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Patriots sink Vikings, 31-7

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In his best game of the 2006 season, Tom Brady came out gunning and never let up until he had racked up four touchdown passes on 29 of 42 passing for 372 yards. He did have one interception, but hey, who's counting.

New England's defense was equally impressive. Sparked by three interceptions of Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson and another credited to Brooks Bollinger, Minnesota's offense was held scoreless with the team's lone score a punt return by Mewelde Moore.

New England barely tried to run the ball during its offensive efforts. The Vikings came into the game with a stout run defense so offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels worked on exploiting the Minnesota secondary and Brady made it look easy.

His main targets were Ben Watson who had 7 grabs for 95 yards and a score, Reche Caldwell with 7 catches for 84 yards and a touchdown and Doug Gabriel who had some key early catches (5 for 83 yards).

The Patriots first drive of the game was a thing of passing beauty. Brady was 6 for 6 for 94 yards with the biggest play coming on third and 10 from the New England 14. The Patriots offensive line gave Brady enough time for a sit-down dinner as he found Gabriel streaking across the middle for a gain of 45 yards. It was Gabriel again on the next play for 16 more. The scoring play was a 6-yarder to Caldwell.

Both teams traded turnovers in the first quarter. Brady threw down the sideline on third and 4 from his own 16 on the Patriots second drive of the game. The pass was intended for Watson in tight coverage and Darren Sharper of the Vikes came down with it.

That set up Minnesota first and 10 at the New England 45. Johnson had a good drive going, down to the Patriots 5 yard line in 11 plays but on the 12th, he looked confused and threw right into the hands of Rodney Harrison who ran the ball to the 2-yard line.

It didn't take long for Brady to get into Vikings territory. After a 9-yard pass to Gabriel and a 5-yard encroachment penalty on Minnesota, Brady looked down the middle to Watson for 40 yards. The next play was a little dump-off to Laurence Maroney that the ex-Gopher turned into a 20-yard gain. A 15-yard Corey Dillon run through the left side gave the Patriots first and goal at the 9 but the drive stalled and Stephen Gostkowski was good on a 23-yard field goal to make the score 10-0 with just over 12 minutes left in the first half.

Johnson followed up that turnover with another on the next drive, caught by Chad Scott, but New England failed to convert it into points.

Meanwhile, New England's defense was beginning to hit its stride, really limiting the Vikings time of possession. That gave the offense continued breathing room with a 10-point lead. At the two-minute warning of the first half, the Patriots were poised to add to that lead with Brady continuing on a torrid pace for the game. He started the drive with a third and 12 pass to Caldwell that a Matt Light block opened up for a 34-yard gain. Maroney then busted one for 22 yards to the 20. After two incompletions, Caldwell found an opening on third and 10 and Brady got him the ball for 12 yards.

It looked like a holding penalty on Heath Evans might stall the drive but an undaunted Brady found Watson on third and goal from the 8 and the big tight end bulled his way in from around 3 yards out to end the first half scoring. Brady's first half numbers were staggering: 17 of 25 for 257 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The teams exchanged punts to begin the second half and then Mewelde Moore brought some life back into the Metrodome. Josh Miller punted from inside his own 5 yard line and Moore fielded it at his 29. It looked like the Patriots coverage team had him contained but he broke loose down the right sideline for a 71-yard touchdown return to make the score 17-7.

Not to be outdone on his former homefield, Maroney took the ensuing kickoff 77 yards to the Minnesota 21. It wasn't for six points but it was a huge play that swung momentum back to the Patriots before the Vikings and their home crowd could catch the wave headed in their direction.

And it also led to six points. Brady took three plays with the final one a 7-yard touchdown pass to Troy Brown to give his team back their 17-point lead at 24-7 with 9:03 left in the third quarter.

The Patriots got the ball back after Jermaine Wiggins couldn't hold on to a third and 3 pass from the Patriots 38. The Vikings then went for it on fourth down but Johnson had his pass batted down by Richard Seymour.

Once again Brady took no time to get his team into scoring position. Caldwell had a 15 yard reception to the New England 46 and Dillon took a short pass and rumbled for 27 yards to the 19. It was looking too easy after Watson caught a 10 yard pass to the 7. That's where Caldwell fumbled after making a catch inside the 5. Fred Smoot forced the ball loose and Dwight Smith recovered.

The turnover made no difference. New England held Minnesota to three and out and Faulk took the punt back to the Vikings 39. Four plays later Brady hit Chad Jackson on first and goal from the 10. Jackson caught the ball at the 5 and crawled into the end zone for the score.

The third quarter ended with the Patriots holding a commanding 31-7 lead.

Minnesota yanked Johnson after his third interception of the night (Mike Vrabel), replacing him with Brooks Bollinger at the 12:02 mark of the fourth quarter. Bollinger was immediately greeted by three straight sacks (Jarvis Green, Tully Banta-Cain, Richard Seymour) and from there it was garbage time.

The win sets up a huge game next week against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts with the winner claiming the lead at the halfway mark in the race for AFC's No. 1 seed.

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