The Packers and Vikings both won their season openers. That’s about the only thing they have in common.
The Packers-Vikings rivalry promises to reach new heights this season, so it was with great interest that I watched the Vikings play the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon. With the Packers playing a night game, it was the perfect opportunity to check the pulse of both teams as the 2009 season kicked off.
While I learned a lot, there was a lot that I didn’t learn. In many ways, these two games were about as different as two NFL games could be. The Vikings played a bad team from another conference, on the road, while the Packers played a respectable division rival at home. The Vikings are still working on their offensive chemistry, thanks to the extended summer vacation of their QB and the addition of a big-time rookie playmaker, while their defense, one of the best in the NFL, remains virtually intact from last season. The Packers, on the other hand, have an offense that is similar to last year’s productive unit, while the defense has undergone a major overhaul in terms of scheme.
It was striking how different the atmosphere was for these two games. The Vikings-Browns game almost had the feel of a preseason contest, while the Bears-Packers game was as intense as any game you will see in the regular season. Both teams handled the challenges in front of them and came away with victories, for which they deserve full credit. And there is a decent chance that they could both be 3-0 when they meet in Minnesota on October 5th. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how these two teams stack up against each other, based on their week one performances.
The two quarterbacks, who were similar in many ways as recently as two years ago, are now very different--and the difference favors the Packers. In Cleveland, Brett Favre looked every bit the “caretaker” quarterback, which is his main role in the Vikings offense, while Aaron Rodgers is much more dynamic. Rodgers is mobile and can throw the ball downfield with accuracy. Although Rodgers had a poor game by his standards, and Favre had a good game by his standards, it was obvious that Rodgers is now the far better QB. Favre has a long way to go to catch up. He should improve as the season goes on, but due to age and lack of practice and conditioning, his game has eroded to the point where he is unlikely to be a top QB in the league again.
Running back is a very different matter. Ryan Grant is decent, while Adrian Peterson is phenomenal. Peterson was held in check for most of the game in Cleveland, but he lived up to his nickname, “All Day,” and was dominant in the fourth quarter. He is a tremendous weapon late in games in which the Vikings are leading, and he is also capable of breaking a game open early.
What will be really interesting is to see how the Vikings conduct a two-minute drill in close games, when Peterson is less of a factor. They had two chances to do this against the Browns, in a close game just before halftime, and both attempts were complete duds. Favre is a sitting duck in passing situations, when the Vikings need to get the ball downfield quickly. At this point in his career, he is almost entirely reliant on his quick release to evade the pass rush, and his lack of familiarity with his receivers has impeded his formerly quick decision-making, at least for now.
The X factor for the Vikings is Percy Harvin. His stat line was not big in his NFL debut, but he already looks like one of those special players who will make an impact on the NFL immediately. His status as a new arrival to the Vikings seems to have helped create a bond with Favre. Like Favre, Harvin is an instinctive player with a lot of schoolyard in him, and the two of them will be appearing together on highlight reels throughout the season, provided that Favre stays healthy.
The Vikings and Packers both have defenses that are fun to watch. The Vikings play a 4-3 scheme, and they play it well, as they have for several years now, while the Packers have a freewheeling blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme. The Vikings were undermatched against a Browns offense that was almost comically inept, with a starting QB who is about as good as Matt Flynn and a star receiver whose propensity to drop passes is becoming legendary. The Packers faced a Bears offense with a top-flight QB who seemed to be in a state of denial of the fact that he does not have top-flight receiving talent. With the Packers shutting down his two biggest weapons, Matt Forte and Greg Olson, Jay Cutler seemed content to just throw the ball downfield and hope for the best.
As the season continues, the Packers and Vikings will both face bigger challenges on defense--but probably not until they play each other. Before then, the Vikings will go up against the Lions and 49ers, while the Packers will face the Bengals and Rams. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but the collision of multiple storylines on October 5th could result in the most highly anticipated regular season game in a long, long time—not only for the Packers and Vikings, but for the entire NFL.