This weekend, the Patriots travel to Minnesota to take on the 4-2 Vikings on Monday Night Football. The Vikings are coming off a big 31-13 win over the Seahawks, who had previously only lost to the Bears. Minnesota will be looking to build on their momentum by defeating the Patriots in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, NFL players voted the Metrodome the loudest stadium in the league, so the Pats offense will have to keep their heads and play smart football in this game. Here are five keys to victory in the matchup.
1. Start Fast
The Patriots had a tough break in their first drive of the season against the Bills, when quarterback Tom Brady was strip-sacked and the fumble was recovered for a touchdown. The first drives in their next three games ended in punts, however the Patriots have since started games with more momentum and intensity, scoring a field goal to finish their first drive against the Dolphins. They started very strong last week, executing a 14-play, 71-yard touchdown drive against the Bills. The Vikings have scored on the opening drive of every game they've played this season and will be looking to continue that streak this week. If the Patriots can bring the kind of intensity they started with in their last game, they should be able to quiet the noisy Metrodome and show Minnesota that the Patriots have come to play.
2. Pressure Brad Johnson
Quarterback Brad Johnson is in his ninth year with the Vikings and his 15th year in the NFL. The 6-5, 226 pound Johnson has completed 63 percent of his passes this season, and holds the NFL record for most straight seasons over 60 percent (10). His offense is averaging 210 yards per game in the air. The bad news is he's only thrown four interceptions this season, but the good news is that Johnson was born when Lyndon B. Johnson was still President. Brad Johnson turned 38 this year and he isn't as fleet-of-foot as some of the other quarterbacks the Patriots have played this season. He's a stationary but patient passer, who will dump it off to running backs and tight ends if the downfield passes aren't there. It's possible to shake him up and if the Patriots can pressure him off the edge or collapse the pocket, they could shut down the Vikings passing game.
3. Be balanced on offense
The Patriots running game has been their bread-and-butter this season, with rookie Laurence Maroney amassing 361 yards and three touchdowns on 86 carries and Corey Dillon totaling 328 yards and four touchdowns. However, the Vikings are one of the NFL's top rush defenses and attack the run quickly like the Broncos. Denver's fast linebackers put the brakes on the Pats running game and the Vikings will be looking to do the same.Pat and Kevin Williams are big tackles and can take up a lot of space in the middle, and quick linebackers like E.J. Henderson can get to the outside fast enough to stop runs around the corner. For the Patriots, the more favorable matchups are in the passing game. Minnesota's secondary is talented, but their pass rush has been inconsistent. They have 15 sacks, but only six of those have come from defensive ends, which is where Brady has felt the most pressure this season. Receiver Chad Jackson has been off the injury report for a week now, after nursing a hamstring injury that stayed with him since before the preseason. Doug Gabriel has been in the system for a while now and could have a big game if the Pats passing attack works. Reche Caldwell tied his career-high of five receptions in the last game and has emerged as a threat. If Brady has enough time to throw, he should be able to pick apart the Vikings defense, which will help open up the running game. Balance will be key in composing long drives against the Vikings.
4. Shut down Chester Taylor
Currently second in the NFL in rushing with 590 yards, Chester Taylor is having a tremendous year as Minnesota's starting running back. He spent the last four years relieving Jamal Lewis at Baltimore. He's also a threat in the passing game, leading the team with 21 receptions. Defensive end Ty Warrenspoke about the Vikings running game Friday, saying, "I think before you can stop [Taylor] you got to try to neutralize the guys in front of him. They got some big offensive linemen, pretty good guys. They're probably one of the best groups we've faced all year." Those linemen include 6-8, 335 pound Bryant McKinnie, their left tackle. With Steve Hutchinson also on that side, the Patriots could be outmatched, especially if Richard Seymour's elbow injury isn't feeling good enough for him to play in the game. The Vikings will keep handing it to Taylor, even if he isn't getting dramatic yardage on his runs. The Pats may have to rely on their bend-but-don't-break style of defensive play this week, but if they can shut down Taylor and create some turnovers, they could walk away with another solid defensive showing under their belts.
5. Make special teams count
One place where the Vikings are notably weak is on special teams. Kicker Ryan Longwell is their one crutch in the special teams department and has hit the majority of his short to mid-range field goals this season. However punter Chris Kluwe is ranking near the bottom of the NFL in net punting average. The Pats have been steadily improving in this department, and Maroney returned a kickoff 74 yards last week. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski spoke in the locker room this week about priding himself on being solid on kickoffs. He's tied for third in the NFL with eight touchbacks this season, including at least one against every team the Pats have played. The Vikings return game has been weak, so they've brought in former Patriot Bethel Johnson to handle some of those duties. Patriots punter Josh Miller is currently ranked eighth in the league. If he and the rest of the special teamers can regularly provide the Patriots with good field position in this game, they'll have an advantage over the Vikings.
Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft was presented with a big 'thank you' from some local members of the Hockomock Area YMCA on Friday. Members included Hockomock Area YMCA President Edward Hurley and about twenty smiling youngsters from the local chapter. The children, mostly four and five-year olds, presented Kraft with a big hand-made card and sang two songs to thank Kraft for his family's pace setting donation of $1 million to the local chapter of the YMCA's capital campaign. "Four years old. That's the passion of the NFL, starting them at a young age," said Kraft. "It's really pretty special. This is a great project. Foxboro has treated my family very well since the early '70s. We're happy to be involved in a project that serves so many people." … The Patriots held practice inside at the Dana Farber Field House, wearing sweats/shorts, shells and helmets. The media was allowed to view stretching and a set of kick return drills. The only player not seen on the practice field was guard/center Russ Hochstein. … The Pats injury report for Friday was released, with nine players listed as questionable and four players listed as probable. Linebacker Don Davis' status was upgraded from questionable to probable. He and Brady were the only players on the injury report who did not sit out during any of today's practice. … Coach Belichick said the players would be at Gillette Stadium tomorrow to study up on the Vikings a bit more and go over some special situation stuff. The media will not have access to the players and Belichick will not hold a press conference. On Sunday, the team travels to Minnesota to take on the Vikings on Monday Night Football.