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Vikings at Patriots Week 13 Preview: GOAT Herding

Tom Brady and the Patriots are cruising to another AFC East title. What can the Vikings to do pull off an upset in a place where Brady has been nearly unbeatable?

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NFL: New England Patriots at New York Jets
Beating Brady at home is always a tough task. But he hasn’t exactly been invincible this season.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever faced a task so daunting that you wondered whether you should even try? I have had a couple of those in my life lately.

We’re currently in the process of getting our youngest potty trained. For five and a half years running between our two daughters, we have fantasized about a time where we can finally end the reign of wallet-draining tyranny that diapers and pull-ups have had over our household. When we first started, it looked like little sister would catch on just as quickly as our first did; she loved the attention and positive reinforcement. Now we’re nearly two months in and she has regressed faster than the 2018 Jaguars. She’s well aware that she should go in the potty, and she does about half the time. But there’s an equal chance that she’ll look us dead in the eye while making it extremely obvious she will no longer be needing that trip to the bathroom you just asked about. We’ve tried sticker charts, tough love, and outright bribery to no avail. It’ll click eventually, but it sure as hell seems like it’s going to be on her terms, not ours. We have reached the point where we have discussed letting the whole thing go for a while until she’s truly ready.

The second daunting domestic deed of the week has been putting the finishing touches on the furnishings in our new house. About 98% of our stuff has found its proper place at the new place. However, our walls have remained mostly bare because we keep avoiding the tedious task of hanging all our framed pictures. Instead of focusing on that time-consuming yet relatively simple job, I have distracted myself with something a bit trickier: mounting a couple TVs on the wall.

Before you scoff at me for thinking that mounting televisions is difficult, know this: my level of expertise with household handiwork falls somewhere between “well below novice” and “good Lord put that down before you hurt someone.” Anything I attempt that requires a toolbox would make Red Green wince. I started with the small flatscreen my wife wanted to put in our kitchen area. Somehow I was able to manage to get the TV up there in one piece. After a couple trips to the hardware store, some YouTube research, and a handful of swear words, I was even able to hide the cords from dangling down by our cabinets. Nobody will confuse the end result with the work of a professional contractor, but I achieved the desired result without any gaping holes in the drywall. I proudly showed my better half the new punch on my Man Card.

Her: “Good job honey! Think you can do mount our new 60” TV in the corner of the living room next?”

Me: “...”

The Geek Squad is coming on Wednesday.

Facing the New England Patriots on the road can feel just as formidable as potty training a stubborn toddler or tackling a home improvement project beyond your level of expertise. You’re not exactly sure how it will go wrong, but most of the time it does.

By now you may have seen some of the staggering statistics regarding Brady’s dominance at 1 Patriot Place in Foxborough. Allow me to pass along a few more. This is his 19th season in the NFL, and he has lost a grand total of 19 regular season home games, which equals the amount of home playoff wins in his career. Since coming back from his ACL tear ten years ago, Brady has lost exactly eight regular season home games. (One of those was a meaningless Week 17 game where Brady only played the first half.) The Patriots are currently enjoying a 12-game home winning streak including the playoffs; that’s only good enough to be the FOURTH longest home winning streak of Brady’s career.

I could keep going, but you get the idea: winning at Gillette Stadium against Brady and Bill Belichick is really freaking hard. The GOAT (that stands for “Greatest Of All Time” for those of you that had your kids help you log on today) is a term that gets thrown around way too often these days, but it’s pretty hard to dispute with Tom Terrific’s ridiculous résumé. At 41 he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league and his team is cruising to its 15th AFC East title in a row with him at the helm. (Of course they went 11-5 but still missed the playoffs in 2008 with the immortal Matt Cassel, who threw four interceptions the last time the Vikings and Patriots met.)

While Brady keeps defying logic nearly two decades into his career, even his sterling home record can’t compete with Father Time, who remains undefeated. He’s still very good, but he certainly isn’t playing at the level that won him the MVP award last season. Brady isn’t in the top five in any major passing statistic and barely cracks the top ten in a handful. A lot of the advanced metrics have him ranked a little higher but still below the upper echelon of quarterbacks. In fact, he’s really close to one Kirk Cousins in those rankings. Football Outsiders has them in almost a dead heat:

  • Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR): Cousins 648 (7th), Brady 570 (10th)
  • Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA): Cousins 9.1% (11th), Brady 9.6% (10th)
  • QBR: Cousins 65.1 (12th), Brady 68.8 (t-9th)

Pro Football Focus has Cousins ranked 12th overall (81.6 rating) and Brady sixth (90.2). After watching a handful of Patriots games on film, I must say that I largely agree with the analytics. Both Cousins and Brady can tear you to shreds when they’re “on”, but there have been some rough patches as well. Brady gets the GOAT label because he can still pick apart a defense with the best of them; he’s still more than capable of dinking and dunking teams into submission by finding the open man with devastating precision. His deep passing has been another story. Brady has completed 17 of his 49 targets of 20 or more yards this season; even when accounting for drops, his accuracy and quarterback rating on deep passes ranks 17th and 18th respectively according to PFF. (Cousins ranks 9th and 4th in those same categories.)

