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WHAT I’LL BE WATCHING

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These are the things I’ll be keeping an eye on during today’s final regular season matchup between the Vikings and the Packers.

SIDNEY RICE
Just what are we going to get out of the reluctant receiver?

No one ultimately knows why Sidney Rice took so long to return after it appeared he was good to go. He’s had some contradictory statements regarding the topic. Did contract considerations play into his decision? It’s plausible but he says that’s “a bunch of bull.” Is he simply cautious after returning from a serious surgery? That’s plausible as well, especially returning from an injury he’s had no experience with.

The only one who can tell you why it took a threat of being shelved for the season to return is Rice himself, and he’s not talking. At least not to anyone not named Werder.

Will he be cautious and tentative? Will his mere presence help open up the offense, like the Randy Moss Factor did? What will his stamina be like? Will we take some deep shots to him, if for no other reason than to show the Packers we can?

Will any of the magic he and Brett Favre created last year return? We know how awesome Sidney Rice can be; let’s hope some of that awesomeness returns today.

BERNARD BERRIAN
Just what are we going to get out of the reluctant receiver?

We’ll see if Bernard Berrian even plays or not today. He’s listed as questionable with a groin injury and is expected to work out before the game to determine if he’s good to go.

But a week after Berrian tantalizes Vikings fans with his best game in recent memory against the Cardinals, he benches himself last week against the Bears.

How could we possibly know what to expect from this guy?

PERCY HARVIN
Conversely, we know what to expect from Percy Harvin: 110% effort, fighting through significant injuries, and just a whole bunch of excitement.

A year removed from a Rookie of Year performance, Harvin has suffered no sophomore slump on his way to what looks like a second Pro Bowl season. He is well on his way to establishing himself as a superstar and one of the most dynamic players in the NFL.

It typically takes wide receivers about three years to develop (Sidney Rice‘s breakout season was his third year, for example) but Harvin not only rocked from day one, he hasn’t had a let down.

What makes him so exciting, in addition to his athleticism, is his feel for the game. He’s got a great feel for zone defenses. He’s got quickness, speed, burst and power. He’s as effective as a running back as he is a receiver. Oh yeah, he’s a pretty decent kick returner, too.

The question is, if the Packers need not focus on any other receivers than Harvin, will he still shine?

ADRIAN PETERSON
You’d think that we could expect to see a lot of Adrian Peterson running the ball today but I’m sorta giving up on trying to decipher what Brad Childress is going to do on offense.  While I’d like to see a run-heavy approach, I”m not so sure we’ll get it.

What I think we need to start seeing, though, is Peterson on the field nearly all the time. As much as I like Toby Gerhart as a back up runner and a change-of-pace guy, I don’t get keeping him in entire series, especially when we get to the red zone.

BRETT FAVRE
Eternal optimist that I am,  I think Brett Favre is going to have a big game today.

I think he’s still got a chip on his shoulder with regard to his old team and do you really think he’s gonna want to go out in his final season having been swept by the Packers?

The Packers blitz plenty and I think Favre will take advantage of that.

Favre has played well during our past three games, despite the scores and statistics. I think his improving play will continue. The question is whether or not his surrounding cast will do the same.

TURNOVERS
One thing we don’t have, thankfully, is Adrian Peterson‘s fumbling problem to kick around anymore.  But we do have a lot of interceptions due to a host of factors.

If the offensive line can’t keep Brett Favre clean; if the receivers continue to tip the ball to defenders; if they and Favre continue to read from different pages; if Favre makes poor or risky decisions, then we’re likely to see more of the same.

Regardless of who you blame, the Vikings cannot continue to turn the ball over at the rate they have and expect to win.

3RD & GOAL
Likewise for third down conversions and red zone efficiency.  It is baffling how ineffective the Vikings have been in the red zone this year; it’s embarrassing how incapable they’ve been at converting third downs of late.

FAST START
All of which is why fast starts are so important. But fast starts have not been a hallmark of the 2010 squad.

Bumbling starts is more like it.  And bumbling middles, too.

It would do the Vikings a world of good to execute perfectly on their way to an opening-series offensive scoring drive today. Doing so would help establish confidence, a positive attitude, and momentum early on in what figures to be another close, tough game.

ATMOSPHERE
Ideally, the Vikes get off to a fast start with a touchdown drive on their first series and follow that up with a three-and-out on defense.

Such a start to the game would help enormously in getting the Vikings fans in attendance at Mall of America Field at the Metrodome on their feet and yelling during a game in which crowd noise will almost certainly play a factor, one way or another.

We’ve seen over and again how the crowd noise at the Dome can mess with opposing offenses. But with a bunch of cheeseheads in attendance, if they have a chance to get vocal, it could get demoralizing for the Vikings.

FRONT FOUR
Jared Allen has stepped it up the past couple of weeks. Will it continue against Chad Clifton, who dominated Allen during the first match at Lambeau?  Allen has had plenty of time to study the tape of that embarrassment and I”m guessing is going into today’s game with an attitude that would be conducive to avoiding a repeat.

As I’ve mentioned before, Kevin Williams and whoever lines up next to him during passing downs have not been getting the push up the middle to collapse the pocket.

They need to. Starting today.

Or it will not matter what Jared Allen and Ray Edwards do because Aaron R0gers is another mobile quarterback who will be able to escape if it’s not all coming down on his head.

CHRIS COOK
You’ll remember Chris Cook getting cooked on a scoring drive during which he played so poorly, Leslie Frazier stuck in fresh-off-the-street Frank Walker in Cook’s stead.

How will the once highly-regarded rookie respond to the team that targeted him unmercilessly?

SMUG PACKERS FANS
Packers fans have been smug all week, walking around with an attitude that assumes a foregone conclusion.

Let them stick with that hubris.

How quickly they forget how closely they came to defeat at home earlier this year and they needed the officials to escape with a win.

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