Since Sept. 20, 1992, the Vikings’ rivalry with the Green Bay Packers has produced more envy than equality.
That day Brett Favre, exiled from Atlanta because of his erratic behavior, came off the bench at Lambeau Field, threw a pass that left contrails to beat the Bengals, sprinted downfield like a maniac and ushered in decades of quarterback excellence for a franchise once known for the power sweep.
Since 1992, the Vikings have made the playoffs 12 times, narrowly lost two NFC title games and participated in three, celebrated the induction of 14 alums into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and watched Randy Moss help turn the franchise into the purveyor of weekend-long parties, all the while wishing they had what the Packers flaunted.
Since Favre made that throw, the Packers have won two Super Bowls and 11 division titles. They have relied on Favre and understudy-turned-successor Aaron Rodgers while the Vikings have employed 23 starting quarterbacks, most of them retreads featuring varying levels of useful tread. The Packers have had five starting quarterbacks in that time. Other than Favre and Rodgers, only Matt Flynn has started more than two games.
The Packers have earned praise for their draft-and-develop philosophy, for their advanced offensive thinking, for their quaint-yet-refurbished small-town stadium, for a city that at its best evokes a green-and-gold Bedford Falls.
All decade, Lambeau Field has been where Vikings aspirations have gone to die. The Vikings haven’t won a game in Green Bay since Favre’s first season in purple, in 2009, as this rivalry’s games there have served to confirm conventional wisdom about the state and direction of both franchises.
This game, then, will be the first in some time between these teams at Lambeau that feels, for the Vikings, like something more than a roll of the dice, a testing of the NFL adage about any team on any given Sunday.
Sunday night, the Vikings will enter Lambeau as a surging team positioned to win an NFC North title on the frozen tundra of the team that has held a long-term lease on the division, while the Packers are stumbling like drunks on cobblestones.
Facts remain the Packers’ allies. They are 10-5. Rodgers is in his prime and remains one of the most remarkably productive, efficient and accurate quarterbacks of all time. They are 5-2 at home this season and, like the Vikings, have won three of their past five. With another routine victory over the Vikings, the Packers will win their fifth straight division title, reach 11 victories and host a playoff game at Lambeau in January, a year after looking like the superior team in the NFC Championship Game in Seattle. A victory would make all seem temporarily right in Titletown.
But if the Packers were milk, you’d sniff for that sour smell before pouring.
At the moment, both teams could be defined by their snowbird wanderings in the desert.
When the Vikings played at Arizona Dec. 10, they had recently lost lopsidedly to Green Bay and Seattle at home. Without three of their best defenders, they came within one play of sending the game to overtime. Last week the Packers were manhandled at Arizona, and on Dec. 3 they needed a wild comeback and a Hail Mary to avoid getting swept by the Lions.
The loss of star receiver Jordy Nelson has exposed the Packers’ receiving corps as otherwise mediocre, and star running back Eddie Lacy has been occasionally benched.
If the Vikings win this game, they will have at least momentarily passed the traditional class of the NFC North in just the second year of Mike Zimmer’s fast-twitch rebuilding plan. They will have momentarily demystified Lambeau. They will be the team with more obvious young talent and perhaps the more trustworthy coach and actionable plan.
In the NFL, perception can change year by year, even game by game. If the Vikings win, that won’t mean that the Packers, with Nelson healthy next year, wouldn’t take charge of the division again. But a victory would give Zimmer’s program credibility and accomplishment, two qualities largely missing for the purple in a rivalry so often defined by envy.