The Patriots welcome the Vikings into Foxboro Sunday for a rare matchup with the NFC North powerhouse. The teams have only met four times this millennium, with New England coming out on top in each of those contests. This time may be different, however, as the Patriots will face one of the most talented Minnesota rosters in recent memory.
*It’s also good for New England and all Patriots fans that this game is in Foxboro. Playing in US Bank Stadium in Minnesota would likely bring back horrible memories from this past February for some players and all fans.*
At 6-4-1, the Vikings have not lived up to expectations this season. With one of the most talented defenses in the NFL and a high powered offense led by the recently signed Kirk Cousins, Minnesota came into 2018 as a Super Bowl favorite (they were my personal pick to win SB53). However, they stumbled out of the gate, starting the season 1-2-1, with an awkward tie with Green Bay and an embarrassing loss at home to the Bills. They’ve seemed to find themselves in the seven weeks since, going 5-2 with their only losses coming against NFC heavyweights New Orleans and Chicago.
One of the biggest reasons for the Vikings turnaround has been the rebirth of their defense. This unit is one of the most talented defensive groups that the league has seen over the previous decade, right up with 2015 Denver and 2013-2014 Seattle. They are absolutely stacked at every single position. Danielle Hunter, Sheldon Richardson, and Everson Griffin on the defensive line. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr at linebacker. Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander in the secondary. They have very few holes, which is why they are at the top of the league in nearly every defensive category. They are third in the league in total defense, giving up 314 yards per game (93 rushing yards p/g, 222 passing yards p/g). Most of impressive of all is their third-down defense. They are leading the league on third down, only giving up conversions 27% of the time. They are an elite defense and they have been playing like it as of late.
Not to be outdone, the Vikings offense has their fair share of explosiveness. Led by Kirk Cousins, Minnesota is chock full of weapons. They have arguably the best wide receiver duo in the league in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray are an impressive one-two punch at running back. Kyle Rudolph has quietly been one of the better tight ends in the NFL. When they are all clicking, they can be a lethal unit. Their main issue all season has been poor and inconsistent play from their offensive line.
The Vikings also have Dan Bailey at kicker, who is currently sixth all-time in field goal percentage. In today’s NFL, kickers are extremely underrated. Teams have been losing or tying games left and right this year because kickers have been unable to put the ball through the uprights.
The biggest key for the Patriots offense on Sunday is going to be efficiency. The Vikings defense is extremely talented, but so is the New England offense. Their biggest issue this season has been an inconsistency in efficiency. The Patriots have struggled at various points this season putting the ball in the end zone. In fact, this year they are 13th in the league in red zone touchdown scoring percentage; last year they were third.
Odd play calling dropped passes, and poor decision making have been killers for the Patriots offense both in the red zone and in the middle of the field. If they can improve in these areas, then they will be able to have success against the Vikings. Beating Minnesota isn’t going to require the Patriots to have a million big plays down the field. It is simply going to require doing the little things right.
Dropped passes have been an issue over the last few weeks, with Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon having some ugly misses. Making these catches is going to be crucial to sustaining drives.
Efficiency is going to be especially important on first and second down. The Vikings are a brilliant third-down defense. If the Patriots get themselves into too many third and long situations, then they will likely struggle to move down the field.
Another important factor is going to be establishing the run game. The Patriots had a rushing clinic last weekend, but that was against the lowly Jets. They are now set to face one of the best rushing defenses in the NFL. However, they cannot afford to abandon the run, especially considering how well Sony Michel ran last week. Getting big chunks of yards on first and second down will make passing the football much easier, creating a better flow for the Patriots offense overall.
Lastly, formations could be key to the Patriots victory. With Rex Burkhead back in the lineup, the Patriots now have a plethora of weapons. With three healthy running backs, New England can experiment with different variations of two-back, or potentially even three-back formations. Changing up their formations frequently could confuse the Vikings and create favorable matchups for the offense.
Call this piece a broken record, but once again the key to the success of the Patriots defense is going to be getting pressure on the quarterback. Green Bay was only able to sack Cousins twice last week, which wasn’t nearly enough to stop him from throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. In the Vikings last loss, against New Orleans, Cousins was sacked four times.
Minnesota’s offensive line has struggled all season, which gives the Patriots no excuse not to get some sort of pressure on Cousins and prevent him from making easy throws. Trey Flowers has played well, especially as an interior rusher. The team will need him to have a career game against the Vikings with his QB pressure.
Dont’a Hightower also needs to step up and make plays for the New England defense. He had a dismal one tackle against the Jets last week, a microcosm of the disappointing season he has had. Sunday will give him an opportunity to make some important plays in a game that could prove critical in the Patriots playoff seeding.
Adrian Clayborn is another Patriot who needs to prove his mettle on Sunday. One of the bigger offseason acquisitions for New England, Clayborn has been mostly unimpressive this season. The team is going to need him to create serious pressure on Cousins and prove that he can still be a playmaker.
The Patriots secondary is in for one of their more daunting tasks of the season. Thielen and Diggs have been incredible this season; Thielen is ranked in the top five in nearly all receiver categories (targets, receptions, yards, touchdowns, first downs) and Diggs is not far behind. Stopping them is going to require elite performances. Luckily, the Patriots have the personnel to make that happen. Stephon Gilmore has played at an elite level for the majority of this season, outside of a poor showing in Tennessee. Jason McCourty has also been wildly underrated after nearly being cut at the end of training camp.
Gilmore will likely see a lot of time matched up on Thielen who is a more straightforward route runner. This is no easy task considering how well the undrafted receiver has been this season. However, Gilmore may be able to win this matchup with physicality at the line of scrimmage.
McCourty will probably spend time covering Diggs because of his shiftiness. although he will likely have help over the top given Diggs’ speed. Tackling the Vikings receiver is going to be crucial because he has a tendency to slip by lazy tackles or arm tackles to gain extra yards.
This may also be the debut for second-round pick Duke Dawson. After being sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Dawson is finally active and ready to play. Jonathan Jones has been the Patriots third cornerback for most of the season. However, he has struggled significantly as of late. This may mean that Dawson will get the opportunity to make his first career start as the Patriots nickel corner.
This is a tough selection. Pick the hometown team, or pick my original Super Bowl pick. My gut is telling me to go with the Patriots because they play to their competition. As much as they’ve struggled recently, they almost always play at their best when the stakes are the highest. However, this Patriots team doesn’t seem like it has it all together yet. They may find themselves over the last few weeks of the season and go on a Super Bowl run. They have the talent to do it. However, the Vikings are immensely talented and are poised to upset New England at home.
New England 27 Minnesota 28