The picture represents what Brett Favre and every Viking fan wanted. Or maybe it represents what Ted Thompson and every Packer fan feared.
Instead, football fans in general are rewarded with what promises to be a much better division battle. It starts tonight at Lambeau Field, and it is a good idea to break down every battle within the battle to see who has the edge.
Packers pass offense vs. Vikings pass defense: Last year, the Vikings struggled in pass defense. What they mostly lacked was a pass rush, but adding perennial sack-leader Jarred Allen will resolve that. Their backfield is led by ball-hawking safety and former Packer Darren Sharper, but their corners are average.
The Packers were among the league leaders in fewest sacks allowed, and expect to be missing only one player from that bunch. Brett Favre may have been more decisive (including some bad decisions) but was less mobile than Aaron Rodgers.
Furthermore, they have if anything upgraded one of the league's best receiving corps with the addition of top pick Jordy Nelson, who despite being considered arguably the best receiver in the draft, will be fourth on the Packers depth chart. This makes Green Bay's five receiver set hard for anyone to cover because no one is that deep at corner.
However, it would be naive not to think that there will be more of a learning curve for Rodgers, who needs to get used to reading coverages and blitzes and develop a rapport with his receivers. This mitigates almost the entire advantage.
Result: slight edge to the Packers
Packers rush offense vs. Vikings rush defense: The Packers found their rushing attack in the second half of last season with Ryan Grant emerging as the second most productive back in the league during that stretch, behind Ubermensch Ladanian Tomlinson. However, it would be naive not to think that part of the reason for this was the Packers' ability to throw the ball successfully in the first half of the season, and teams keying on legendary quarterback Brett Favre.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt as to the dominance of the Vikings run defense. They held the #1 status even at a point in the season in which they had a losing record, meaning teams were running the ball to try to milk the clock more than with the average team. Moreover, adding Allen should also improve that aspect of the unit, since Allen is a solid run-stuffer, too. The Packers ran pretty well on Minnesota in their 34-0 drubbing late in the year, but that was basically an aberration.
Result: huge edge for the Vikings
Packers pass defense vs. Vikings pass offense: The Packers pass defense has struggled in the preseason because they have not fielded their full compliment. However, they are expected to be back at nearly full strength, and this unit was tough to play when healthy last year. They were torched by Dallas in the regular season, but were without a corner and a lineman. If you take that game out, they would certainly have been in the top quarter of the league, and their young players are only getting better.
The Vikings return the 28th-ranked passer in the league, and while their receiving corps has been upgraded, it is still below average. If Bernard Berrian is where you are resting your hope, you are in trouble--he is at best a #2 option, and would be fourth on the Packers depth chart. The offensive line, coupled with Tarvaris Jackson's legs, should help neutralize the Packers formidable pass rush, but Minnesota will have trouble moving the ball.
Result: huge edge for the Packers
Packers rush defense vs. Vikings rush offense: Everyone knows what the Packers are up against. Adrian Peterson is already one of the best running backs in the game before he has taken a regular season snap in his second year. His offensive line may be hurt a bit by the suspension of Bryan McKinnie for violating the league's substance abuse policy, but they are still a strong enough front to carve holes in good defenses.
However, the Packers seem to be a bit stouter against the run than last season, and did well against Peterson in their two matchups in 2007. They have linebackers who can fill those holes the Vikings carve, even if AJ Hawk does miss this start, and they will be able to load up and dare the Vikings to pass. The Vikings will have some success running the ball, but will not be able to do it at will.
Result: slight edge to the Vikings
Packers special teams vs. Vikings special teams: The Packers dropped a solid punter and enter with an unknown. Recently, the Pack has had a lacking return game and solid coverage unit; they appear to have upgraded the former with Nelson. They also boast one of the best kickers in the league.
I used to tease my wife all the time by asking her after every clutch field goal, "have I thanked you lately for Ryan Longwell?" since he was cut by her San Francisco Forty-Niners. Now he makes those clutch kicks for the Vikings--kharma is a b-otch! However, he couldn't kick a ball deep from a tee with Hurricane Ike at his back, and I don't see any significant other edge for wither team with this unit.
Result: possibly a slight edge to the Packers
Intangibles: This is also hard to gauge. The Packers have home field, but that has actually not been much of an advantage for them under Mike McCarthy. Last year they were 8-2 at home (including the playoffs) and 6-2 on the road. The year before, they had a MUCH better road record than home. Add to that the possible outcome from all the fake Packers fans who want Rodgers to fail because they wanted Favre to play, and it could get ugly if he struggles early. Finally, bad weather could help the power running game of the Vikings.
Result: possibly a slight edge to the Vikings
Now for the Wisconsin-bred Violent Femmes song title: "Add it Up!" Both teams have one huge edge (to the defense, so expect it to be low a scoring game), one slight edge, and one possible slight edge.
So why am I going to pick the Packers in this game, but have already picked the Vikings for the division? Because I do not believe the Vikings are going to beat the Packers twice, so this is the more logical game for them to lose, and the Vikings get a second-place schedule which pits them up against the Cardinals instead of the Seahawks and the Giants instead of the Cowboys.
But the Giants won the Superbowl and beat the Cowboys in the playoffs. Yeah, but the Giants lost too much from their defensive front and the Cowboys upgraded with another criminal who can play football--if he stays clean, they are the team to beat in the NFC (although I have them being beaten by New Orleans).
Okay, but the Cardinals looked good yesterday and the Seahawks didn't. True, but the Cards were only playing the Niners, a team with a much less talented first time starting quarterback than Rodgers is and a recent penchant for giving the game away. I have no explanation of the Seahawks loss to the Bills.