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Vikings vs. Patriots: Reality Check

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New England Patriots v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

When the Vikings schedule came out, the Vikings upcoming game at New England stood out as one of the toughest games of the season, and that hasn’t changed. The Patriots are 8-3, playing well, and have Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup.

The Patriots haven’t lost much since Tom Brady became the starter back in 2001, and even less in Foxboro, where Brady has a career .855 winning percentage. I haven’t looked it up, but I’d be willing to bet a substantial sum that that’s the best home winning percentage ever by a quarterback with more than a handful of starts. The GOAT has never lost a game to the Minnesota Vikings either.

Beyond that, coach Belichick makes a point of getting his team ready for the playoffs in December, where his team has posted some very impressive records, including having gone undefeated in December eight times since Belichick came to town 18 seasons ago. Tom Brady has a .888 winning percentage at home in December, and hasn’t lost a home game in December since 2015.

By contrast, in 57 seasons the Vikings have gone undefeated in December only half that many times. The first was in 1964, when they only played two games in December. The next two were Super Bowl years, and the last was the 15-1 1998 season. Considering the Patriots also went to the Super Bowl 5 of the 8 times they went undefeated in December (winning it 3 times), there is something to be said for playing well in December if you want to play in February.

Can the Vikings Rise to the Challenge?

As I wrote the other day, the Vikings haven’t beaten a winning team yet this season, let alone a team with the Patriots’ record of dominance in Foxboro and in December games. And yet for all the historical stats, if the Vikings play well, they can beat the Patriots on Sunday.

In their mid-week conference call, Patriots long-time offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the Vikings defense will be their toughest challenge this season. And certainly the chess match between McDaniels and Zimmer - two of the best coaches on their side of the ball - will be an interesting one to watch. Equally, the battle between field generals Tom Brady and Harrison Smith should be a good one too. The Vikings come in to Foxboro with the best 3rd down and red zone defense in the league.

But the game may come down to how well the Vikings do offensively versus a Patriots pass defense that is ranked 25th in the league. The Patriots defense is also ranked 25th on 3rd down and 17th in the red zone, so there should be opportunities for the Vikings offense. The problem is that the Vikings are currently 25th in the league in the red zone - they will need to do more to capitalize on those opportunities if they want to leave Foxboro with a W.

But the main thing for the Vikings is whether they can rise to the challenge and put together a complete game- starting with coaching and executing well in all three phases - because that is what it will take to beat the Patriots in Foxboro.

Patriots Offense vs. Vikings Defense

This is the marquee match-up, with Tom Brady and Company facing one of the best defenses in the league. The Vikings were able to hold both Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers to under 200 yards passing, so hopefully they can do the same with Tom Brady. There are a few keys in this match-up:

  • Can the Vikings pressure Brady with only four? The Patriots offensive line is ranked 8th in pass blocking efficiency, but are better along the interior than at the tackle spots. If the Vikings can prevent Brady from stepping up in the pocket, they could get some good pressure on him. If the Vikings are not able to pressure Brady, undoubtedly the GOAT will make them pay.
  • Who’s covering Gronk? He has always been a challenge to cover, and it’s unclear who will get that job for the Vikings on Sunday. I suspect Anthony Barr most of the time, but coverage has not been his strong suit. Jayron Kearse may also get that assignment at times, as Mike Zimmer has used him in sub-packages to cover tight ends in the past. Limiting Gronk’s production will be a big part of stopping the Patriots offense.
  • Will Rhodes play? Who’s covering Josh Gordon if not? MacKensie Alexander will have his toughest assignment in the slot covering Julian Edelman, but Alexander has been playing well the past five weeks - allowing only a 45 passer rating when targeted over the past five weeks. But if Rhodes doesn’t play, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings use a safety over-the-top to help cover Gordon.
  • Stopping the Patriots running game. Sony Michel has done well for the Patriots, but left the game on Sunday with a back injury, so not sure his status against the Vikings. Rex Burkhead, who had been on injured reserve, is now active and should play on Sunday. The Patriots have emphasized balance in their offensive game plan, but the Vikings have been stout against the run. If the Vikings defensive front can avoid giving Tom Brady many 3rd and manageable situations, that should help get him off the field.

