WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Sony Michel is healthy again after missing two games with a knee injury as New England faces a defense ranked among the league leaders in almost every category. The Vikings are efficient at stopping the run, but mostly on the perimeter. The Bears had success in Week 11 running between the tackles, and that’s an area the Patriots and Michel could exploit with guard Shaq Mason back to form after battling a recent calf injury. The few teams that have been able to move the ball effectively against Minnesota have done so using shifts and misdirection or, in the case of the Rams, simply with elite personnel on offense. The Patriots lack the depth to mirror that kind of game plan and will likely have trouble moving the ball consistently against strong interior defenders Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson and the surprising Tom Johnson.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
There are matchups to be exploited if the Patriots are at full strength and can protect Tom Brady, especially at the linebacker position, where oft-injured veteran Anthony Barr has struggled in coverage and has been the frequent target of pass-catching running backs. This is right up James White’s alley. The problem is keeping this dangerous pass rush at bay. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is arguably the game’s most explosive edge rusher, and the Vikings are only a few weeks removed from a 10-sack performance against the Lions. There have been protection breakdowns up front for New England throughout the season, and this is the kind of game that could get ugly early if Brady is constantly hearing footsteps. The Vikings are also historically efficient on third down and in the red zone, which makes establishing a running game even more vital.
WHEN THE VIKINGS RUN
This was supposed to be a breakthrough season for second-year pro Dalvin Cook, who tore his ACL in Week 4 of his rookie season, but he’s again battled injuries this year, forcing Minnesota to lean heavily on ex-Raider Latavius Murray. Murray is now three years removed from his only 1,000-yard season and hasn’t been all that effective outside of a four-game stretch in October in which he scored five touchdowns in four games. The Patriots have struggled to stop the run and entered Week 12 having allowed 100 or more yards on the ground in three of four games, including 150 against Tennessee. Cook is a threat to erupt on any given day, but it appears he’s still stuck in a timeshare with Murray until the Vikings are 100 percent certain he can carry the offense. This is a good week for New England to get back on track in terms of stopping the run.
WHEN THE VIKINGS PASS
The Vikings won 13 games last year with Case Keenum playing mistake-free football but upgraded over the winter with the addition of Kirk Cousins, who boasts one of the league’s strongest arms. Cousins will turn it over when under duress, but if the Vikings are running the ball well and providing protection up front, they are as capable of putting points on the board in bunches as any of the league’s top-flight passing attacks. The receiver duo of Stefon Diggs and the remarkably steady Adam Thielen are among the best one-two punches in the NFL. Thielen has already reached 1,000 yards this year, and Diggs is well on his way, although he is dealing with a knee injury that cost him practice time. The Patriots give up a lot of big plays in the secondary and rank near the bottom of the league in pass defense, but they also force turnovers. The pass rush needs to be strong in order to coax Cousins into mistakes, which will determine the outcome of this matchup.
The Patriots have made their share of big plays on special teams this year, but their coverage on both punts and kickoff returns has been woeful, well below Bill Belichick’s expectations. This could be problematic with Minnesota starting to trend upward in the punt return category following the return of longtime specialist Marcus Sherels, who has provided a much-needed boost. In what figures to be a close game, field position could play a factor and the Patriots have allowed too many teams to flip the field this year. In the kicking game, the Patriots are always competitive with the reliable Stephen Gostkowski. Conversely, the Vikings had to cut ex-kicker Daniel Carson after the rookie missed two kicks, including a potential game-winner in overtime in a Week 2 tie against the Packers. Dan Bailey has provided some stability in recent weeks.
The Vikings were a preseason Super Bowl favorite this year after returning most of their top-ranked defense from a year ago and upgrading at the quarterback position, but this team has been tough to figure out. A bizarre loss to Buffalo notwithstanding, Minnesota has handled its business against the teams it should beat but hasn’t fared well against upper-echelon teams such as Los Angeles and New Orleans. Beating New England at Gillette Stadium would be a landmark achievement for a team that is 2-2-1 on the road. The Patriots have yet to lose at home this year and have looked vastly more prepared than they have away from Foxborough. With Cousins prone to mistakes and the Patriots having shown an uncanny knack for coming up with the big play defensively when it matters, this is going to be an uphill climb for Minnesota.