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The Fight For First Place: Round Two

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Some are calling it the "Game of the Century". Others are calling it the "Hostile Homecoming". Still others are calling it "Favre-Packers v.2.0".

Me? I call it Week 9 of the NFL season.

Admittedly, our opponent this week is eerily similar to the team that handed Green Bay its second loss of the season. We know this team very well, and the only major change is the injury to their star cornerback. Therefore, the actual matchup preview will be abbreviated. Those of you who hate my lengthy previews: commence rejoycing.

MIN rushing vs. GB defense: Adrian Peterson is still scary-good, as is the offensive line that blocks for him. Phil Loadholt has been somewhat hampered by a few nagging injuries, as had Steve Hutchinson, but both seem to be back to normal now. Peterson's rushing stats have actually been underwhelming in 2009, putting up yardage totals of 85, 55, 63, and 69 in four of the last five weeks.

Green Bay gets a major boost to its rush defense compared to the week 4 version of the team now that Atari Bigby is healthy and playing. The defensive line has also been playing well; B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins have managed to get consistent penetration and break up plays as they develop. The linebackers, most notably A.J. Hawk, have been streaky, but I attribute that more to having a surplus of contributors (Hawk, Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, Aaron Kampman, and Clay Matthews) and a vast array of sub packages.

Advantage: Still Minnesota, but not as much as before.

MIN passing vs. GB defense: Well, Brett Favre is not playing the same way he did to start the season. He's thrown 79 passes in the last two games, including 50 in last week's incredibly fluky loss to Pittsburgh. He has shown the ability to make any throw at any time, including the deep ball, where he puts it in a place where only his receiver can adjust and catch the football.

Minnesota's receiving corps is somewhat of a question mark. Bernard Berrian is dealing with hamstring problems, Percy Harvin is dealing with illness/shoulder issues (isn't he always?), leaving 2009 breakout Sidney Rice and 2008 Playgirl centerfold Visanthe Shiancoe as the main passing targets. I'd include Chester Taylor on this list, but he nearly got decapitated trying to catch a wildly-overpowered bullet dropped a short screen pass that led to the Vikes' first loss.

Besides Atari Bigby's return, the most important development between Week 4 and now is Dom Capers' realization that Aaron Kampman is effective out of a three-point stance. By shifting him to end on passing downs, Capers has enormous flexibility with his nickel and dime packages. Remember when we saw Kampman in coverage on the play where Favre had 8+ seconds to find a receiver? Don't expect to see that again.

Advantage: Minnesota, if you go by the numbers, but Green Bay has closed the gap.

GB rushing vs. MIN defense: Goodbye 2008 Ryan Grant, hello 2007 Ryan Grant. After seemingly endless questions regarding his ability, his fit in Green Bay, and the deservedness of his contract, Grant had his first breakout game in seemingly forever. This doesn't mean the questions don't still stand, but at least we know he is still capable of what got him his money in the first place. Brandon Jackson takes the place of oft-injured DeShawn Wynn, and might be a better fit as a change-of-pace back.

The offensive line looks much different than it did in the previous meeting, most notably with T.J. Lang likely filling in for Chad Clifton (re-aggravated ankle injury) at LT and Scott Wells possibly taking over for Jason Spitz (back injury). Wells has a huge chip on his shoulder after losing the job to Spitz in pre-season, and Lang has something to prove as a rookie protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side from The Mullet. Combined with the potential availability of Mark Tauscher, the offensive line is nebulous, to say the least.

Minnesota has regained the notorious run defense that made them famous earlier in the decade, coming in at 5th in the league. Pat Williams' decline has seemed to have stalled for the time being, and the Vikings have avoided major injury to crucial players in their front seven (E.J. Henderson is the only starter listed any lower than questionable).

Advantage: Minnesota by a considerable margin.

GB passing vs. MIN defense: Aaron Rodgers is surpassing more expectations than anyone could have reasonably laid out for him. Every notable stat in the NFL has Rodgers among the leaders. First in yards per attempt (9.3), second in QB rating (110.8), tied for third for fewest interceptions (2), sixth in yards per game (283.7), and eighth in completion percentage (65.8).

Donald Driver has been crucial to Rodgers' success, as the 34-year old receiver leads the team in catches (27) and yards (479), not to mention sick one-handed grabs while his other hand is held by a defender (two). Greg Jennings has been unusually quiet in the first half of the season, and James Jones had to overcome a rough start before he got back on track. The absence of Jordy Nelson and (likely) Jermichael Finley puts more pressure on Donald Lee and Jake Allen, newly-promoted off the practice squad.

Minnesota leads the league in sacks with 25. That statistic is more than enough testament to their talent against the pass. However, with Antoine Winfield dealing with a foot sprain, he may or may not be available for Sunday, and likely won't be 100% if he does play. Karl Paymah and Benny Sapp will team up to replace Winfield's presence, and it's highly likely they won't come close.

Advantage: Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers put up his best statistical game of the season despite getting sacked 8 times. If he gets that number cut by half, it will be a long day for fans of the purple squad.

Preliminary verdict: This game is easily the most important game for Green Bay of the season. I cannot imagine a way for Green Bay to remain relevant in the playoff picture if this game ends up putting the Packers at 4-3. The second tier of NFC teams is too good to risk going for a wild-card berth, especially when the team is only 1.5 games out of first place in the division.

If Green Bay wants to win, they need to do three simple things. They are, in no particular order,

  1. Run directly at Jared Allen. Pull guards, lead with Quinn Johnson, double team him. As a smaller DE, he is less effective against the run, and if there's any hope of stifling his pass rush, it's making him tired early in the game.
  2. Test the Minnesota safeties. With Winfield possibly out and definitely limited, Madieu Williams takes the brunt of the coverage duties. That is a weakness worth exploiting.
  3. Wrap, swarm, and strip AP. Clay Matthews' signature play of his young career is the strip-fumble TD of Adrian Peterson. That might not happen again, but the gang tackling and proper mechanics must if the defense expects to limit Peterson's production.
All of these things must happen in order for Green Bay to win. Not one, not two, but all three. If Jared Allen gets after Rodgers, thus preventing Rodgers from throwing downfield, and Minnesota keeps the ball by using Peterson to chew up the clock, the Vikings will have this game in the bag.

I have no idea how this will play out. I'm certain it will be as entertaining as it will be hard-fought. There's no love lost between these two teams (not to mention their respective quarterbacks), and I expect nothing but the maximum effort from both.

That being said, let's get 'em.