings have already beaten the Packers this year, 23-20.
-The Vikings won outdoors last week against the Giants, which goes against the 4-24 record.
-Sharper had three interceptions and a touchdown last week.
-Brad Johnson has thrown 81 passes without an interception.
-Michael Bennett has two 100-plus-yard rushing games in Green Bay.
-The Packers are 1-3 at home this year.
-Minnesota beat Green Bay 31-17 last year in a playoff game at Lambeau Field.
-The Vikings have only two games left against winning teams and think they can get back in the race.
-Mewelde Moore (leading rusher on the team) is healthy enough to play.
-Starting Packers receiver Robert Ferguson was injured in practice this week.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Green Bay's personnel department deserves a lot of credit for finding Samkon Gado to fill in for all of the injured Packers running backs. Gado was cut from the Chiefs practice squad on Oct. 5; he had two starts in college and very little history except that he intended to go to medical school if football didn't work out for him soon. In the last two Packers games, he has rushed for 165 yards and scored four touchdowns -- medical school can wait.
In Gado, Favre gets a player who can hold the Vikings defense and at least present the idea that play-action pass is part of the offensive package. If the Vikings don't take Gado seriously, then the 26th-ranked run defense will pay with an 80-to-90-yard night from the young kid from Liberty University.
Minnesota has struggled all year against tight ends in the passing game and has allowed nine scores in the red zone to the big receivers. Bubba Franks has always been a favorite target of Favre's and tonight should be no exception at home. I expect Franks to get at least one 'Lambeau Leap' in before the game is over. Packers offensive coordinator Tom Rossley is doing a good job of finding ways to get the one healthy receiver -- Donald Driver -- Favre has open by using motion and different alignments. Vikings corner Fred Smoot will not play and Driver will have some success against the other corners. Antoine Winfield may have to match up on Driver because the popular opinion is that Brian Williams can't get the job done without help.
The matchup of the night will be Favre and Sharper. No one knows Favre better than Sharper after years of practicing against him, but unless the Vikings can mount an improved pass rush, then Favre should win the battle of moving Sharper around with his pump fakes, finding third reads and baiting him with play-action.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Vikings backup QB Johnson is now under center for the injured Daunte Culpepper. And the best way to describe the situation is that Johnson has stabilized the ship for Minnesota (sorry about that boat analogy, Vikings fans). There was no doubt that Culpepper was struggling all season with the loss of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and wide receiver Randy Moss. Johnson actually is doing a better job and needs little help from the coaches or a star receiver to read the coverages and deliver the ball to the right receiver. The problem for Johnson is he is being sacked once every nine pass attempts. When you consider Favre is being sacked once every 33 pass attempts, there is a significant advantage for the Packers.
The Vikings offensive line will struggle to protect Johnson and last week it also proved once again it struggles to run block. Bennett rushed for 16 yards on 19 carries against the Giants. Moore is back from a wrist injury and he is an upgrade as a runner/receiver, but the underrated Packers defense under coordinator Jim Bates is eighth in the league in rushing average. Bates and his no-name unit held the mighty Falcons running game in check last week and this matchup is not as much of a challenge.
Green Bay defensive tackles Grady Jackson and Cullen Jenkins are playing the run very well and they will clog up the inside. As for the pass rush, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Aaron Kampman will get to Johnson. He is a true pocket passer and the launch point for 90 percent of the Vikings passes will be four yards behind the center. Gbaja-Biamila will get to that point a few times tonight before the ball is thrown. The biggest area of concern for the Packers defense should be the corners on wide receivers Nate Burleson and rookie Troy Williamson. It appears that when Johnson was the backup QB, he developed a nice chemistry with Williamson, who can fly. Tonight, I expect at least 10 deep balls thrown by the experienced Johnson to his young wide receivers looking for the big play, because he knows his team can't sustain long drives and the Packers corners are beatable.
I came into this season thinking the Vikings had done enough in the offseason to overtake the Packers for the division title. Nothing has gone right for Vikings coach Mike Tice and his team. The Packers and Vikings have had the last four regular-season games come down to a field goal. In the last three matchups, the games came down to a field goal as time expired -- the Vikings won the most recent game on a 56-yard kick by Paul Edinger. There's no reason to think this game will not end up at the end of a kicker's shoe, but this time I'll take Packers kicker Ryan Longwell. If the Packers jump out to a 17-0 lead, like they did in Minnesota on Oct. 23, they will not blow the lead and could actually win by more than three points.
Do a win here and two games left against the Bears mean the Packers are also still alive?
Probably not, but the only guy who can pull it off is Brett Favre!