I suspect the Vikings will try to get to Brady as much as possible with just the front four rushers, mixing in the occasional blitz to keep Brady off-balance. Brady has not been as effective this year in making defenses pay when they blitz him. Zimmer has generally blitzed less than average, but has been the most effective when he does. Overall that, along with the addition of Sheldon Richardson and improvement of Danielle Hunter and Stephen Weatherly, has led the Vikings to the 2nd highest sack percentage in the league this year at 9.14% - a big improvement from 5.98% last season.

Vikings Offense vs. Patriots Defense

This is an interesting match-up for the Vikings offense - and perhaps one they can do well against. The weak spot of the Vikings team and offense is their offensive line, currently ranked 30th in pass blocking efficiency by PFF, and not particularly good in run blocking either. But the Patriots defensive front is also weak. They’ve managed only 17 sacks all season, which is near the bottom of the league (30th) in sack percentage, at only 3.73%. If the Vikings are able to give Kirk Cousins a little reprieve from the pressure he’s faced - like they did against the Packers Sunday night - he may have a similar level of success against the Patriots.

The Patriots have two top cornerbacks in Jason McCourty and Stephen Gilmore. McCourty plays in the slot, where Adam Thielen normally plays as well. But I suspect the Vikings will play Thielen outside mostly against the Patriots, using Treadwell or Robinson in the slot, in order to get Thielen or Diggs matched-up against the Patriots other outside CB in nickel situations - JC Jackson - who isn’t as good. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more 3 WR sets for the Vikings, and perhaps more bunch formations, to try to create favorable matchups for Diggs and Thielen.

The Vikings have also struggled to run the ball effectively this year. The Patriots defense has allowed an average of 4.4 yards per rush, which is 18th in the league. Against a less dominant defensive front (although Trae Flowers is very stout) and some creative game planning, the Vikings should be able to muster a decent run game if they don’t fall behind early. There should also be some opportunity in the screen game as well, although Bill Belichick’s defenses have usually been pretty disciplined.

But how successful the Vikings are in the red zone offensively could be the deciding factor in this game. The Patriots have struggled more in this area recently, and doubtless this will be a point of emphasis for them going forward - as it is for the Vikings offense. Which unit is able to improve the most may decide the outcome of this game.

Special Teams and Turnovers

If the Vikings red zone offense isn’t the deciding factor, special teams and/or turnovers may well be. Special teams is an area of particular concern for the Vikings in this game. First, the game is outdoors, so that isn’t going to make things any easier for Dan Bailey and the kicking game. The Patriots have Stephen Gostkowski - one of the best in the league.

Secondly, the Patriots have Cordarrelle Patterson returning kickoffs. We all know how dangerous he is in that role from his stint with the Vikings. Keeping him in check will be a big task for Mike Priefer and the Vikings special teams unit.

Lastly, there is a 60% chance of rain on Sunday, which could have an impact on the game - and potentially turnovers. Neither team has had much of an advantage in the turnover battle this season, but wet conditions and a sloppy field could lead to key turnover(s) that could decide the game.

Bottom Line

The Vikings are able to match-up against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense as well as any team, and may well be able to minimize the damage they can do. Offensively, this is one of the weaker defensive fronts the Vikings have faced recently, so that may help the offense to be more productive and balanced. But cashing-in in the red zone will be key.

The Vikings will also have to minimize their disadvantages in special teams, and hopefully not miss any kicks in this game. Keeping CP84 from causing any damage will also be key.

The Patriots will be tough at home, and Belichick and Brady will be geared up for another playoff run - and will see the Vikings as an important early test. But the overall match-up is not as daunting on paper. The key is can the Vikings raise their level of play in adverse conditions and against a very good team to start their own playoff run?