For years, blitzing Brady was basically signing your own death warrant. Now it might actually be a viable strategy from time to time. The Titans blitzed Brady 13 times in their 34-10 upset in Week 10, which resulted in Brady going 5 for 10 for only 36 yards. He hasn’t dealt well with pressure this season on the whole. At times it appears that he wants to avoid contact at all costs and simply live to play another down. (Hard to blame him at his advanced age; I’m four years younger than Brady and I can barely withstand my kids jumping on me much less a 300-pound defensive lineman.) The Vikings might not even need to bring many extra rushers to succeed against Brady on Sunday. Andrew Krammer illustrated that the Vikings had success against the Packers last week because of their ability to get consistent pressure on Aaron Rodgers without blitzing. Arif took a deeper dive with showing how effective stunts by the defensive line were against Green Bay. If the front four can get to Brady with the a handful of well-timed blitzes mixed in, he’ll likely bail out and halt a few drives.

It’s easy to talk about an ideal strategy to slow down the Patriots offense; it’s another thing entirely to put into practice. New England remains the toughest team in the NFL to scout because Belichick employs such unique game plans from week to week. Scouting them is especially difficult when they might be the healthiest they have been all season; they nearly their full complement of offensive weapons at their disposal. The backfield alone is enough to give you migraines. Sony Michel is fresh off his third 20 carry/100 yard game of the season after being banged up for about a month. (He left the Jets game early but wasn’t on the injury report Wednesday.) Think you have a strategy to slow down James White and his team-high 67 receptions, 870 yards from scrimmage, and 10 total touchdowns? Then maybe our old friend Cordarrelle Patterson will pound the ball on the ground to keep you honest. (Flash going off on his old team because Belichick is finally using him how the football gods intended would be a very Vikings thing to happen, which means it’s very likely.) And oh yeah, Rex Burkhead is coming back this week. Fun!

The cupboard isn’t bare in New England’s receiving corps either. Josh Gordon, this year’s annual “How The Hell Do The Pats Keep Getting Impact Players For Next to Nothing” guy, is always a home run threat. Julian Edelman is still Brady’s shifty safety valve underneath. If Xavier Rhodes can’t go on Sunday, it’s going to be hard to account for all of New England’s options through the air. And that’s before including a guy by the name of Rob Gronkowski that you may have heard of once or twice.

Like Brady, Gronk isn’t quite what he used to be; a decade of hard living both on and off the field will do that to a guy. But as he showed last week, he can still be an unguardable golem of a pass catcher. His size and strength can Gronk Smash through any coverage.

Our pal Andy Carlson has a strategy for Sunday’s game that I like: matching up Jayron Kearse with Gronk in three safety or “big nickel” sets. Kearse has the size and versatility that might slow Gronk down a bit. Kearse has been a very pleasant surprise on defense and has made a consistent impact in a limited defensive role this season. However, the sample size is too small to predict how he would do in an expanded role against an extremely difficult assignment. That small sample is promising though; in 99 coverage snaps this season, Kearse has allowed 11 catches on 13 targets for only 77 yards. Tight ends have had 3 receptions on 4 targets for 24 yards against him. Of course, playing Kearse more often is just a theory. He has just as good of a chance at playing four snaps on Sunday as he does 40. It all depends on the matchups Mike Zimmer will try to exploit. The chess match between Josh McDaniels and Zimmer on Sunday should be fascinating.

Being unpredictable and amorphous are traits that you can attribute to both sides of the ball in New England. Preparing for the Patriots is like like studying all week for a biology final only to have the professor hand you a test on Greek literature. Belichick is a savant at taking away the things you like to do best on offense. If I had to guess, I would bet the Patriots stick Stephon Gilmore on Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs whenever they line up outside, put Jason McCourty on the slot, and give plenty of help over the top. (If Diggs is out, that gets even easier.) I’d dare the Vikings to run, because they haven’t shown they can consistently move the ball on the ground all season. Having Dalvin Cook back obviously helps, but his impact has mostly been in the passing game. Cook and Latavius Murray averaged under three yards per carry against Green Bay despite some very favorable numbers in the box.

When it comes to beating the Vikings this season, stopping the run is nice but not nearly as important as pressuring Cousins. According to PFF, Cousins has been pressured on 101 of his 210 dropbacks in the Vikings’ four losses this season—basically every other pass. (The pressure numbers in the seven other games aren’t exactly great either, but they’re better than that.) This is where New England might actually be a nice matchup for the Vikings, because they don’t have a great pass rush. As Warren pointed out in his preview, the Patriots have only 17 sacks this season, which puts them at 30th in sack percentage. But every week the Vikings opponent seems to have one defensive lineman that can destroy a play by himself; this week that defensive lineman is #98 Trey Flowers. He’ll give Minnesota’s shaky offensive line everything they can handle on Sunday.

