Even though plenty of people are starting to look at potential playoff seeding and matchups – heck, we even dabbled in postseason chat a bit right here on Patriots.com – the reality is that there is a LOT of regular season football left to be played.
And for the Patriots (8-3) that means returning home after a post-bye victory over the Jets to face arguably the most talented all-around team on the New England schedule.
While Mike Zimmer's Vikings (6-4-1) fly to Foxborough in the midst of an inconsistent season, Minnesota certainly has playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball that will challenge any team at any venue.
After opening the season at 1-2-1, the Vikings have won five of their last seven games. Minnesota's talented defense has started to play up to its personnel more often, while big-money quarterback addition Kirk Cousins is trying to settle into a groove making more plays than mistakes.
There is no doubt that Bill Belichick and his team respect what the Vikings, who went to last January's NFC title game, bring to this big late-season inter-conference battle.
"This has really been an impressive team to watch," Belichick said during his usual mid-week press conference breaking down the opponent's strengths. "I think that Coach Zimmer's done, as usual, a tremendous job with his team. 13-3 last year, we saw a little bit of them at the end of the year, and then obviously this year, getting the schedule, a team we weren't familiar with. We spent some time on them over the offseason and it looks like, to me, they're even better than they were last year. They're a very, very good football team. They have good talent. They're really well-coached. Defensively, this is, I'd say, as good of coaching as we'll face. I think Mike does a tremendous job with fundamentals, with their schemes. They are very, very challenging, particularly in the critical situations – third down, red area, two-minute, things like that. They're very good. He's a great coach and has been for a long time and has that unit playing extremely well. Offensively, they just have a tremendous, explosive group of skill players – the receivers, the tight end, the quarterback, the backs. Everybody can and does make big plays, they move the ball, score points, and very explosive in the kicking game."
In some ways the two teams are pretty similar. Respected, defensive-minded head coaches leading talented rosters that competed for a title a year ago but are finding the road a bit bumpier this fall. Both have had their ups and downs, though New England has been a far better team at home this season.
As the calendar flips to December, Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium offers both the Patriots and Vikings a clear opportunity. For New England it's a chance at another post-Thanksgiving win as the team works toward playoff position and a possible first-round bye. For Minnesota it's a chance for a marque road win that would likely catapult the squad back into Super Bowl contender conversations.
As you count down the hours to the 4:25 Sunday evening kickoff, here are some of the keys to this battle between two of the final four NFL contenders from a year ago as they try to reestablish their postseason-ready prowess in 2018.
LOS to a win – A lot of the Patriots intermittent struggles this season can be tied into the team's ability to win at the line of scrimmage, in some respects on both sides of the ball. This week's battle with the Vikings will be very much swayed by the battle of the lines. Offensively New England's line is healthy and coming off an impressive day in New York both in terms of protection and churning out a season-high 215 yards on the ground. This week, though, it must deal with a star-studded Minnesota line that not only holds opponents to a mere 3.7 yards per carry but is No. 2 in the NFL in sacks per pass play with 36 total. Trent Brown, Shaq Mason and Co. have their hands full with Danielle Hunter (11.5 sacks), Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and the rest. Conversely, Minnesota's offensive line has been banged up and struggled this fall. The Vikings average 3.9 yards per carry as a team and are heavily swayed toward throwing the ball (475 pass attempts, including 28 sacks allowed) as compared to just 240 runs. Lawrence Guy and the Patriots front need to keep Dalvin Cook (who's been banged up through a disappointing second season) from hitting his stride and try to get some pressure on Cousins. Win the LOS and you should win the game.
Finish 'em – New England's red zone work on offense has been inconsistent this season. Overall the Patriots have the NFL's No. 13 red zone attack as they prepare to face the Vikings No. 1 red zone defense. Last time New England faced the top red zone D, it didn't go well in Tennessee. But, the Patriots red zone offense should get boost now that Rob Gronkowski is fully healthy and Sony Michel is balancing things out once again on the ground. The talented Vikings defense makes life tough on the opposition in the tight confines of the red zone -- thanks in part to versatile, All-Pro safety Hunter Smith -- but New England's still-talented offense has the tools to finish drives. Kicking field goals is not the way to go. Like a good prize fighter, the Patriots must finish off its opponent when it has the chance to put up seven.
Money for something – To get to the red zone that means you generally need to put together some drives, unless it's all big plays. In order to do that, you must stay on the field on third down. The Vikings have the NFL's best third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert at a mere 27.6-percent rate. New England ranks 14th in the NFL in third down offense, converting 39.9 percent of the time, a number that's hindered by 20-percent performances in losses in Detroit and Tennessee. Success on third down is generally tied in to a lot of other areas including success on first down, ability to run the ball and pass protection. Whatever the formula, New England needs to put up a fight on third down against a defense that can stop the run, rush the passer and cover pretty well, when healthy.
Put all the offense together – While there is worthy talk about the impressive cast of Vikings playmakers at all three levels, New England's now-healthy offense certainly has its pillars for potential success. Gronkowski is off the injury report, fully healthy and was close to a much bigger stat line in his return at New York than some would have you think, Michel is rolling on the ground once again. Shaq Mason and the line are back as a five-man unit. Rex Burkhead looks like he'll be added to the backfield mix, a guy who could alter the run-pass predictability a bit that's come with the Michel/James White duo. The Patriots are healthy on offense, so it's time to put it all together with a consistent, balanced attack that will be needed against a strong defense. Run the ball. Use the play-action game. Get the backs involved on short passes and then take some chances down the field.
Stay clean – One of the better trends in recent weeks has been Brady and the offense avoiding turnovers for four straight games. Like the Patriots, the Vikings have 18 takeaways on the season. Keeping the success going in terms of possession is always a way to make Belichick happy. It will also be interesting to see if New England can clean up its issue with flags coming off a win in New York that included a season high 11 penalties for 105 lost yards. The more competitive the game, the more turnovers and flags matter.
Prediction: Some games are easier to project than others. This one is not easy. There are a million ways to look at this battle between two pretty talented teams with the potential to control the way the game is plays. Translation: I don't think anything will come easy on Sunday. That said, the Patriots are pretty healthy and at home. Those are two key advantages over the Vikings, who saw wide receiver Stefon Diggs and cornerback Xavier Rhodes miss practice this week. Can the Patriots offensive line answer the challenge of Zimmer's scheme and defensive front? I say yes. Can New England put together a balanced offensive effort? Yup. Will Cousins turn the ball over, as he's done 13 times this season with seven interceptions and six lost fumbles? That could be the difference in the game, so I'll say the Patriots end the day at plus-2 in turnovers. Gronkowski gets into the end zone again, maybe twice, as the Patriots do enough for the 27-17 win to keep rolling toward January and potential improved seeding along the way.
What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!