The Patriots travel to Minnesota this weekend to play the Vikings on Monday Night Football. They haven't played the NFC North in the regular season since 2002, so the two teams haven't met in the last thee seasons. The Patriots won 24-17 in their last meeting with Minnesota and the Vikings started that season with a 1-5 record. Obviously, this Vikings team is a different one altogether, now under first-year Head Coach Brad Childress. They're currently 4-2, and Coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday that they probably should have beaten the Bears and the Bills, as they played well in both of those losses. Minnesota is coming off a win against the defending NFC Champion Seahawks.
"It's a big game, against a good team," said linebacker and defensive co-captain Tedy Bruschi on Wednesday. "They're coming off a win that a lot of teams in the NFL haven't been able to do – go into Seattle and win. They're riding high right now. (It's a) Monday night game. They've got a lot of momentum going their way. They've got great players."
One of the "great players" Bruschi was referring to is running back Chester Taylor. Taylor's 590 rushing yards currently ranks second in the NFL. He spent his first four NFL seasons hidden in the shadow of Jamal Lewis at Baltimore before signing with the Vikings as a free agent in the offseason. Entering this season, Taylor had only started eight games, but he's proven he has what it takes to be a starting back in the NFL. He broke a run wide open for a 95-yard touchdown last week against Seattle, setting a Vikings record.
"They've got a running back that hasn't committed a turnover yet," said Bruschi. "I don't think he's fumbled. Obviously, when you've got a running back like that that's running as well as he does that doesn't cough the ball up, that's going to be good news for you offensively."
So far this season, the Vikings have been pretty good offensively. Quarterback Brad Johnson is in his 15th NFL season. He's only thrown four interceptions entering this week's game.
"Brad Johnson is very efficient," said fellow linebacker and co-captain Mike Vrabel on Wednesday. "He's smart with the football. He knows what the coach wants and what he's supposed to do with the ball each time, depending on what defense he sees."
"He's hitting his receivers. He's got some good receivers that are doing a great job. What he's doing also is when he doesn't see it down field; he'll dump it off," said Bruschi, explaining Johnson's tendencies. "He'll dump it off to those tight ends and running backs. He's doing a great job of that. A lot of times it's a first or second-down pass and when he dumps it off to the running back or tight end, it turns into a good gain. Even though it's only a 5 or 6-yard gain, (they) end up with a second-and-4 rather than a second-and-10 on an incompletion."
Johnson's No. 1 pass-catcher is none other than Taylor, whose 41 receptions last season ranked fourth among AFC running backs. He's grabbed 21 passes already this season.
"Taylor's one of the leading rushers in the NFL," said Bruschi. "We've got to look at the offensive line because of all the yards it can gain. We see five guys that are good, probably one of the better offensive lines we've faced up to this point. We know as a front seven, with a running back like that and an offensive line that gets after it, it's going to be a challenge to stop the run."
That offensive line is very tough, and the left side boasts three-time Pro Bowler Steve Hutchinsonand 2002 first-rounder Bryant McKinnie. Center Matt Birk has also been to the Pro Bowl four times.
"Taylor's up there in terms of the top runners in the NFL and I'm sure he would give credit to the offensive line first and foremost also," Bruschi said. "I think they do deserve credit, because they've got guys like Hutchinson, McKinnie and Birk – players that have been around a while and you watch them on film and they really are great players."
Bruschi explained that, despite their size, Minnesota's offensive linemen are good at blocking down field.
"They really look to stay on blocks," he said. "They do a good job at the second level, on linebackers and defensive backs. I think that's a tribute to their athletic ability. They're able to stay with more athletic guys down the field."
"They're doing a good job," said Vrabel of Minnesota's line. "Brad [Johnson] trusts those guys to get their blocks. You can see it in their blocking schemes. He's giving those guys a chance to do their job and he's running (the offense) behind them."
With the game being on Monday night, the Patriots have an extra day to prepare for Johnson, Taylor and the rest of a Vikings team they haven't faced since 2002.
"The week's a little bit longer, but I think the long week will be good for us to prepare for this team a little more, because we're not completely familiar with them," said Bruschi. "It's a team that we haven't played in a few years and it's good to watch a little extra film and focus on what they're doing offensively a little bit longer. I think it'll help us."
Vrabel stressed the importance of preparing well for this game, saying, "When you play some of the division opponents, you really start to get a comfort level as far as knowing your opponent and knowing who you're going against. Here, I think we really got to study and take a look at them and see what they like to do and see what their bread-and-butter is."
Even though the teams haven't played each other in a long time, Vrabel said the added importance of studying cannot translate into less physical preparation for the Patriots.
"Never in the NFL can you not be at your best physically," he said. "The old adage is you can know where you're going but if you get there and you can't make the play then it doesn't really matter."
Maroney amassing awardsThe NFL named rookie running back and kick returner Laurence Maroney the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for games played during Week 7. His 74-yard return in the first quarter of the Patriots 28-6 win over the Bills was the longest kickoff return of the week and was the third longest in the NFL this season.
He spoke about the 74-yard return Wednesday, saying that his teammates teased him about not making it into the end zone.
"They made fun of me. It's cool. I told them I did get tired. My legs did get heavy," said Maroney. "I told them, 'I'm carrying an extra 15 pounds. What did y'all expect?'"
He also received awards after Week 4. Maroney was named the Fed-Ex Ground Player of the Week and the Diet Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week following a 125-yard rushing performance at Cincinnati on Oct. 1.
Maroney's 27.9-yard kickoff return average currently ranks third in the NFL and leads all rookies. He also leads all NFL rookies with 361 rushing yards and is tied for the NFL rookie lead with three rushing touchdowns.
The Patriots signed rookie center/guardBrian Barthelmes to their practice squad today. The Patriots practice squad now stands at its limit of eight players following the signing of offensive lineman Billy Yates to the active roster on Saturday before the Bills game.
The Patriots originally signed Barthelmes, 23, as an undrafted rookie free agent on May 8, 2006. The 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound offensive lineman participated in the first three games of the 2006 preseason before being released at the end of August.
Barthelmes attended the University of Virginia, there he played in 47 games with 38 starts over four seasons from 2002-05. He was a versatile presence on the interior of the Cavaliers' offensive line, starting 28 games at guard and 10 games at center in his career.
He was in the locker room today, and already has a good beard growing. Most of the Patriots offensive linemen are currently growing out their facial hair.
The Patriots held practice inside at the Dana Farber Field House, as it was chilly at Gillette Stadium today. Defensive lineman Richard Seymour was present, but had his left elbow wrapped. The only players not seen on the field while the media had access were Antwain Spann,Kevin Faulk, Russ Hochstein and Stephen Neal. … In the locker room, Matt Light shot a bunch of silly string at Rosevelt Colvin while the linebacker stood in front of a crowd of media members. The offensive tackle missed Colvin, covering a nearby reporter, and then ran away. Everyone laughed, including the unlucky reporter. … The Patriots injury report was released today. It included 10 players listed as 'Questionable' and three players listed as 'Probable.'