The Patriots faced a stiff test from the visiting Minnesota Vikings on Sunday evening but once again proved dominant at home, coming up with a convincing 24-10 win.
It was arguably the most complete performance by the Patriots this season as the defense completely stymied Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense for 60 minutes while the offense dominated the time of possession, allowing New England to maintain control
Here are some observations from the Patriots ninth victory of the season.
-There was something different about the manner in which the Patriots performed on defense against Minnesota. For virtually the entire 60 minutes, New England kept the Vikings underneath the coverage and Cousins was content to dump it off. Rather than allow the linebackers to chase talented running back Dalvin Cook in the passing game, Bill Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores opted to have defensive backs handle those duties. At various times Duron Harmon, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and others chased Cook, and instead of picking up valuable yardage with short dump offs, Cook was limited to eight catches for 22 yards and a paltry 2.2-yards per catch. The decision to used defensive backs rather than linebackers paid off greatly as the Vikings continued to try to stretch the field horizontally.
-The Patriots opened the game with as perfect a drive as they've executed all season. Taking over at their own 18, the Patriots worked the Vikings with ease, consistently finding ways to get the ball in their playmakers' hands with plenty of space to work. Julian Edelman started things with a 13-yard reception and Chris Hogan picked up the initial first down when he was uncovered for 18 yards to convert on third-and-two. Cordarrelle Patterson went uncovered on the next play as Tom Brady used a misdirection play action fake before dumping one short to the left sideline for 24 yards. Rex Burkhead made his return with a 15-yard catch and run on the next play to move the ball to the Vikings 16. Edelman became the only Patriots to touch the ball twice on the drive when took an end around for 15 yards down to the 1. Two plays later James Develin opened the scoring with a 1-yard plunge. It was a great example of game planning combined with execution from Josh McDaniels and the rest of the staff that allowed Brady to distribute the ball to his teammates in space.
-Unlike the Vikings lack of success going sideline to sideline, the Patriots offense exploited the Vikings but using similar tactics. That first drive wasn't the only example where New England was able to keep the Vikings defense guessing. Brady did a good job of using his backs, hitting James White consistently underneath while mixing in a steady dose of the run game to the edges.
-There were no real surprises among the Patriots inactives with perhaps the lone exception of Danny Shelton. The defensive tackle played just nine snaps against the Jets last week and hasn't performed as well as anticipated since arriving via trade with Cleveland during the offseason. With Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy playing well, and the Vikings not running the ball all that effectively this season, the coaches obviously felt Shelton wasn't necessary. The rest of the list included cornerbacks Duke Dawson (who has yet to make his debut) and Keion Crossen, defensive ends Derek Rivers and Keionta Davis, offensive lineman James Ferentz and tight end Dwayne Allen, who returned to practice this week but was ruled out with a knee injury on Friday.
-Not sure exactly what it means but David Andrews lost his helmet on three separated plays in the first half alone. He did so twice on the first drive, the second coming on Develin's touchdown run when Brady picked it up and returned it to his center during the celebration. I'm certainly not a doctor but in an era where head injuries are scrutinized more and more all the time perhaps players should be required to wear helmets that fit properly as it's not uncommon to see players lose theirs in games every week.
-New England dominated the first half and appeared poised to take a commanding lead to the locker room when Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made an important decision that gave his team life. The Patriots had the ball and Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for what was initially ruled a first down at the 27 as the two-minute warning arrived. Zimmer challenged the ruling on the field and referee Craig Wrolstad correctly determined that Gronkowski was stopped just shy of the sticks. The clock reset to 2:28 and the Patriots ran James White to the right, where was dropped in the backfield to force a punt as the second two-minute warning arrived.
-That decision proved even more important when Minnesota mounted its first scoring drive of the evening as Kirk Cousins took the Vikings 74 yards in seven plays, culminating the march with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen. Cousins pushed the ball downfield for the first time of the game, hitting Stefon Diggs for 24 yards to midfield to start the drive. He found Kyle Rudolph for 23 yards on the next snap as the tight end beat Patrick Chung. A 7-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson was good for another first down and Diggs' 10-yard grab created first-and-goal from the 5 with :19 left. Cousins then found Thielen to make it 10-7 at the break.
-The Vikings were able to tie the game late in the third quarter but it could have been worse for the Patriots. After a missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal gave Minnesota the ball at its 38, Cousins moved the Vikings into Patriots territory on a drive the featured some drama. Facing third-and-five from the 45, Rudolph caught a 5-yard pass on the sideline but Obi Melifonwu was able to strip him after he was out of bounds. Belichick threw the red challenge flag but Wrolstad upheld the call on the field. Minnesota continued its march when Dalvin Cook ripped off a 22-yard run. Eventually the Vikings moved to the Patriots 22 and Cousins looked for Thielen in the end zone against J.C. Jackson. The rookie appeared to get there early but no flag came, and two players later Robinson tried his luck against Jackson in almost the same spot. This time Jackson definitely arrived early, grabbing Robinson's arm as the receiver leaped for the pass. Again, no flag came and Dan Bailey came on to boot a 39-yard field to goal to even the score.
-With the game tied at 10 late in the third quarter, Josh Gordon hadn't really been a factor in the game. He wasn't on the field as often as normal and wasn't targeted to that point. That changed on the ensuing drive as he caught a pass on the left sideline and broke Marcus Sherels' tackle for a 24-yard pickup. A few plays later he came free across the middle for a 24-yard touchdown that broke the tie and put the Patriots ahead to stay. Belichick was asked questions about Gordon's lack of usage earlier in the game but simply said it was the way the things unfolded and wasn't based on any plan.
-Belichick went 0-for-2 on challenges and the second one elicited quite a bit of animosity on the field. The Vikings trailed by 14 in the fourth quarter and faced fourth-and-one from their 37 and sent Latavius Murray up the middle, where he appeared to be stopped shy of the line to gain. The officials gave him a generous spot and ruled it a first down as Minnesota attempted to quickly snap the ball for the next play. Patrick Chung then went down with an apparent injury, allowing the Patriots sideline extra time to get a look at the replay. At that point Belichick tossed the challenge flag, and Thielen wasn't happy about the possibility that Chung perhaps wasn't hurt. He and Belichick had a heated exchange that the Fox cameras caught, and the call wound up standing after replay. Thielen later said he was heated at the time and held no ill will toward Belichick.