Monday night's Patriots-Vikings matchup was a game to be won in the air, and Coach Bill Belichick knew it. The Patriots took the field on their first possession in a spread formation, with Doug Gabriel, Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Troy Brown all out wide and Benjamin Watson in at tight end. Tom Brady threw from the shotgun, connecting on each of his seven passes to four different receivers and culminating with a touchdown catch by Caldwell.
"We felt like there wasn't much of an opportunity to run in there against all of those guys," said coach Belichick after the game. "They are all pretty good. They are hard to block as it is. When they put more in there than you can handle, it is just like beating your head against the wall.
"We felt like throwing the ball and spreading it out would be the best way to handle it. The amount of pressure they gave us kind of dictated the number of times we were in those various [spread] sets."
The Pats made the first drive look easy, save a single rushing attempt by Corey Dillon, which left him 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Pats netted 86 yards on the 7-play drive, though they covered 94 yards in total, including Dillon's 8-yard loss. It was the team's second consecutive game opening with a touchdown, and Gabriel caught a 45-yard pass in the drive that was the Pats longest reception of the season. The catch was also Gabriel's second-longest reception in his three-plus seasons in the NFL.
"We had [to face] a top-rated rush defense in the league, and rather than go try to pound it into those two guys inside, we decided we were going to throw it a little more. The receivers did a great job of adjusting and making great catches," said Brady after the game, in which he connected with 10 different pass-catchers.
Brady's quarterback rating has been building since the Jets game. He posted a season-best 115.6 rating on Monday night. He had the best half of passing in his career during the first two quarters when he threw for 257 yards. He totaled 372 yards in the game, exceeding the 300-yard mark for the second time this season. He also tied a previous career-high by throwing four touchdown passes in the game. Brady did all of this with a patch-work offensive line that showed solid depth despite missing starting guard Stephen Neal.
"You watch other films when [the Vikings] played these other teams, and they were killing quarterbacks out there," said Brady. "We decided we were going to take a different approach. The line played awesome, you know,[Dan Koppen] and Logan [Mankins] and Matt [Light] on the left and Billy [Yates] in his first game starting and Ryan [O'Callagan]. Nick [Kaczur] came in there and did well. We're going to need all those guys. We made improvements. We've just got to continue to try to keep making improvements."
The Vikings, on the other hand, had started every game this season with a scoring drive until the Patriots came to town. Linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau made big plays in the Vikings first drive, sending Minnesota's offense off the field after three downs.
The Pats defense was all over quarterback Brad Johnson during the game's entirety and the 38-year old crumbled. Entering this game, Johnson had only thrown four interceptions. However, two plays into the fourth quarter, he threw his third interception of the night, this one to linebacker Mike Vrabel. (Safeties Chad Scott and Rodney Harrison got the first two picks of the game.) Johnson then walked off the field, leaving backup Brooks Bollinger to finish the game. Bollinger was immediately sacked on three consecutive plays before throwing the Vikings fourth interception of the game to cornerback Ellis Hobbs. The Vikings offense couldn't mount a scoring drive all night.
The Vikings defense had held every previous opponent to 19 points or less, and were seventh in the league in total yards allowed. They held the Patriots running game to only 30 yards on nine carries. But the Patriots running backs all played roles in an offense that appeared to be tailored specifically for the Vikings less-than-impressive pass defense.
Running back Corey Dillon grabbed a 27-yard pass in the third quarter, which was his longest reception in a Patriots uniform. Laurence Maroney ran for 34 yards, but fell from atop the game's rushing charts in the fourth quarter when Heath Evans broke his only carry of the night wide open for a 35-yard gain. Maroney caught two passes against the Vikings, as did Kevin Faulk.
In addition to catching and running on offense, Maroney also caught a kickoff in the third quarter and ran it back 77 yards, setting up a 7-yard touchdown catch by Brown, which essentially sealed the game for the Pats. Maroney's return was his longest of the season, though a 74-yarder in last week's game against the Bills earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Maroney's play against the Vikings came at a key moment in the game, immediately following a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown by Minnesota's Mewelde Moore that had cut New England's lead to 17-7. Maroney's now tied for the highest return average in the NFL (29.7 yards).
"I thought Maroney's kickoff return was the big play in the game to answer their score and put us in field position to answer that touchdown that Moore ran back," said Belichick.
Quote of Note:
"Someone threw a bottle right onto the field – almost hit Ben. That's ridiculous that stuff like that happens. Maybe some drunk fans were [upset]. They should take it out on each other and not throw bottles." – Tom Brady speaking about a beer bottle thrown from the stands after Benjamin Watson's touchdown reception, which came just before halftime. The touchdown was Watson's first of the season.
Following four interceptions against the Vikings, the Patriots recorded 12 takeaways in the month of October. Last week against Buffalo the Patriots forced four turnovers, three weeks ago against Miami (Oct. 8) the Patriots forced three turnovers, and four weeks ago against Cincinnati, the Patriots forced two turnovers. In contrast, the Patriots have recorded just four giveaways in their four October games, and own a solid plus-eight turnover differential for the month.
Harrison gets a pick
Rodney Harrison intercepted Minnesota's QB Johnson on the goal line in the first quarter to halt a Minnesota drive. The interception was Harrison's first of the season and the 32nd of his regular-season career. Harrison now has recorded six interceptions in the regular-season and six in the playoffs as a Patriot for a grand total of 12 picks. Six of Harrison's last seven interceptions have come inside the opponents' 20-yard line, with five of the seven coming inside the 4-yard line (including two in the end zone and one on the goal line).