After last week's Lindisfarme-ing of St. Louis, fans of this team sat up and took notice. There was already an air of optimism heading into the week one game, but a 28 point blowout on the road tends to ramp things up a bit. Even if it did occur against one of the lesser tams in the NFL, that was forced into using a backup, and then backup to the backup quarterback.
This week, it's different. The New England Patriots, the bellweather franchise of the NFL, come calling to TCF Bank Stadium, and this is a different animal. Tom Brady is one of the best QB's to ever play the game, he has legitimate weapons top throw to, and six months ago, there weren't a lot of Vikings fans who thought that their favorite team had a shot.
But six months is an eternity in the NFL, and Mike Zimmer is in the middle of an Extreme Makeover project with this team. Gone is the passive defense that just stood around and didn't do much of anything, in is a hyper aggressive, shifting defense that likes to dictate the tempo. It worked last week, but Pats coach Bill Belichick is the ultimate NFL chess player, and will be ready for what the Vikings do.
If the Vikings are going to beat the Patriots, what matchups do they need to win?
Patriots offensive line vs. Vikings defensive line. Going into last week's game, the only time a defensive line was mentioned was when people were talking about the Rams. After the game, though, all anyone was talking about was the Vikings defense, particularly the new look line. That new look line proved to be talented, deep, and active, registering four of the five sacks and playing on the St. Louis side of the line of scrimmage most of the day.
Against Miami, though, New England's offensive line looked awful. Tom Brady wasn't pressured so much as he was under siege last week, and the Dolphins front four hurried, harassed, and hit Brady all afternoon. The interior line was a sieve, and in the second half they consistently allowed the pocket to collapse, forcing Brady to hurry some bad throws.
If the Vikings are going to beat the Patriots, the Vikings defensive line has to dominate the Patriots offensive line, and they're going to have to do it without a lot of blitz pressure. Brady is one of the best ever at recognizing a blitz and countering it, but if they can pressure him with just the front four, they'll be in business. They cannot allow Brady time to survey the field and go through his progressions. If he does, he will kill Minnesota and pick them apart, plain and simple.
Adrian Peterson vs. Patriots run defense. One of the areas the Patriots have been historically stout at is their run defense. They've been near or at the top of that category for almost the entire time Bill Belichick has coached the Patriots. That's been due, in large part (physically and metaphorically), to NT Vince Wilfork. Last year, Wilfork ruptured his Achilles tendon early in the season, and the Patriots slipped to 30th in the NFL in rush defense. Wilfork was back last week, but the run defense wasn't. Miami's Knowshon Moreno ran for 134 yards, and shredded the Pats, especially in the second half. The Vikings had 185 yards rushing last week, and that was with Adrian Peterson only contributing 75 of them. If Peterson gets untracked, and Cordarrelle Patterson can keep doing damage on the perimeter, the Pats won't know what the Hell hit them.
Matt Cassel vs. himself. The Vikings brought in Cassel to be a guy that can manage the offense and not feel compelled to go out and win the game. Last week against the Rams he did just that. He gave the Vikings a calm, veteran leadership presence that didn't panic when a couple plays went against him early (bad shotgun snaps). He managed the Vikings offense, he was patient and didn't force the action, and it eventually paid off as the Vikings blew the wheels off the Rams. If the Vikings are going to beat New England, Cassel will need to do much of the same, only better. No turnovers, don't panic, and don't get wrapped up in wanting to beat his old team. If he plays within himself and the offense, that will happen.
Blair Walsh vs. TCF Bank Stadium. This is going to be a close game, one that could very well be decided by a field goal. Walsh has become one of the best kickers in the NFL, yet most of his career has been spent kicking indoors. In the pre-season he was a bit shaky outside at the Bank, but last week, in the comfort of the Edward Jones Dome, Walsh was money once again. Sunday is supposed to be beautiful--68 degrees, sunny, with a manageable 11 mph wind. When the Vikings get into scoring range and can't punch it in, Walsh will have to convert--have to--if Minnesota is going to win.
Like I said earlier this week, the Patriots are beatable. The Vikings are going to have to play a good game, and win the field position and turnover battle, but this version of the Patriots doesn't look like the seemingly invincible teams from years past.
Buckle up, because Sunday is going to be a wild ride.