NFC North battle on SNF
The Minnesota Vikings host the Green Bay Packers in a NFC North rivalry on ESPN's Sunday Night Football (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
For both teams, it will be paramount that individual players win their individual battles. This game will come down to the mano-a-mano battles that make football such a special sport. Watch for: Chris Hovan vs. Brett Favre; Darren Sharper vs. Daunte Culpepper; and Randy Moss vs. Al Harris.
With a big, healthy offensive line and the return of Michael Bennett, Minnesota might be tempted to pound the football. But to keep up with Brett Favre and the Packers' explosive offense, I would expect some offensive fireworks as well.
Culpepper must continue what he's done all season: play smart, hit his spots and give Moss a chance to make plays. They also need No. 2 receiver Nate Burleson, as well as the other receivers, to step up and make plays.
Defensively, the Vikings must be concerned after Kerry Collins threw for 375 yards and two touchdowns last week against a unit now ranked 30th in the league. Collins seemed to have a knack for making big plays against the Vikings' blitz.
This week, Minnesota will probably play a more conservative, "bend but don't break" philosophy, relying on its front four to bring pressure and contain Favre.
Here are three keys for the Vikings on Sunday night:
Moss had his first 100-yard game against the Packers, and he's been torching them ever since. In 11 games against the Packers, he's caught 58 passes for 1,126 yards and 10 touchdowns. In seven of those 11 games, he's had over 100 yards receiving and has a reception of 40 or more yards in six of them. If he can have his typical game against the Packers, there will be plenty of big plays.
2. Control the football
Culpepper is the highest-rated passer in the NFL -- much of which can be attributed to his nine touchdown passes and only two interceptions. To beat the Packers, Culpepper needs to continue running the offense efficiently and effectively.
3. Control Favre
As I mentioned earlier, last Sunday the Vikings were shredded by Kerry Collins. They can't allow Favre to throw the ball up and down the field this weekend. The Packers only play as well as No. 4 plays.
Green Bay Packers
Meanwhile, the Packers have their own defensive concerns. Ideally, they'd like to play more man-to-man coverage, but because their pass rush is lacking, they're forced to play more zone. In today's NFL, that favors the offense. Playing zone, paired with Culpepper's passing abilities, is recipe for a 300-yard passing day.
Green Bay must establish a pass rush -- a tall order against one of the NFL's best rushing quarterbacks working behind one of the best offensive lines. If the Packers try to force Culpepper to the outside, he has the ability to take off and beat them with his legs.
Offensively, the Packers identity will mirror Favre's consistency on Sunday night. When he plays within himself, the Packers are extremely tough to beat -- even with their defensive problems. But when he plays recklessly, they're in trouble. Case in point: In Week 6, they had the Chiefs on the ropes until Favre threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The three-time MVP isn't a classic passer, he throws from a lot of different positions and he gets a ton of steam on the ball. But this week he's playing with a hairline fracture in his right thumb. That could be a cause for concern, especially when you look at Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb's thumb woes.
Coming off a bye week, this is a huge game for Green Bay. The Packers are the only team that can threaten the Vikings for the division title. A win would put them just two games back for the division lead. But with a loss, they're suddenly four games behind the Vikings.
Here are three keys for the Packers on Sunday night:
1. Protect the football
The Packers can't afford to throw away another game like they did against the Chiefs. There's a direct correlation between turnovers and wins. In the NFC, teams that have forced more turnovers than they've committed have won 65 percent of their games.
2. Brett Favre
Favre has to play solid, confident football. The Packers can't afford to have him force the ball into bad situations and throw costly interceptions.
3. Rush lane integrity
That means no two rushers in the same lane, which would give Culpepper the chance to run with the ball. If the Packers do that too often, Culpepper will end up being the Vikings' leading rusher by the end of the game.
A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.