When the Patriots ran:
This was nothing fancy. There were very few gaping holes like last week against the Jets. Instead the Patriots were forced to earn every rushing yard the hard way against a tough and physical Minnesota front. Sony Michel carried the ball 17 times and picked up just 63 yards (3.7-yard average) while Rex Burkhead managed only 20 yards on his seven attempts (2.9-yard average) in his return to the lineup. But Josh McDaniels used some imagination to spring James White (six carries, 26 yards), Julian Edelman (two for 35 yards) and Cordarrelle Patterson (one for 6 yards) for some valuable real estate and the Patriots racked up 160 yards on 39 carries for a respectable 4.1-yard average. That includes some real hard work from fullback James Develin, who bruised a few linebackers on a pair of touchdown plunges as well as a third-down conversion in the fourth quarter. He 5 yards on his four bone-crushing carries but managed to accomplish the goal on each one. As we stated, it wasn’t pretty but it was effective and allowed New England to control the clock all evening.
When the Patriots passed:
There were drives when the offense looked like the good ol’ days, most notably on the opening possession and again late in the third quarter. Those possessions ended in touchdowns and both broke ties at the time. The opening series was a thing of beauty as Tom Brady was able to find wide open targets on four straight plays to four different receivers. Edelman (13 yards), Chris Hogan (18 yards), Patterson (24 yards) and Burkhead (18 yards) were the recipients during a brilliant sequence orchestrated by McDaniels and the coaching staff that saw the Patriots stretch out the Vikings effectively from sideline to sideline. Develin capped that drive, and then when it was tied at 10 late in the third quarter, Brady got Josh Gordon involved. To that point Gordon hadn’t been targeted but he caught a pair of 24-yarders, the second for the go-ahead touchdown, during a four-play drive that put the Patriots back in control. Brady completed 24 of 32 passes for 311 yards and the touchdown to Gordon. Aside from some struggles targeting Edelman (just three grabs for 25 yards on eight targets including an interception), Brady generally got the ball out quick and found open receivers as the Patriots offense once again racked up a ton of yards (471) if not points.
When the Vikings ran:
Dalvin Cook was a problem for both teams. The speedy second-year back hurt the Patriots consistently with some big plays, piling up 84 yards on just nine carries for a whopping 9.3-yard average. He hurt the Viking through no fault of his own, though, as inexplicably he wasn’t a bigger part of the offensive plan despite that production. He had runs of 32, 18 and 18 yards and even his shorter runs were productive in that they resulted in first downs. But still Minnesota went away from the ground game in an effort to focus on short passes that simply weren’t available. Overall the Vikings finished with 95 yards on just 13 carries for 7.3-yard average, but even though the game was close they never allowed Cook the chance to take over.
When the Vikings passed:
This was the key to the game as the Patriots secondary had all the answers. Using rookie J.C. Jackson in place of Jonathan Jones as the third corner, New England completely bottled up Kirk Cousin and the Vikings air attack. Cousins dumped the ball off short all night, either in the flat to Cook or short, quick slants that resulted in modest gains. Cook caught eight passes but for just 22 yards as the Patriots wisely used defensive backs against him in coverage rather than risking that assignment to linebackers. Adam Thielen, the league’s leading receiver, was held to five catches for 28 yards, although he beat the McCourty twins for Minnesota’s line touchdown. Jackson was very competitive wherever he went, most notably deflecting one of the rare deep balls intended for Aldrick Robinson into the hands of Duron Harmon for a pick in the fourth quarter. Cousin completed 32 of 44 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown but was also picked twice, continuing his trend of turning the ball over. The secondary was excellent from start to finish, and Cousins had no answers.
This was not a perfect performance by the special teams as once again kickoff coverage was spotty. Stephen Gostkowski had three touchbacks, but his other two kickoffs was taken out beyond the 25 – the first all the way to the 34. Gostkowski also missed a 48-yard field goal, but that was offset by Dan Bailey’s earlier miss from the same distance. Brandon King was called for a hold to negate Edelman’s 22-yard punt return, but later Edelman helped put the game away with a 23-yard return out to midfield midway through the fourth quarter with the Patriots leading 17-10. That helped spark the insurance touchdown drive that all but ended the game. Ryan Allen again was effective, limiting Marcus Sherels to one return for 4 yards on his four punts. Patterson also turned in a solid return, taking one back 34 yards out to the 36 following Minnesota’s tying field goal late in the third quarter.