Friday, December 24, 2004

Disinterested Interest?

Despite the ramifications, it is difficult to get too excited about today's Vikings'-Packers' game. A Vikings' victory means that the Vikings win the NFC North and play at home in the first round of the playoffs. A Vikings' loss means that the Vikings still will probably make the playoffs but that any Vikings' first round game will be on the road.

The Vikings stand a good chance of defeating the Packers today at the Metrodome. And I am far from the only party to believe this to be the case. Vikings fans sense a victory is in the offing, odds makers have the Vikings as minus 3, and even the Packers' coaching staff seem to believe that they are in for defeat. In his weekly press conference, Packers' head coach Mike Sherman sounded desperate when speaking of this contest in the wake of Green Bay's demoralizing home loss last week to the Jacksonville Jaguars. "We need to find a way to win that game," the coach somberly stated, hardly eliciting much cause de celebre in Packerland.

But do we truly have any more reason to get overly excited in Viking country? Not really.

The Vikings ought to win today. Some consider that a reason for celebration. But if the Vikings win today, they enter the playoffs as the number three or four seed. That means that the Vikings likely will host Seattle, St. Louis, Green Bay, or a team coming off of a winning streak into the playoffs. How would the Vikings fair against any of that competition? Seattle has already beaten Minnesota, St. Louis always beats Minnesota, Green Bay seems to pull out the games that most matter against Minnesota, and a team on a winning streak usually has an edge against this version of the Vikings.

But I will leave for later the even more sobering possibilities should the Vikings emerge victorious from the first round of the playoffs. Because, at least for a day, I will bask in the pre-glow of what should be a Vikings' victory over the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve.

Friday's Tilt

When the Vikings and Packers last met, the Packers emerged with a 34-31 victory, on the strength of a solid kicking game, an adept two-minute offense, solid quarterback play, and the generosity that was the blindness of an NFL-officiating crew. But even more important in sealing the Vikings' fate in the last match-up of these two teams was the weakness of the Vikings' defense. There will be significant differences in personnel this week, however, differences that should tilt the game in the Vikings' favor.

Unpack the Bags

The first difference between this week's game and the Vikings' last game at Lambeau Field is that this game is at the Metrodome. The Packers mostly have played horribly at the Dome, with a record of 2-4 in the past six seasons under Brett Favre. Many of the Vikings' wins have been routes. Although the Vikings have not exactly held serve on their home field this season--losing to the Giants and Seahawks in games in which the Vikings were even bigger favorites than they are against the Packers today--neither the Giants or Seahawks can be counted on to go down for the count upon entering the Dome.

But while the home field advantage is admittedly less of an advantage for the Purple this year than it has been in past seasons, there are other distinctions between the game today and November's game at Lambeau that favor the Vikings. And each of these advantages has a name.

Randy Moss

In the November match-up between NFC North rivals, Randy Moss was unavailable due to a hamstring injury. Nevertheless, Daunte Culpepper threw for 363 yards and four TDs. In Moss' absence, Culpepper's favorite target was Nate Burleson, who caught 11 passes for 141 yards.

In today's game, Culpepper will not only have Burleson, but also Moss, who appears nearly fully recovered from his hamstring injury. Moss' 82-yard TD reception last week should frighten the secondary-challenged Packers, who are certain to play cover-two and three against Moss, lest they be burned early and often for long TDs. And that should open up the field for Burleson, and maybe even for Marcus Robinson and Kelly Campbell.

Am I the only one licking my chops at the prospect of Ahmad Carroll "helping" in coverage?

Jermaine Wiggins

Moss' presence will not only leave Burleson in single--perhaps even in a virtual no-coverage zone--but also should leave Jermaine Wiggins wide open in the flat the entire day. The key for the Vikings is to use Moss and Burleson to clear out space for Wiggins. Typically, the linebackers cover the tight end. But Wiggins has proven that he is not the typical tight end, and the Packers have proven that their linebackers are below the standard for a typical cover linebacker. The mismatch that Wiggins creates, particularly in the 10-15 yard range, is a potential nightmare II in the making for the Packers. The only hope for the Packers against Wiggins is that the Vikings simply fail to call Wiggins' number or that the officials permit the Packers to mug Wiggins, neither of which is entirely unlikely.

