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Game Matchups: Potential breakthrough of Dobson and Thompkins will give Minnesota fits

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN


The Vikings were a middle-of-the-pack defense last year stopping the run, while the Patriots finished among the top 10 in the NFL in rushing yards per game. The difference in 2014 is the Patriots have big shoes to fill with the departure of LeGarrette Blount, last year's second-leading rusher, plus Stevan Ridley is still having issues with ball security. The Patriots generate the bulk of their offense from the passing game and Shane Vereen is a big part of that equation, but Minnesota took strides toward improving its defense with the hiring of coordinator George Edwards and the signing of nose tackle Linval Joseph. With rookie linebacker Anthony Barr joining veteran Chad Greenway, the Vikings have the potential to be an upper-tier run defense this year. ADVANTAGE: VIKINGS

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WHEN THE VIKINGS RUN


Regardless of the personnel on the other side of the ball, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson generally finds a way to make an impact on the outcome of the game. Peterson has amassed more than 200 carries and double-digit touchdowns in each of his first seven seasons and cracked the 1,000-yard plateau six times during that span, including 2,097 yards in his MVP season in 2012. The Patriots enter 2014 with a revamped front seven, thanks to the return of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who combined to miss 22 games last year due to injury, but it's hard to imagine anyone, even a team with as much potential as New England, being able to slow down Peterson. ADVANTAGE: VIKINGS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS


The Vikings have two dangerous edge rushers in the underrated Brian Robison and Everson Griffin, which presents a tough matchup for New England's new-look offensive line without Logan Mankins, but Tom Brady's poise in the pocket and bevy of weapons in the passing game is too much for most teams to handle. The addition of Brandon LaFell and the potential breakthrough of second-year wideouts Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will give Minnesota's secondary fits. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is back, too, making the Patriots equally dangerous in the red zone. Add workhorse Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to the mix and Brady has six weapons at his disposal, not including the versatile Vereen. It's a tough sell for any defense. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE VIKINGS PASS


Matt Cassel wrestled the starting quarterback job away from Christian Ponder this year, giving the Vikings the potential for more big plays in the passing game. With veteran receiver Greg Jennings on one side and the speedy Cordarrelle Patterson emerging as a deep threat on the other side, the Vikings figure to be more exciting in 2014, but the Patriots have improved mightily in the secondary. The addition of Darrelle Revis gives them a shutdown cornerback capable of neutralizing one of Minnesota's threats and the rotation of Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung at safety provides enough help over the top. With pass rusher Chandler Jones zoning in on the quarterback, the Patriots should be able to frustrate Cassel. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS


This is a close call. Patterson is arguably the most dangerous kick returner in the game. As a rookie in 2013, he scored two touchdowns of more than 100 yards, including an NFL record 109-yard kick return in October. The Patriots counter with the elusive duo of special teams captain Matthew Slater, who handles kick returns, and Edelman on punt returns. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh is one of the best in the game from 50 yards and beyond. Even with the Vikings now playing outdoors, things won't change much until the weather gets frigid, so neither Walsh or Stephen Gostkowski will be affected much. With everything else being equal, Patterson's game-breaking potential gives Minnesota the slight edge. ADVANTAGE: VIKINGS

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OTHER FACTORS


It's hard to imagine Minnesota having a true homefield advantage playing a home game in a stadium other than the old Metrodome for the first time in more than 21 years. What the Vikings do have is a new head coach, two new coordinators and a fresh outlook with Cassel as their undisuputed starter, but the Patriots have won 10 of 16 on the road over the past two years and know Cassel better than anyone since he was their starter in 2008 when Brady injured his knee that season. The combination of Brady and head coach Bill Belichick is one of the most dominant coach-quarterback duos in NFL history. The two have won 148 games together, which might be the only intangible that matters this early in the season. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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