FOXBOROUGH – Every win is important in the NFL, but some are more significant than others. This first Patriots game of December, for instance, also marked the start of a potentially consequential three-game stretch for New England. While the final score was very close to last week’s against the Jets, the Patriots can be more pleased with this latest victory because it came against a more talented, more balanced Vikings team.
“It’s a good win,” wide receiver Julian Edelman agreed. “They’re a well-coached team with a lot of talent.”
The Patriots’ defense set the tone early with a solid three-and-out effort to start the game.
Minnesota’s defense, meantime, looked out of sorts when the Patriots took over, giving up large chunks of real estate on three consecutive pass plays to New England receivers who were left uncovered.
Fullback James Develin, for the second time this season, punched it into the end zone with a 1-yard carry to help give New England an early 7-0 lead. The Vikings looked as if they were going to respond with a TD of their own on the ensuing drive, but it ended with kicker Dan Bailey shanking a field goal attempt to maintain the scoreboard status quo.
The Patriots were able to harass Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins quite bit in the early going, and the Vikings looked just as out of sorts offensively as they did on the other side of the ball. With about three minutes to go in the first half, Minnesota’s top receiving threats – league leader Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs – were held to a combined one catch. Thielen had no receptions to his credit at that point.
“When we come ready to play, I feel like we have a really good defense,” safety Duron Harmon declared. “We have good players all across the board. When we get challenged, we have to come ready each and every week like this.”
Late in the first half, the Vikings challenged an obviously inaccurate spot of a Rob Gronkowski catch that was initially ruled a first down by referee Craig Wrolstad’s crew. The play was deep in Patriots territory and clearly short of the marker. After review, it was reversed, and New England was forced to punt after failing to convert the ensuing third-down attempt.
This turn of events gave Minnesota the spark it needed. Cousins orchestrated an efficient 74-yard drive to close out the half. He found Thielen wide open in the back corner of the end zone to trim New England’s halftime lead to 10-7.
For the most part, screens and dump-offs were the order of the day for both clubs, as both defenses did a nice job of limiting downfield gains. Both teams continued to struggle moving the ball in the third quarter, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski pushed a 48-yard field goal attempt very wide right to keep the score within reach for Minnesota.
The Patriots then appeared to be the beneficiaries of a pair of non-calls against rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson, who looked like he interfered with Thielen on one pass in the end zone and WR Aldrick Robinson on another two plays later. No flags were thrown, though. The Vikings had to settle for a game tying field goal from Bailey.
“I had to make plays. The team was depending on me,” said Jackson, reflecting on his first career NFL start. “Our secondary, we played great tonight. We had good communication and everybody competed.”
On the other side of the football, Josh Gordon wasn’t much of a factor until the Patriots got the ball back near the end of the third quarter. A pair of 24-yard throws to the wide receiver – the second of which went for a touchdown – helped New England re-gain the lead.
“It was great. You know, I just had to be patient,” Gordon explained later. “I think that’s just how the flow of the game was going. We all let it play itself out. It was great to just get an opportunity, make a play and the rest of it was just fun.
“I didn’t really question the game plan, I just went along with it. It seemed to work in our favor, and the coaches, my trust is in the coaches. I think they trust me. So, it worked out for us.”
A Trey Flowers sack of Cousins on the next series’ third-down gave the Patriots the ball back at midfield following a Vikings punt. Gordon then got the PI call that Minnesota was looking for to give the Patriots advantageous field position, and not long after, Develin scored his second TD of the evening, this time from two yards out. The game essentially ended at that point, despite a late Brady INT that gave the Vikes another chance around midfield. The Patriots D stepped up again, though, when Jackson made a nice play on a deep ball that he tipped into the waiting arms of safety Duron Harmon.
“J.C. did a good job of getting the ball out. I just came over and played off him,” Harmon recalled. “I tried to make a good catch and turn a negative [in Brady’s interception] into a positive and give the ball back to our offense.”
Even though this win was against an NFC opponent, the win was critical for the Patriots as they attempt to keep pace with other AFC foes who are vying for the top two playoff seeds in the conference. A momentous trip to Pittsburgh looms, but not before a visit to Miami, where New England often struggles.
Patriots players acknowledged as much after beating the Vikings to maintain control of the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed.
“Got to go to Miami, a place where we struggle, and get a win,” added Edelman.
“It’s something to build on each week,” Jackson continued. “We’ve got another division game coming up on the road. We have to prepare and get ready for Miami.”
Depending how the rest of the AFC shakes out, these next two games could be the last road trips the Patriots will have to take this season – except for a potential trip to Atlanta in early February.
“Knowing the guys we have in this group, I know we’re going to be ready for the rest of the year,” Harmon proclaimed. “One game at a time, though. We’ll enjoy this one and get ready for Miami. It’s going to be tough down there.”