Kevin Williams

In the first ten games this season, Kevin Williams had 6 sacks and 41 tackles, for an average of .6 sacks and 4.1 tackles per game. In the last four games, Williams has recorded 4 sacks and 19 tackles, for an average of 1 sack and 4.75 tackles per game. Largely on the strength of this uptick in defensive performance, Williams earned his firt trip to the Pro Bowl in just his second season. Williams should help stop the Packers' running game and put pressure on the suddenly vulnerable Favre. And that could give the Vikings' just enough defense to keep ahead of the Packers' offense.

Spencer Johnson

Williams should receive help from the Vikings' mid-season find, tackle Spencer Johnson. Johnson, who split time in the first Vikings'-Packers' match-up with Chris Hovan, is now the full-time starter. Johnson appears to be a significant upgrade over Hovan, eclipsing Hovan's season tackle totals even though inactive for the first seven games of the season, and should help draw double coverage away from Williams. Additionally, at 6-3, 286 pounds, Johnson offers fair quickness, combined with height, range, and girth, all of which allows him to block passes at the line, put pressure on the quarterback, and stuff the run--things that Hovan has not done for the past two seasons.

Mewelde Moore

Mewelde Moore's season essentially started when he was named the starter at running back against the Houston Texans. In his debut, Moore rushed for 92 yards on 20 carries for a 4.6-yard average. In his next two games, Moore rushed 35 times for 237 yards, a 6.8-yard average. With that, Moore looked to be quite a find.

But against the Giants, the Vikings assumed an early and large deficit and Moore carried just 9 times for 29 yards. The following week, Moore was inactive. Vikings' head coach Mike Tice insisted that Moore's status was the result of injury. Moore had no comment. For the next six weeks, Moore was inactive, Tice claimed Moore was injured, and Moore had no comment.

Against the Lions in week 15, with Burleson and Campbell struggling to return kicks, Tice started Moore as the return man. And Moore dazzled. If not for a phantom call on a 62-yard return, Moore easily would have had the best stat lines of the day. As it was, Moore's stats were merely refreshing, as was his up-field, hard running approach on kick/punt returns. And where Moore succeeded against the purportedly strong Detroit cover teams, he should flourish against the less capable Packers' coverage teams, which should only emboldened a well-positioned Vikings' offense and create more nightmares for an already suspect Packers' defense.

Many Happy Returns

Along with the new faces and improved play of certain Vikings' players, the Vikings welcome back two significant players this week, Matt Birk and Antoine Winfield. Birk should help settle what has become an erratic offensive line and allow the Vikings to use fewer two tight end sets. That will allow the Vikings to employ more three-receiver sets, stretch the field more, and provide Daunte more time by forcing the Packers to limit their blitzing.

Winfield's return, though no panacea for the weak secondary, is better than the alternative of Derek Ross. At a minimum, Winfield poses an obstacle to Favre. Ross could not make anywhere near the same claim. Unfortunately, Ross' release earlier this week will mean that his replacement, Rushen Jones, will be required to play in dime situations, and the Packers can dictate dime coverage--because Tice and Cotrell refuse to deviate from how others play defense--by using three-receiver sets. Even without the injured Robert Ferguson, the Packers will be able to put a sufficient specimen of a human being on the field to beat Jones. And, if I were the Packers, I would use that set and that play until the cows came home. At least in the dime, Jones will have some help as the secondary cover man in most situations. And that is better than what the Vikings had to deal with when Winfield was out. Of course, that all assumes that Winfield is even healthy enough to play in the base set.


I offer no prediction today except to predict that whichever team wins today's game will win the NFC North. And that tells you just how confident I am in the abilities of either of these two teams, either today or in the near future.

Up Next: First Half Analysis.

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