Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
I’m guessing you’ll hear all about transcending this week as we focus our attention on Sunday’s Favre-Packers II showdown at Lambeau Field. As in, Brett Favre’s return to Green Bay in a Minnesota uniform will transcend an otherwise important matchup between division rivals.
Forgive me for cutting off that storyline. I’m looking at it the other way around. The importance of this game -- and yes, I know we’re talking about a Week 8 contest -- will transcend Favre’s return. Call it Vikings-Packers I(b). At least for me.
Every game in the NFL counts the same, but we all know that some are more important than others. When you get to the end of the season, you can almost always point to a weekend or two where the final standings began to take shape. I think this will be one of them.
Sunday evening, the Vikings could establish a formidable and near collapse-proof lead over the Packers and Chicago Bears. Or, if things work out differently, we could have a virtual tie for first place with the Bears only a couple games behind. I’ve laid out the various possibilities below:
“It’s definitely a big game,” Minnesota safety Madieu Williams said. “[But it’s] because it’s another division game. It’s an opportunity to face another division opponent. … You can’t look at it as Brett versus the Packers. For us, it’s going to be the Vikings versus the Packers.”
I don’t want to minimize the potential for drama, nor do I want to subordinate the emotions of nearly 73,000 Lambeau loyalists who will watch Favre jog onto the field. Eighteen months ago, the Packers were making plans to retire Favre’s jersey prior to a Vikings-Packers game at Lambeau Field. Such a ceremony seems awfully distant after Favre successfully navigated himself across state lines -- and around a poison-pill barrier the Packers erected to keep him out of the NFC North.
So yes, I will be interested to see how Packer fans react -- and to what degree they ramp up their already boisterous support. Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, for one, said he doesn’t anticipate any trouble.
“They are a loud group when they have to be,” Leber said. “But listen. I’ve been a part of some Raider-Charger games, so I think I’ve seen the worst in the league [in Oakland]. So those guys [in Green Bay] are pretty tame. It’s a good crowd. A good, wholesome crowd, and it’s not too intimidating to play there.”
Vikings guard Anthony Herrera, meanwhile, questioned whether most Packer fans will find it within themselves to root heartily against Favre.
“At the end of the day he is with a different team,” Herrera said. “But let’s be honest. Look at what he did for Green Bay. They have great fans up there and I think they’ll be loyal to him. It wasn’t that he said he didn’t want to be there anymore. That wasn’t personal. It was business.”
For the most part, however, the crowd reaction will culminate in a moment or two of intrigue. That leaves the rest of a three-hour afternoon for football, one that ultimately will prove more exciting, I think.
Since they last met three weeks ago, the gap between these teams has narrowed. After a 30-23 loss at the Metrodome, the Packers regrouped during their bye week and have defeated two admittedly inferior opponents -- Detroit and Cleveland -- by a combined score of 57-3. They have made strides in settling their offensive line by inserting rookie T.J. Lang at left tackle and developing a veteran option at right tackle in Mark Tauscher.
Veteran Atari Bigby has returned from a knee injury to start consecutive games at safety. Linebacker Aaron Kampman has received some two-dozen snaps in his more comfortable position of defensive end, and rookie Clay Matthews has taken over as a full-time player at outside linebacker.
“Our confidence is high and it damn well should be,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re growing as a football team. We're coming forward with the targets we're trying to hit. …We're an improved football team and we've improved the last two weeks. That's really what my focus is on. We're 4-2. We won two games that we felt we were the better team than our opponent. That's what you are supposed to do, but more importantly, you have to improve. Confidence is a big part of this business and our confidence has definitely grown.”
Minnesota hasn’t won at Lambeau since 2005, and a Packers victory this Sunday would tighten the NFC North race considerably with half the season yet to play out. The teams would be in what I would call a virtual tie with two losses apiece. If the Bears defeat Cleveland, as they should, they would trail the Vikings by 1.5 games (with both matchups remaining against them) and the Packers by one game.
“They're a good football team,” McCarthy said. “We're a good football team. I think it's going to be a hell of a game.”
And one that transcends any made-for-TV drama we can muster.