Nick Barnett is among them

Nick Barnett is among them

The Green Bay Packers are three-point favorites going into their contest with the Minnesota Vikings this weekend. Since the Packers are playing in Lambeau Field, that line simply means that the oddsmakers feel these two teams are evenly matched.

Still, this season’s history says the Vikings are the better team. The Vikings are 6-1 to the Packers’ 4-2. The Vikings beat the Packers 31-24 in week four.

This weekend’s matchup will be different, however. Here’s why.

Momentum and confidence – The Packers didn’t have either the first time these teams met, but they do now. After their bye week, the Packers ran off two impressive victories. Granted, those wins came against two very bad teams, but the Packers mauled those two teams like a good football team should, winning by a combined score of 57-3.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy spoke to the confidence factor in his Monday news conference.

“Our confidence is high, and it damn well should be. We’re growing as a football team. We’re coming forward with the targets we’re trying to hit. I think we’re definitely from a preparation standpoint, it’s looking the way you want it to look week in and week out.”

Meanwhile, the Vikings are going in the opposite direction. After narrowly escaping with 33-31 home victory against the Baltimore Ravens after Ravens kicker Steve Hauschka missed a 44-yard-game-winning field goal, the Vikings lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a hard-fought contest, 27-17. While the Vikings aren’t going to lose focus after two tough games, they are coming back to earth a little bit and the momentum, especially playing at home, and confidence will clearly be leaning toward the Packers’ side of the field this week.

The Packers defense is gelling – The Packers defensive line has been solid all season behind the play of Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly, but in recent weeks, the rest of the defense has shown major improvements.

Outside linebacker Aaron Kampman has had two sacks in the last two games since coordinator Dom Capers started using him in his customary three-point stance. Kampman’s emergence goes hand in hand with the emergence of the Packers linebackers as a whole. Nick Barnett finally seems completely comfortable on his surgically repaired knee and is showing the playmaking ability he hasn’t demonstrated since 2007. Clay Matthews’ insertion into the starting lineup has given the defense a spark.

The secondary has always been strong on the corners with Charles Woodson, who continues to be dominant, and Al Harris, but the return of safety Atari Bigby from injury has made the secondary whole. With Bigby back, the Packers have flexibility with their safeties. Bigby can play up against the run, allowing Nick Collins to stay deep in coverage and the team is stronger for it. No more watching Derrick Martin get burned on the deep ball or experimenting with Brandon Chillar as a fifth linebacker.

Simply put, the Packers defense is functioning as the playmaking, potentially-dominant unit that was envisioned when Capers was hired.

Vikings’ key injury – Both teams have injuries, but none is more significant than that of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield. Winfield is one of the top corners in the league, and while there are conflicting reports about the severity of his injury, Winfield is definitely hurt. Several news outlets have reported Winfield will be out four to six weeks with a foot injury. Winfield has denied that report, saying that he’s day-to-day and will try to play against the Packers. That’s likely just a ploy. It’s doubtful the Vikings top cover man will play on Sunday, and if he does, he’ll be at less than 100 percent.

Winfield’s value to the Vikings is immeasurable. In addition to covering the opposing team’s top receiver, Winfield also supports the run well. Winfield was injured when the Vikings played the Ravens and his presence was missed in that game.

With Winfield out in Week Six, the Ravens attacked the left side of the field, where he normally plays. Ravens RB Ray Rice caught a screen pass and ran 63 yards, setting up a touchdown. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said, “That check-down was a five-yard completion to the side Antoine was on. You don’t think that’s going to happen if he was out there. He was obviously missed. There’s no question about it.”

With Winfield out, there’s more pressure on the Vikings safeties – Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams – and they haven’t always responded well.

Two weeks ago, Johnson whiffed in the open field on a 33-yard touchdown run by Baltimore tailback Ray Rice. Sunday, Williams overran Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace, opening up the middle of the field for a 40-yard touchdown play. Williams tried to stop his momentum, but ultimately blocked Johnson from a tackle opportunity. Johnson and Williams need to break up plays, not extend them, writes ESPN’s Kevin Seifert.

Without Winfield, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers can exploit Minnesota’s secondary.

The defensive results – I could sit here and point out that the Vikings have played three of the worst teams in the NFL – the Browns, Lions and Rams – on their way to 6-1, but the Packers have played those same three teams. Let’s look at those games more closely, though, since they tell a story of the two defenses. Of the three doormats, the Vikings allowed 20 points to Cleveland, 13 to Detroit and 13 to St. Louis. The Packers allowed a total of 20 points to all three opponents (17 of those points came from the Rams).

The Packers have done a better job defensively against common opponents, and that essentially tells the story of the Vikings defense. With or without Winfield, it isn’t as good as advertised.

The Packers defense currently ranks third in the NFL, giving up 271.5 yards per game. The Vikings must still be in the top 10 though, right? Nope. The Vikings rank 17th, giving up 330 yards per game. There are a couple more telling statistics. Yards per play – Packers: 4.5, Vikings: 5.5. Points allowed per game – Packers: 16, Vikings: 21.1.

Right now, I’ll take the Packers defense over the Vikings.

Playcalling – When it comes down to the two geniuses standing on the sidelines on Sunday, this is a battle of wits even Mike McCarthy can win. Vikings coach Brad Childress is one of the dimmest bulbs among NFL head coaches, perhaps even among mentally-challenged toddlers. Childress’ strategy and playcalling is inexplicable.

To wit, despite having the single best player in the NFL, running back Adrian Peterson, Childress chose to pass the ball 50 times in the Vikings’ loss to Pittsburgh. He chose to hand the ball off to Peterson 18 times. I didn’t take Coaching Football 101, but I don’t think that game plan is in the manual.

Or how about the end of the Ravens game? After Brett Favre completed a 58-yard strike to Sidney Rice that put the ball at the Ravens 18 with 2:46 remaining and the Vikings trailing by one, Childress decided to play for the field goal. Peterson ran on the next three plays and the Vikings failed to pick up a first down. Ryan Longwell made a 33-yarder with 1:56 remaining, putting the Vikings up by two, and giving the Ravens, who had destroyed the Vikings defense in the fourth quarter, plenty of hope. Only a missed 44-yard field goal by Ravens kicker Steven Hauschka as time expired saved Childress.

It’s a rare occurrence, but in this coaching battle, advantage: McCarthy.

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