It all begins tonight, and, appropriately, it begins on the NFL's biggest weekly stage, against the Vikings' biggest rival. No Vikings' team has had the expectations or the hype of this Vikings' team since the 1999 version, and tonight we begin to learn whether the Purple are up to the challenge. And make no mistake about it-the Packers will present them with a challenge and are probably the most likely to keep them from winning their first NFC North title (though, if you watched da Bears last night, you probably had the same flashbacks to 2006 as I did-let's all hope their performance had more to do with Peyton Manning and company being rusty than anything da Bears did).
Green Bay, while starting a new quarterback, is still pretty much the same team that went 13-3 last year. Football Outsiders has them ranked 3rd in team DVOA prior to the season, two spots better than the Vikings, who are ranked fifth. And the ranking is justified. The Packers are a young team with a good defense, a deep group of wide receivers and some question marks at quarterback, running back and in the secondary.
The Packers defense was 15th overall in the league last year in defensive DVOA, and while they traded Corey Williams and his seven sacks to the Browns, they still have a pair of the best defensive ends in the game, although KBG's knee issues may be the difference between Gus Frerotte getting 15 starts and zero. The Packers core of linebackers is also impressive, even if A.J. Hawk is battling an injury and announcers (and Packer fans) instinct to overhype a white middle linebacker. The secondary, however, is getting older, especially the cornerbacks. Al Harris is 33 and Charles Woodson is 31 and both could drop off significantly, making the Packers even more reliant on their defensive line to stop the pass. And if the defensive line can't get to the quarterback, well, don't be surprised to see a lot more wide recievers "Plaxico" Harris and Woodson. (Do I believe that Artis Hicks and Ryan Cook can keep the Packers off Tarvaris Jackson, allowing Bernard Berrian to "Plaxico" the Green Bay's secondary? In a word, no. Tarvaris is good at avoid sacks, but he still needs some blocking.)
Offensively, the Packers' biggest question mark, is, of course, at quarterback. Aaron Rodgers was good in his one real appearance against the Cowboys, but that doesn't mean a whole lot. It could be the real Rodgers, or the real Rodgers could be a new version of David Carr. As Adam Duerson of SI.com points out, Rogers has been sacked once every 6.55 times he's dropped back so far and he was sacked once every 7.71 times this preseason. He'll likely be missing his third receiver as well, since James Jones' knee will probably keep him out of the game. He'll still have the second (Greg Jennings) and 25th (Donald Driver) most valuable wide receivers in DVOA last year to throw to though. The Vikings' secondary is good, especially if they are able to keep Antoine Winfield on the inside, but the loss of Madieu Williams leaves rookie Tyrell Johnson at safety, something that doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Basically, like the Packers, the Vikings' ability to stop the pass will hinge on their ability to get to Rodgers. Last year, Clifton shut down Jared Allen, but he got help, something that would require the Packers to leave Ray Edwards and Kevin Williams single teamed (Can you tell I'm excited about the New Purple People Eaters? Because I am.)
Don't expect Rodgers to get any help from Ryan Grant either. He's slowed down by a hamstring injury, a lack of reps in training camp (something important for a player entering their second year) and he'll have to try and run through a defense that is still angry about their performance against him last year. It's one thing to get 119 yards against the Vikings once--it's a whole 'nother thing to do it a second time.
The Vikings will have success at getting to Rodgers and shutting down the run. That means the game will come down to whether or not the Purple's offensive line can keep the Packers off Tarvaris Jackson and open up holes for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. If they can do both, the Purple will win easily. That's not likely, however. While the Vikings will likely continue to have success running the ball, Tarvaris is going to see a lot of pressure tonight. If he can make good decisions (NO JUMP PASSES), wiggle out of a few sacks and make one or two plays downfield, the Vikings can pull the game out. If he buckles under the pressure, however, it'll be Green Bay's fifth straight win against the Vikings. I still have confidence in Tarvaris, which means the final score will look like this:
Vikings 24, Green Bay 13.