If Minnesota’s offense limits the mistakes and gives Cousins some time in the pocket like they did against the Packers, there should be plenty of opportunities to move the ball on the New England defense. Finishing drives will be paramount for both teams. On defense, the Vikings are holding teams to a league-best 43.2% touchdowns on trips to the red zone. The offense hasn’t fared nearly as well; their 51.4% scoring rate is 25th in the NFL. If they hope to upset the Patriots on Sunday, they’ll have to continue that trend on defense while cashing in on their own opportunities. While opposing offenses are actually faring pretty well in the red zone this year against the Patriots, Belichick practically invented the “bend but don’t break” defense. With all the woes the Vikings kicking game has seen this season, we don’t want to see Dan Bailey lining up for a bunch of field goals on a bunch of levels. If this game comes down to a couple of special teams plays, Patriots fans have to like their chances.

Historically, chances are that you’re leaving Massachusetts with a shiny new loss in the Brady/Belichick era. But I actually kind of like a lot of aspects of this matchup for the Vikings. The 2018 version of the Patriots is still very good but they aren’t the juggernaut of recent years. They don’t necessarily excel at a lot of the things that have given the Vikings trouble this season.

That said, this is still the New England Patriots on the road. I believe that the Vikings are capable of putting together a complete game to beat a team in the NFL’s upper echelon, but they simply haven’t done that yet. To paraphrase Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, the win against the Packers last week got our curiosity; winning on the road against the Pats would most certainly get the league’s attention. Let’s hope they grab that attention with both fists on Sunday afternoon.

If the Vikings prove me wrong and pull off the upset, I’m definitely asking Kirk Cousins for potty training and home improvement tips.


Patriots 26, Vikings 20

And now for the rest of my Week 13 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Saints over COWBOYS

The good news on Thursday: a team I hate will lose! Unfortunately, the team I hate from New Orleans doesn’t look like they’re going to lose anytime soon.

Ravens over FALCONS

Lamar Jackson looks like he could be the modern day version of Michael Vick. Since he was named the starter again this week, why not pick him to succeed in the city where Vick became so famous?

DOLPHINS over Bills

This game is for second place in the AFC East. And we wonder how the Pats keep running away with the division every year.

Bears over GIANTS

I could definitely see Chase Daniel keeping the Giants in the game longer than they should be, but I’m convinced the G-Men are in full Tank Mode. Case in point: after going up 19-3 late in the second quarter, Saquon Barkley touched the ball exactly seven times the rest of the game. Unless Pat Shurmur underwent a lobotomy that we don’t know about, that’s playing for draft picks.

Broncos over BENGALS

If this game was a month ago, I would have taken Cincy in a heartbeat. Now, if you’re like me, you had no idea Jeff Driskel was on an NFL roster until last Sunday.

Browns over TEXANS

Last week I wanted to pick Cleveland on the road but couldn’t since they had lost three straight seasons’ worth of road games. Now that they finally broke that streak, why not pick them again on the road against a team that has won eight straight games?

Rams over LIONS

We all saw how rooting for the Lions to beat a team and pull them back to the NFC pack worked last week.

PACKERS over Cardinals

If Green Bay continues their meltdown and somehow messes this one up at home, I might be laughing too hard to watch the first half of the Vikings game.

Colts over JAGUARS

I saw Cody Kessler in person during the joint practices at Vikings Training Camp. Even if you ignore the fact that the Colts haven’t lost since October 14 and the Jaguars haven’t won since September 30, I wouldn’t pick Cody Kessler.

Panthers over BUCCANEERS

Um, OK, Carolina, time to, ya know, start winning again. You’re no longer a shoo-in for the playoffs, so you better be able to beat Jameis Winston.

TITANS over Jets

This game is the football version of Thanksgiving leftovers you leave in the fridge for a week and eventually just throw out.

Chiefs over RAIDERS

Khalil Mack: Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Amari Cooper: reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week. And the Raiders are still on the hook for over $90 million of Jon Gruden. Good times.

SEAHAWKS over 49ers

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 8-4 on the season after the Ravens took care of the Raiders last week. Hopefully we’ll catch the Seahawks a little overconfident next Monday.

STEELERS over Chargers

If Melvin Gordon was healthy, I might have picked the upset here. Plus most of Ben Roethlisberger’s stinkers tend to come on the road, like the last two weeks.

EAGLES over Redskins

Having three teams tied at 6-6 atop the NFC East after 13 weeks is almost too perfect.

Last week: 11-4
Season so far: 111-63-2